President Trump’s whole administration has been an affront to the Beltway, in all its conventional wisdom. On Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, the Beltway struck back. Hard. The swing away from the GOP in suburbs (especially in wealthy North Virginia counties) destroyed the electoral hopes of Republican candidates statewide.
In many ways, Virginia was the perfect staging ground for a backlash against the president. The upper portion of the state is dominated by the wealthy suburbs that have become increasingly skeptical of a Trumpian GOP, and the D.C. area is one of the central nodes of the anti-Trump “resistance,” left and right, much of which burns with a fervid desire to destroy Donald Trump and all his supposed “enablers.”
Of course, the rise of Trump in the first place was partly enabled by the tendency of many elites to respond to dissent or disagreement with threats of excommunication and personal destruction. And the impulse toward banishment or punishment has contributed to the toxic polarization of cultural debates and to the intellectual stagnation of political establishments on both sides of the aisle. In Virginia on Tuesday, escalating polarization meant that the GOP did better in the southern and rural parts of the state, but the suburbs swung sharply against Republicans and overwhelmed those gains. Despite Virginia’s unique conditions, Republicans will be fooling themselves if they don’t see at least a few signs that bode ill for next November in races across the country.
In many ways, the story of Tuesday’s rout for Virginia Republicans is much more about socioeconomic than racial realignment. Exit polls of the Virginia race suggest that Ed Gillespie did better than many of his Republican predecessors with the non-white vote. In 2009, Bob McDonnell won only 9 percent of the African-American vote, according to exit polls. Ken Cuccinelli won 8 percent in 2013. Gillespie did better, winning 12 percent of the African-American vote on Tuesday. Exit polls do not have a precise breakdown for other ethnic groups in previous Virginia gubernatorial elections, but it’s worth noting that Gillespie won 32 percent of the Hispanic vote on Tuesday.
Compared with past Republicans, however, Gillespie did much worse with white voters. While McDonnell won 67 percent of the white vote in 2009 (winning it by 35 points), Gillespie won only 57 percent (winning it by just 15 points). Some very-back-of-the-envelope math suggests that if Gillespie had done as well with the white vote as McDonnell did in 2009, he would have won: Winning an additional 10 points of the white vote would have pushed Gillespie up by 6.7 points overall and into the executive mansion.
It’s possible that non-white voters surged to the polls in order to rebuke Gillespie — and Trump. But the non-white percentage of the electorate increased at a slower rate than in the past. In 2009, 78 percent of Virginia voters were white; that dropped to 72 percent in 2013 and 67 percent in 2017. The 5-point drop between 2013 and 2017 was less than the 6-point drop between 2009 and 2013.
These findings are evidence that Gillespie’s message was no more poisonous to non-white voters than his Republican predecessors’ messages were. The big fall-off was among white voters (and, based on the results, white suburbanites). In that respect, his showing in Virginia mirrored Donald Trump’s nationally in 2016: Trump did no worse than Mitt Romney among many ethnic groups, but he struggled more with college-educated voters (Romney lost college graduates by 2, but Trump lost them by 10).
Absent legislative success, Republicans risk igniting culture-war controversies that rile up the base but that also drive away moderates and swing voters.
All this suggests that Republicans face particular vulnerabilities among well-heeled suburban voters of all races. Policy paralysis combined with an indulgence in cultural feuds has helped push many upper-middle-class voters away from the Republican coalition. A continued failure to pass legislation could also dispirit many of the core members of the GOP base. Absent legislative success, Republicans risk being trapped in the following dynamic: igniting culture-war controversies that rile up the base but that also drive away moderates and swing voters. Moreover, cultural battles can have diminishing electoral returns, as Democrats found out in 2014 and 2016.
Tuesday’s results reveal the political price of Republicans’ fumbles on health care, the single biggest issue according to exit polling. Northam swamped Gillespie by 54 points on this issue; in 2013, Republican Ken Cuccinelli carried voters on the health-care issue 49 to 44. These results should also be a warning flare to the GOP on taxes. In order to keep the House, Republicans must do well with voters in affluent, high-tax districts in states such as New York, California, and, yes, Virginia. If tax reform ends up increasing the tax burden on residents in those districts, the GOP could end up facing an even greater political storm in 2018.
Unless Republicans want to follow the 2010–14 downward trajectory of Democrats, they should consider making a course correction: Adopt a more moderate tone, defer austerity politics, and promote policies that help shore up the working class. A big-picture infrastructure bill could deliver resources to struggling communities, win over Democratic votes, and give voters the rare sight of a functioning Washington. Health-care reform that prioritizes cutting the cost of medical care (not slashing subsidies for the working class) could be an opportunity to combine a conservative belief in markets with a populist interest in the social-safety net. Tax reform could be recalibrated to deliver sustained benefits to working families — less estate-tax repeal and more credits for children. Policy reforms to advance the economic interests of Americans of all colors and creeds could win support across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Those kinds of policy efforts would need to be complemented by messaging and strategy changes in the White House. History says that a president with an approval rating under 45 percent usually leads his party into the shredder during the midterms, and the president has been at or under 40 for months now. Clearly, the current strategy isn’t working.
While the American press has often treated President Trump with a hostility that would make a partisan super PAC blush, the administration’s own decisions play a considerable role in the president’s low approval rating. Frequent interjections in cultural controversies might energize hard-core supporters, but they also can alienate the broader public. Trump’s approval rating gradually increased throughout the first three weeks of September, for instance, according to the RealClearPolitics average. It took a nose-dive on September 24, right after he publicly rebuked the football players who were kneeling during the national anthem. These and other controversies drag down the president’s numbers. Is the president really helped when he goes on long tweet-storms about how the FBI should investigate Democrats more? Swing voters (and more than a few constitutional conservatives) are repulsed by the idea of a chief executive calling for the investigation of his political rivals, and public denunciations of the FBI will probably not inspire base voters to show up at the midterms.
Republicans face considerable headwinds going into the November 2018 midterms, especially in the House. But their decisions can determine whether they will face a relatively measured gale or a Category Five disaster. Tuesday’s bloodbath offers one hint of how devastating an unchecked hurricane could be.