Michael Swartz / Nov. 10, 2017

The Anti-Trump Template

Things aren't looking good for the GOP, but all is far from lost if the party will lead.

It wasn’t a shock that both of the gubernatorial races up for grabs Tuesday would go to the Democrats. But there’s a bigger lesson going forward.

Outgoing New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s second term was weighed down immediately by Bridgegate and his own arrogant behavior, leaving him in the end one of the least popular governors in America and electoral poison for any Republican hoping to succeed him.

On the other hand, Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe made no real missteps in his four-year term and had a ready-made successor in his lieutenant governor. Back in June, Ralph Northam won a contested Democrat primary to replace McAuliffe. His Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, had the reputation of being a creature of the establishment and never really embraced Donald Trump, which eroded his support in rural areas of the commonwealth. So despite the occasionally encouraging poll results for the Gillespie camp, the assumption that Northam would carry the day was proved correct on Tuesday.

What wasn’t so widely predicted were the results of the contested races for the 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. Going into the day, the GOP held a comfortable 66-34 edge and had already selected its next speaker, but their world was turned upside down in less than 24 hours as results came pouring in. With a few races still too close to call, the Virginia House could flip back to the Democrats for the first time since 1999 — as it stands, pending recounts, it’s a 50-50 tie. However, given demographic trends, the number of urban regions in the state, the state’s proximity to Washington, DC, and McAuliffe’s move to restore felon voting rights this may be the last time for the foreseeable future that Republicans control the Virginia House. For all intents and purposes, the once-proud Old Dominion is turning into a southern extension of its neighbor Maryland, which is politically dominated by Swamp Democrats. Virginia’s Democrat machine is highly concentrated in northern Virginia but has enough support downstate to be the new majority.

And whether the blame was on Donald Trump or congressional Republicans, one axiom held true: “One of the rules of politics is pissed-off people show up,” said former Delegate Dave Albo, a Republican whose district was one of the 16 that appear to be newly Democrat.

In Virginia’s case, those angry people seemed to be most concentrated in areas that were already trending Democrat. Hillary Clinton carried 15 of the 16 districts that turned Democrat in 2017, and the majority of the districts were, as noted, in the bedroom region of DC. It’s an area unique in its high population of foreign-born residents, which is a demographic that’s not going to be kind to Republicans in general or Trump in particular. Other districts that changed hands from GOP to Democrat were concentrated in the suburbs of Richmond and the Virginia Beach area, as well as an outpost along the border with West Virginia with some unique circumstances.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the suburbs are where they built the coalition with small-town America that’s carried them to electoral success for most of the last four decades. Rural voters don’t have the numbers to elect majorities, and if the small-town and rural voters are further unmotivated in the face of Democrats who were at the voting booth Tuesday with bells on it’s easy to imagine more trouble in next year’s midterm elections. So what can the GOP do?

The Republicans succeeded electorally during the eight years of Barack Obama because they could pass whatever they wanted in Congress knowing it had no chance of actually being enacted. They talked a great game, but found out governing is hard. Conversely, Democrats will sacrifice their own if necessary to get their key agenda items passed. Losing 1,000 legislative seats around the country may not seem so bad now to the Democrats because they’ve weathered the storm of a failed ObamaCare repeal effort and now can talk about Medicare for All as the next step. The Republicans conceded the argument about repeal when they added “and replace” to the term.

Now the concern is that Republicans will water down tax reform to a point where they’ll alienate everyone with their “fix.” As The Wall Street Journal opines, “Mr. Trump won’t change, so the only GOP antidote to a Democratic wave is legislative accomplishment. Democrats will be motivated to vote no matter what Congress does. But Republicans will stay home unless the House and Senate fulfill their campaign promises. This means passing a pro-growth tax reform that will accelerate the expansion. Republicans should also realize how much damage they have done to themselves by failing to repeal even a part of ObamaCare.” This doesn’t just apply on a federal level, either. The seismic shift in Virginia’s House has given hope to Democrats around the nation who are the minority in most of the state legislative bodies.

Moreover, the 2018 election isn’t just any midterm election — with it will come the all-important control of the redistricting process in many states. Virginia’s map is sure to change with another Democrat governor running the show, but nationwide Democrats had already begun an effort aimed at changing what they consider a Republican bias in electoral maps around the country, with Barack Obama and Eric Holder leading the charge.

In legislative elections over the last 25 years, Republicans have succeeded by nationalizing them — the best case in point being the 1994 Contract With America, which helped vault the GOP to an electoral win of 54 House seats and nine Senate seats. The Tea Party also managed to make the two Obama midterm elections into referenda on his agenda. In 2018, though, Republicans in some areas will need to localize and even personalize the elections so as to take Trump out of the equation and neutralize Democrats bent on making every state and local race a Trump referendum. (Granted, that tactic may backfire if the economy continues to grow at a good pace.) “If the American electorate continues to have a low opinion of [Trump],” writes National Review’s Kevin Williamson, “then Republicans should calculate that drag into their electoral expectations.”

If the GOP doesn’t correctly figure in the Trump electoral drag, our whole country may be dragged into the Trump/Pence impeachment hearings that far-Left power brokers like Tom Steyer are already demanding when Democrats take over Congress in 2019.

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