Va. Wins Have Democrats Sensing Momentum for 2018

Va. Wins Have Democrats Sensing Momentum for 2018
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Democrats took a series of victory laps Wednesday, reveling in their unexpected degree of success in Tuesday’s elections in Virginia and elsewhere and touting the signs of a potential wave election forming behind them next year.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s nine-point win over Republican Ed Gillespie was a veritable blowout -- far greater than most Democrats expected heading into Election Day given polls showing an increasingly tight race. But more than Northam’s victory, Democrats’ sweeping upsets in the Virginia House of Delegates -- where they claimed at least 15 seats held by Republicans, nearly erasing a massive GOP majority -- left Republicans reeling and Democrats hopeful of major gains in the 2018 midterms.

“You literally could not have a better morning-after than the one that we’re enjoying,” said Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. In addition to Virginia, Democrat Phil Murphy was elected governor in New Jersey; the party won a state Senate race in Washington to flip control of the chamber; Maine voters overwhelmingly supported Medicaid expansion; and Democrats won several mayoral races. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, said it reminded him of the 2005 races a year before Democrats won control of the House and Senate.

“By the end of 2005 we were smelling a wave,” Schumer told reporters. “We got all kinds of inclinations that a wave was going to occur in 2006 and it did. I’m getting the same feelings now.”

The Senate will be an extremely tall task for Democrats, who are defending 25 seats to Republicans’ eight. But Democrats have been speculating for months that the House would be in play next year, and Tuesday’s results buoyed their arguments.

“The door is certainly open for us,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

For Republicans, meanwhile, Tuesday’s elections represented a major setback -- a “thumping,” as former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis put it. It was also the latest in a string of unfortunate events for the GOP majority in Congress. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican representing a swing district, announced his retirement Tuesday, and Rep. Martha McSally, who represents a competitive district in Arizona, is expected to run for Senate, leaving her House seat vulnerable. Meanwhile, other retirements are expected -- one House GOP operative said Rep. Bob Goodlatte is likely to retire; a Goodlatte spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

In particular, the House of Delegates results in Virginia raised red flags for the GOP. Democrats defeated incumbents in districts that had supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, driven by a major uptick in turnout. It foreshadowed potential problems for Republican House members in the state next year.

The Northern Virginia district of Rep. Barbara Comstock voted for Northam over Gillespie by 12 points, a slight increase from Clinton’s 10-point margin there. The district of Republican Rep. Scott Taylor, a freshman member from Virginia Beach being targeted by Democrats, voted for Trump by more than three points over Clinton. But voters there supported Northam by four points, a major swing for Democrats.

Comstock told Business Insider her district has “very independent voters and they want to know that you hear them and will work with them, and that’s what I'll do.” Taylor, speaking on CNN Wednesday morning, was more blunt, blaming in part President Trump and his “divisive rhetoric.”

“Last night was a referendum,” Taylor said. “I don’t think there’s any way you can look at it in a different way, to be honest with you.”

Targeting suburban districts like Comstock’s was already key to Democrats’ 2018 strategy -- many of the 23 districts that voted for Clinton but elected a Republican House member are suburban districts, including in Orange County, Calif., and the suburbs of Denver, Houston and Philadelphia.

Rep. Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican in a competitive race, said Tuesday’s elections didn’t necessarily foreshadow a wave election, but suggest “that hypothesis has some merit.” Still, he said focusing on local issues and being visible in his district were ways to avoid getting caught up in the swell of Democratic enthusiasm.

“As long as you say what you believe and believe what you say and are out there doing it on a daily basis, voters will have an accurate reflection of who I am, what I’m doing and why I believe what I believe,” Costello told reporters. “They’ll be able to independently evaluate me.”

To match the Democratic enthusiasm, Republicans will likely return to old tactics to drive up turnout from their base. During House special elections earlier this year, Republicans strived to tie Democratic candidates to Pelosi, nationalizing the races and using her as a liberal bogeyman. One GOP operative said that element was obviously missing in the Virginia contest, but would be "central" to their efforts next fall. 

"That's something that voters will overwhelmingly reject, the idea of a far left liberal from San Francisco getting control of the speakership again," the operative said. 

Most Republicans reacted to Tuesday’s results with the same message: They cited the need for success on tax reform. Trump and congressional leaders have signaled their hope to get a tax bill through the House by next week, and to get it signed into law before the end of this year (the Senate will release its version of the measure Thursday).

Speaker Paul Ryan, at an event hosted by the Washington Examiner, said Tuesday’s results increased the imperative.

"If anything, this just puts more pressure on making sure we follow through," Ryan said. "That's what I take out of it. I adore Ed Gillespie. I feel bad that he lost, but I think it simply means we've got to deliver."

Still, the tax legislation contains real political danger for Republicans. They have billed it as a middle-class tax cut, but Democrats have attacked them for unwinding several popular deductions and provisions in the tax code. In particular, Republican plans to roll back the deduction for state and local taxes has left many GOP members in high-tax states -- particularly New Jersey, New York and California -- wary. Several vulnerable members, including New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance and California Rep. Darrell Issa, have said they won’t support the bill over the state and local issue. Issa said Tuesday that he could not endorse “changes that make the tremendous burden felt by California taxpayers even worse.”

Schumer assailed Republican members over that provision -- even issuing a rare attack on an individual House member, saying that Comstock would “write her own defeat” if she voted for the bill.

Still, Democrats’ enthusiasm Wednesday didn’t necessarily extend all the way across the country. In the middle of their Virginia victory laps, both Schumer and DNC Chairman Tom Perez downplayed the Alabama Senate special election next month. Democrat Doug Jones trails controversial former state Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore by six points in the RealClearPolitics average, and Democrats have hedged about investing in the race. In the same conference call where Perez said that Tuesday’s results showed Democrats can win everywhere, he wouldn’t commit significant Democratic Party resources to back Jones.

“That’s an uphill battle. He is undeniably the underdog,” Perez told reporters. Schumer was even more blunt. Asked whether Tuesday’s results made Democrats want to go all in to defeat Moore in Alabama, he simply responded: “We’re just watching the race closely.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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