Analysis

Virginia Defeat Forces Republican Candidates to Hug Trump or Dump Him

Anti-Trump outrage gives demoralized Democrats same energy that led to Tea Party’s 2010 putsch in Congress

Virginia Governor Elect Ralph Northam celebrates with at his election night rally on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, November 7, 2017.
AARON P. BERNSTEIN/REUTERS

The main impact of Tuesday’s U.S. elections is on morale, but morale in politics can often prove crucial. A string of Democratic victories, especially in Virginia, gives an invigorating shot in the arm to a demoralized party that has been tearing itself apart since Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat in the presidential elections. More importantly, the emphatic losses suffered by Republicans in various state and municipal elections are bound to set off a wild panic that could prove politically fatal in next year’s battle for Congress.

Even though Virginia voted for Clinton in 2016 and notwithstanding the fact that most of its last governors have been Democrats, the supposedly expected victory of Ralph Northam over the GOP’s Ed Gillespie reverberated loudest. The elections turned into high drama because of Northam’s lopsided nine percent advantage in the final results, which belied recent polls that showed Gillespie rapidly closing the gap. The high volume of voters in urbanized Virginia, south of Washington D.C., highlighted the high motivation of Democratic voters, especially in comparison to bewildered Republicans. The Democrats’ inexhaustible outrage over Donald Trump propelled them to vote for the lackluster Northam – even if they didn’t really like him, while Republicans tried to wrap their heads around a swamp-establishment type like Gillespie, who suddenly decided to go full-Trumpal.

Gillespie, who served as George Bush’s counselor before becoming a lobbyist, distanced himself from Trump personally, but adopted his aggressive, nativist, anti-immigration message to try and take the lead from Northam. The fact that polls seemed to be turning in his favor created a sense in the GOP that Gillespie may have found a winning formula, which The New York Times dubbed posthumously as “Trumpism without Trump.” But the results indicate that such a hybrid creature is inherently defective. In the year that’s left before the 2018 elections, Republican candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives will be facing a tough, binary choice: Dissociate from Trump and risk the wrath of his die-hard supporters, or embrace him completely and watch moderate Republicans and never-Trumpers skedaddle over to the nearest Democrat. Both modus operandi are prescriptions for a devastating loss.

The clear-cut Republican defeat overshadowed Donald Trump’s visit to the Far East, which has been surprisingly uneventful so far, though that may soon change. Trump was quick to disown Gillespie, who he warmly endorsed earlier in the week, but that won’t suffice to change the media narrative of a debacle for which the president is to blame. The genuine wrath that Trump sparks among minorities, women and college-educated whites provides Democrats with tons of motivation and legions of volunteers, just as the hostility toward Barack Obama propelled the Tea Party to a revolutionary victory in the 2010 elections. The fury felt by Democrats is apparently more than enough to compensate for the acute leadership crisis in the party, for its recurring civil war between Clinton admirers and Bernie Sanders backers and for the lack of a cadre of potential new leaders. Republicans, on the other hand, are torn between a Trump-no-matter-what faction and those who believe that for their party to stand a fighting change, candidates should distance themselves from Trump like the plague.

The unexpected Democratic victories in the Virginia House of Delegates races bolstered the impression of an anti-Trump wave. Hitherto unknown Democrats, including Virginia’s first transgender, unseated well-known candidates in supposedly safe GOP seats. The win in New Jersey – after eight stormy years with Republican Chris Christie – may not have been surprising, but victories in some other local and municipal elections, from Florida to New Hampshire, substantiated the leftwards trend. Even though each race has its own unique characteristics, the results are being read as a referendum on Trump, one in which he was roundly defeated.

The victories provide Democrats with momentum at the start of the campaign for the 2018 elections, but they don’t guarantee a thing. Like traditional leftists throughout the globe, Democrats are bound to recover quickly from their euphoria and to sink back into their internal bickering and their clinical depression over Trump’s continuing presidency. Much will depend, of course, on Trump’s behavior, on the probes of his ties to Russia, on America’s international entanglements and, most importantly, on the strength of its economy in the months leading up to next November’s elections. If the current economic boom continues and Republicans find a way of navigating the minefield strewn by Trump, they might be able to hang on to their majorities in both houses of Congress. But if the economy stalls and Trump is unable or unwilling to improve his public standing, the ostensibly minor defeats suffered by the GOP on Tuesday could be the harbinger for a dramatic downfall next year that could, once again, change the course of American history.