A year after his election, Donald Trump and his political project has been hit with a major set-back after Democrats won resounding victories in races across the country, which if repeated next year could mean the Republican’s will lose control of the House of Representatives, further stunting Trump’s legislative agenda.
Democratic Mayors Bill de Blasio and Marty Walsh were re-elected in New York City and Boston respectively, with Jenny Durkan picking up the mayoralty of Seattle. A win in the Washington senate now means the party has full control of the state government, and a win of three state senate seats in Georgia has deprived the Republicans of their supermajority. As well as winning state senate seats in Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire, progressive were also successful in passing Medicaid expansion in Maine with almost 60% voting in favour, potentially expanding healthcare access to 70,000 Mainers. Republican John Curtis won in a special congressional election in Utah.
The most watched races were the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. Easily gaining New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy replaces outgoing Republican governor Chris Christie. The more hotly anticipated race was in Virginia, a swing state that has tended blue since 2008 but was previously staunchly conservative. The race was treated by many as a referendum on Trump, although healthcare was also a major issue, with those who placed healthcare as their top issue voting 78% for Democratic candidate Ralph Northam. Northam won the race with the largest margin a Democrat has received in Virginia for decades, winning 54% compared to 45% won by Republican rival Ed Gillespie. Democrats also won Virginian down-ticket races, with Justin Fairfax elected Lieutenant Governor, and Mark Herring elected Attorney General.
Democrats also exceeded expectations in the Virginian House of Delegates, flipping 15 seats from the Republicans, and reducing the Republican House majority to one, which could yet be lost if the Republicans lose any one of three recounts in districts where the Republican candidate won by less than 1% of the vote in the first count. Pundits on the left believed 5 or 6 gains would constitute success for the Democrats. Democratic success means that statisticians FiveThirtyEight drew parallels to the results of the 2009 Virginian house elections in which Republican victories foreshadowed the House of Representatives flipping red in 2010. The results also mean Democrats will also have veto power in the state’s next redistricting process (often used to gerrymander electoral districts) for the first time since 1991 – a crucial issue going into 2018.
One particularly notable Democrat House of Delegates victory was Danica Roem, America’s first openly transgender state legislator. Though her campaign focused on “bread and butter” local issues such as transportation, the irony isn’t lost on progressives that she defeated Robert G. Marshall, a conservative who refused to recognise Roem as a woman and introduced Virginia’s “bathroom bill” which restricted transgender people from using the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s campaign was heavily criticised by even moderate publications such as the Washington Post, for drawing strong inspiration from the 2016 Trump campaign, attempting to capitalize on racial tensions, cultural divisions, and Trump’s nationalist policies. His adverts focused on his stances against MS-13 (a Hispanic gang, whose “Kill, Rape, Control” motto featured heavily in one ad), condemning the NFL players’ protests, and protecting VA’s Confederate statues (just weeks after the August events of Charlottesville – a city that voted 84% for Northam with an increased turnout on previous elections), rather than policy issues.
When stumping for Northam the day before the election, Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe urged voters to “send a message to Donald Trump and Eddie Gillespie that racism and bigotry will not be tolerated, not here, not now, and it will not happen in Virginia,” accusing Gillespie of running “mean-spirited, bigoted, racist ads.’ There was a predictable partisan divide in the reception of his strategies: Democrats en masse were unsurprisingly critical, while Virginia’s GOP base (and particularly, its neo-confederate GOP base) met it with enthusiasm.
This “Trumpism without Trump” as a campaign strategy was viewed as a political experiment: had Gillespie been elected, it would have almost certainly shaped Congressional campaign strategies in 2018. If what worked for Trump on a national scale worked again for Gillespie on a more local scale, 2018 would see a replication of Trumpian strategies by midterm candidates across the country.
Prior to election night, the New York Times speculated that Gillespie had possibly “presented a template for how to run a state campaign in the Trump era.” Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon said Gillespie’s embrace of Trumpism provided a roadmap for other Republican candidates in 2018, praising him for “closing an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda… in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward. If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried.”
Gillespie’s experiment failed with Virginia’s voters, showing Trumpian campaign strategies single-handedly cannot be successfully replicated to swing an election. It should of course be remembered that Trump lost the popular vote.
However, pundits still must be cautious about over-attributing Gillespie’s loss to his campaign strategies while neglecting to focus on the ways in which the results conform to traditional political expectations: the president’s party generally performs worse in off-year elections (though, the margin by which Northam won is still significant).
The “Trumpism without Trump” aspect rang true in another respect: while Gillespie utilized many of Trump’s campaign tactics, he was cautious to not directly associate himself with the president (likely for strategic reasons, given the president’s current approval rating of 38%). Unlike Obama, who campaigned in person for Northam, Trump did not stump on Gillespie’s behalf (aside from on Twitter), and Gillespie rarely mentioned Trump on the campaign trail. This was Republicans’ primary explanatory variable in post-election statements responding to Gillespie’s loss.
After the loss President Trump took to Twitter to criticise Gillespie for not fully embracing him or what he stands for, though allies of Gillespie said the Republicans would have lost by a larger margin with another candidate.
With some of the lowest presidential approval ratings in US history, falling as low as 37%, a flagging legislative agenda, daily scandals and Republican establishment figures seeking to distance themselves from the president at every turn, it seems that America’s famed checks and balances may be starting to come into play – as long as Democrats don’t become complacent. A dead duck in all but name, the 2018 mid-terms may be the final death knell for Donald Trump’s presidency.
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