After a series of setbacks dating back to 2010, even longer in statehouse races, the moribund Democratic Party finally had reason to celebrate Nov. 7.
Democrats won gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey largely based on newfound enthusiasm among younger, college-educated voters and minorities — groups that didn’t turn out in force for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — as well as suburbanites, particularly college-educated white women who disdain President Donald Trump.
Virginia and New Jersey went for Clinton in the last election, but were a tad purple, rather than Democratic blue.
In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeated former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie by nine percentage points, surpassing Clinton’s 5 percent advantage.
Northam, a former Army doctor who twice voted for George W. Bush, had a commanding lead in polls until Gillespie, considered more of mainstream Republican, went full-on Trump, channeling immigration and gang fears, championing Confederate statues and mocking National Football League protests.
“He’s closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon wrote in the New York Times. “And I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward. If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried.”
Wrong. Very, very wrong.
Democrats had failed to match conservative Republican passion since 2008, but Tuesday was a far different story in Virginia.
“The enthusiastic left showed up tonight in big numbers,” said Robert McDonnell, Virginia’s last Republican governor, “and really determined the outcome of the election.”
Turnout increased from 2 million in 2013 to 2.8 million — and Northam was among the beneficiaries, particularly in the northern Virginia suburbs and, surprisingly, in the largely military enclave of Hampton Roads (Norfolk and Virginia Beach).
In three suburban Washington, D.C., counties — Arlington, Loudoun and Fairfax — Northam had a 212,000-vote margin en route to a 232,000-vote statewide victory. He prevailed in Virginia Beach, which Trump had carried, by 5 percent.
White, college-educated women — who preferred Clinton by a mere 6 percent — backed Northam by 16 percent.
White nationalist rallies in Charlottesville didn’t help Republicans. Turnout there was up 31 percent over 2013, and Northam took 84 percent of the vote.
Going in, Republicans controlled Virginia’s House of Delegates, 66-34. That may be history pending recounts. Ten women — including two Latinas and a Vietnamese immigrant — ousted entrenched Republican men, including Robert Marshall, self-described as “Virginia’s chief homophobe,” who lost to Dania Rohm, a transgender woman.
Rural Virginia continued to be a Republican safe haven.
In 2013, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie won re-election by 22 percent. But his approval rating recently stood at 22 percent after a series of scandals and standoffs with the Democratic legislature.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno couldn’t overcome her boss’ drag, losing to Democrat newcomer Phillip Murphy, an investment banker, amid a low turnout of 35 percent.
New Jersey and Washington upped the Democratic control of statehouses Tuesday to a lonely sixpack.
In Washington, where Republicans lost a critical special election, former GOP state chairman Chris Vance blamed Trump. “Among college-educated suburbanites, he is a pariah,” he said.
Democrats no longer have the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, albatross now that Trump and the Republican Congress have bungled “repeal and replace.”
Given the opportunity, voters may take things into their own hands.
In Maine, a grass-roots effort to expand Medicaid — the health-care program for low-income Americans — was overwhelmingly approved to include 80,000 more residents. Gov. Paul LePage, the outspoken Republican governor, vowed not to implement it, setting up a court fight.
The GOP took a pounding in races in formerly safe Republican enclaves — such as Westchester and Nassau counties adjacent to New York City and Delaware County, near Philadelphia, where Democratic county council yard signs stated, “Vote Nov. 7th Against Trump.”
In Georgia legislative races, Democrats won two House seats they previously hadn’t contested and a Senate district in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead neighborhood. In Oklahoma, they flipped two legislative districts Trump had won by 20 points.
We had come to regard Democratic congressional leaders — from Nancy Pelosi in the House to Charles Schumer in the Senate — as a ball and chain dragging down election hopes.
But with complete control of the federal government, Republicans have matched and raised their ineptitude.
Meanwhile, Trump was clueless on health-care reform, first praising, then badmouthing, House legislation while not offering any White House versions. Ditto tax reform, with Trump now apparently bailing on a House bill that doesn’t add up and the much-heralded middle-class tax break revealed to be largely nonexistent.
Democrats still have work to do to recapture their former working-class base, which will be critical in the 2018 midterms. But, while doing virtually nothing, the mother lode of the suburbs seemingly could be falling into their hands.