Republicans thought Donald Trump’s 2016 performance in the suburbs was as low as the GOP could go. Then Ed Gillespie went even lower.
The Republican nominee for Virginia governor underperformed the unpopular president in a toxic political environment for the GOP — losing by landslide margins even in some territory where, just three years prior, he had nearly broken even in a run for Senate.
Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam swept Gillespie away in the vote-rich suburbs just outside Washington and Richmond. In Loudoun County, which Trump lost by 17 points in 2016, Gillespie lost by 20 to Northam. Gillespie lost by 23 points in Prince William and Henrico counties, where Trump fell by 21 points. And his 37-point defeat in Virginia’s biggest jurisdiction, Fairfax County, tumbled below even Trump’s 36-point loss there in 2016.
The GOP started the year seeing a silver lining in Trump’s bad suburban 2016 results. He didn’t drag other Republicans down with him, they said, and if the party could figure out how to pair its traditional suburban strength with Trump’s rural enthusiasm, they would be unbeatable.
But in the past 24 hours, that ambition has given way to alarm.
Republican strategists described Gillespie’s 9-point loss and other election results around the country as a massive early-warning signal for the 2018 elections, when House Republicans must defend 23 mostly suburban districts that Trump lost last year.
“If it were just Virginia, we could put it down to federal workers and contractors, but it happened in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, too,” Chris Wilson, a GOP strategist, wrote in an email. “If you’re a GOP incumbent in a heavily suburban, college educated district, I think you’re worried today and rightfully so.”
The Trump shift in Virginia’s votes worked the other way, too: In 84 of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities, Gillespie actually got a bigger share of the vote Tuesday than he did in 2014, when he lost to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner by less than a point. But those rural gains were vastly outweighed by huge drops in more populous, diverse and well-educated counties like Loudoun, which Gillespie narrowly carried over Warner before cratering below Trump’s levels this year, and Prince William, which Gillespie lost only narrowly in 2014.
It’s the reverse of what Democrats experienced with rural voters in 2016, when many had assumed the party had reached its nadir with them only to see Hillary Clinton go lower.
Gillespie won 53 percent of white college graduates in 2014, according to exit polls. But he dropped to 48 percent in 2017, nearly identical to Trump’s performance in Virginia.
“It’s the exact same candidate, but now there’s a lower floor in the suburbs,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster.
Longtime Republican legislators in the suburbs also lost in districts Trump lost the year before, as Democrats made a surprise bid for control of the Virginia House of Delegates for the first time in two decades.
Republicans’ preeminent concern now is whether their other suburban candidates could be brought down by the same trend next year. If that happens, it could flip control of the House as well as governorships and state legislatures around the country.
Most battleground House Republicans handily outran Trump in 2016, but Gillespie’s struggles suggest that will be a much more difficult task now that Trump is the president.
“It recalibrates the future map,” said Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch. “… This helps pinpoint the type of places and districts that we should be targeting.”
House Democrats are already eyeing a handful of districts that were never considered top targets — or even borderline battlegrounds — before Trump lost them in 2016. They include the seats of New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance; Houston-area Rep. John Culberson; and Orange County, California Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce and Mimi Walters. They are among the three dozen House Republicans whose districts have a higher share of white college-educated residents than Virginia (41.6 percent, according to Census data).
But the Virginia results also highlight the increased pressure facing battle-tested incumbents in the same perilous demographic slice — like Northern Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock.
Comstock has swept aside Democratic opponents in two straight elections and outran Trump by 10 points in 2016. Now, Democrats are chasing her seat more hungrily than ever after watching Northam carry the district by nearly 13 points. Nine candidates are already running in the Democratic primary.
Republicans pointed out that incumbents already running hard and strategizing for 2018 may be able to avoid Gillespie’s fate by emphasizing a personal story that separates them from the president. But even that strategy comes with risks, as Gillespie found when he nearly lost his Republican primary to a more Trump-like candidate in June.
“It is possible — but you’ve got to go out and raise millions of dollars. You’ve got to have a record that’s distinct from the president’s. And oh by the way, you have to do it in a way that doesn’t get you a primary challenger,” said McHenry, the Republican pollster.
That could be a challenge for GOP incumbents not accustomed to fighting for their political lives every other November. And it may prove even more difficult for candidates in battleground districts where Republican representatives are retiring.
Republicans note that Virginia in particular tends to swing hard against the party in the White House at the end of every president’s first year. But they also said it would be a mistake to ignore Tuesday’s results and move along to 2018 without changing anything.
“The commonwealth tends to swing back and forth. Democrats made the fatal mistake of not learning the lessons of their 2009 blowout, and they got their tails kicked in 2010,” said Pete Snyder, a venture capitalist who chaired Gillespie’s gubernatorial campaign. “Republicans can’t do the same next year.”
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