Democrats won races for governor in both New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday evening, even as President Donald Trump’s supporters prepared to mark the first anniversary of their historic win.
It is not exactly a shock: both states voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the Democratic candidates were favored in both. On the other hand, Republicans won both states in 2009, which kicked off the Tea Party wave that won back the U.S. House in 2010.
Pundits are calling Tuesday’s results a repudiation of Trump. That is more than a stretch: it is flatly contradicted by some of the data. Republican Jill Vogel, running for Lieutenant Governor in Virginia, hitched herself to Trump and out-performed the GOP establishment candidate at the top of the ticket, Ed Gillespie, by tens of thousands of votes.
It would be more accurate to point out that, once again, the Republican establishment came up short. Someone in the Gillespie campaign actually thought it would be a good idea to campaign with Condoleezza Rice — who, for all her merits, is a relic of the George W. Bush administration. Gillespie belatedly embraced Trump supporters, but it seems clear from local results that there were more than a few conservatives who were reluctant to be seduced. A late conversion might have been possible for another candidate, but not one who had already run and lost statewide.
Democrats, exuberant from their first important win in the past year, are selling their hot takes all over social media. Their favorite theme seems to be that voters rejected “hate.” The only real hate on display was in the Latino Victory Fund ad that portrayed Gillespie supporters as racists. It neatly captured Democrats’ contempt for the other half of America. The more they stick to that message, the easier they will make it for Republicans to retain power in 2018.
But Republicans have now been warned, officially. Exit polls showed that voters’ number one concern in Virginia was health care. And they continue to prefer the insurance they do not have to the insurance Republicans will give them.
The main reason the GOP cannot unite to fulfill their past promises is because of jittery moderate incumbents in blue states and a few swing districts. Tuesday’s results will only make them more nervous and difficult to corral.
Most of the blame sits with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). But the buck stops with Trump. It falls to him to find a way to fulfill core legislative priorities on health care, immigration, and taxes without losing too many moderates or alienating his base.
With Democrats even less likely to compromise after Tuesday, Trump’s skills as a dealmaker will face their greatest test in the coming months.