Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: '... the wrong end of a wave election'

"I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that ... Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward," a confident Steve Bannon bragged over the weekend, referring to the Virginia governor's race. "If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried."

It is now Wednesday, and from what I can tell, Democrats are not worried much at all. In fact, "giddy" would be the more accurate term. "Trumpism without Trump" got trounced Tuesday night, hugely, and there's a very real sense that this is just a hint of what may yet be coming.

As Bannon suggested, Republican Ed Gillespie ran in Virginia on Trump's agenda, with Trump's stamp of approval, and he lost by nine points. Every Republican on the statewide ballot lost by a large margin. The landslide was so sweeping that Democrats picked up 16 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, the largest partisan gain in over 100 years in Virginia and an outcome that no Democrat had dared to even dream about before the votes were counted. Eleven of those 16 pickups were won by women candidates.

Republicans began the night with a massive 66-34 advantage in the Virginia House; they ended it in an apparent tie with Democrats, pending recounts. “I’m shocked, too,” one veteran Republican legislator told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after conceding his race. “This is what happens when you get on the wrong end of a wave election.”

Here in Georgia, Democrats easily picked up two state House seats that had long been considered safe conservative districts. In a special election in state Senate District 6, previously held by GOP gubernatorial candidate Hunter Hill, the two candidates who survived into the runoff were both Democrats.

It's all just stunning, and in the aftermath Trump tried vainly to disassociate himself from the carnage. "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for," he tweeted from South Korea. "... with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!"

The exit polls tell a very different story. More than half of Virginia voters said they saw the governor's race as in part a referendum on Trump, and by a 2-1 margin those voters rejected him. In the New Jersey governor's race, that ratio was closer to 3-1.

"I don't know how you get around that this wasn’t a referendum on the administration, I just don’t," admitted U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Va., as the magnitude of the night began to sink in. "Some of the very divisive rhetoric helped prompt and usher in a really high Democratic turnout in Virginia. We need to have some looking in the mirror."

In politics terms, that mirror comes in the form of exit polls, and the deeper you look into those polls, the more ominous they become for Republicans. Health care, not immigration, was by far the biggest issue for Virginia voters, and Democrat Ralph Northam had a 55-point advantage among voters who were motivated by that core issue. By a 15-point margin, Virginia voters said they could not trust Republican Gillespie to handle race issues competently.

Among voters 44 and younger -- people who will form the electorate of the future -- Northam won by an astounding 30 points. In the New Jersey governor's race, that divide was even more profound: Among voters 44 and younger, Democrat Phil Murphy won by 36 points. That's the kind of showing that makes it very, very difficult to rebuild a political party.

The one bright spot for Virginia Republicans was the 44-point lead for Gillespie among white male voters without a college degree. That proved three things: His pro-Trump message got heard loud and clear by its target audience; in the end, it wasn't near enough to save him; and the sense of ownership and dominance among white male voters in this country is profoundly antiquated.

It's going to be fascinating to watch what happens in Washington now. Republicans have been telling each other for months that the only way they can fend off disaster in the midterms is by passing what they call "tax reform," which to me is nuts. In poll after poll, Americans of every political stripe say they oppose giving tax cuts to wealthy Americans and corporations, yet somehow doing both is going to save the Republican Party? It fails the basic test of logic.

Even before last night, Republican congressmen had been lining up to announce their retirements, and you have to think that the rush to the exits will accelerate. Seats that were once considered safe in the 2018 midterms must now be considered up for grabs, in both the House and Senate. GOP incumbents who didn't dare to voice disagreement with Trump now have to recalculate, and Democrats who once might have been intimidated into voting with Republicans will be emboldened instead.

One year ago today, Trump pulled off one of the more amazing upsets in U.S. political history. Since then he has kept almost none of his promises, and in many cases has done the exact opposite. His polling numbers at this point in his presidency are the lowest in history. The one promise that he may end up keeping -- ironically, the biggest promise of them all -- is his pledge to thoroughly shake up Washington and to reshape America's political landscape.

But it may happen in ways that neither he nor his supporters are going to like.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.