So, here’s the math: Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, won nine out of ten votes among Virginians who approve of President Donald Trump. He lost nine out of ten votes among those who disapprove. He lost by nine points.
Trump’s approval rating in Virginia is 42 percent. His approval rating nationally is lower than that — about 38 percent. Trump partisans like to sneer at opinion polling and proffer the cliché that the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day.
Virginia governor-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat, surely agrees.
So must Maine Democrats, who won a Medicaid expansion through a ballot initiative Tuesday night. New Jersey Democrats won the governorship. Washington Democrats took control of the state senate, giving the Democratic party unified control of the entire West Coast. Democrats won elections in the Georgia state legislature, and mayor’s races in Fayetteville, Manchester, and St. Petersburg, where Rick Baker, one of the few Republicans who seems to get city politics, lost his race after a campaign focused on Trump and climate change.
We should not read too much into Tuesday night’s results. Neither should we read too little into them.
Because of the inflation of the American presidency, there often is a countercyclical partisan effect, usually felt in midterm congressional elections. Americans like to complain that Washington never gets anything done, and they have a marked preference for divided governments that help keep Washington from getting anything done. Trump is an unpopular figure, and an obnoxious one. He likes being the center of attention, which means that he is going to be a factor in the mayor’s race in St. Petersburg and the governor’s race in Virginia. If the American electorate continues to have a low opinion of him, then Republicans should calculate that drag into their electoral expectations.
It is often the case that populism has a short shelf life, after which it ceases to be popular. There is a reason for that: Populism is almost always based on a false hope. Populist demagogues such as Trump arise when people are broadly dissatisfied with the national state of affairs and begin to lose confidence in critical institutions. Along comes a charismatic outsider — or someone doing a good impersonation of one — who offers an alternative. Trump-style populism is an almost entirely negative proposition: “I’m not one of Them.” What happens next is in most cases what’s been happening with Trump: The promise of radical change quickly gets mired down in the messy realities of democratic governance. (If you’re lucky, that’s what happens; absent the messy realities of democratic governance, what you end up with is Venezuela.) The “independent” man, the “outsider,” turns out not to have the experience, knowledge, or relationships to get much done. The savior doesn’t deliver the goods.
Trump came into Washington with a roar that quickly diminished to a whimper on Twitter. Gillespie, he tweeted, “did not embrace me or what I stand for.” He may or may not be right in that, but that isn’t how Virginia voters saw it. Republican Scott Taylor, who represents Virginia Beach in the House, said he heard from dissatisfied Democrats and Republicans both that this election was “a referendum on the administration.” Former Republican congressman Tom Davis told the Washington Post: “It’s a huge drag on the ticket. . . . Democrats came out en masse in protest. This was their first chance to mobilize the base. The lesson here is that Republicans have to get their act together.”
The promise of radical change quickly gets mired down in the messy realities of democratic governance.
Funny choice of words, there. Trump has an act. Republicans are supposed to have something else: an agenda, a platform, principles, a philosophy. For a long time, that philosophy was conservatism: limited government under the Constitution, property rights, free enterprise, the rule of law, moral and social traditionalism, an assertive foreign policy, fiscal sobriety, order. (Imperfectly realized, of course, as conservatives would expect.)
Trump offered something else: “winning.”
Republicans, humiliated by their inability to defeat Barack Obama, were very much in the position of Democrats after the Reagan years: desperate to win and willing to endure almost any degradation in the pursuit of presidential power. Democrats were so grateful to Bill Clinton for simply winning that they put up with his lies and repeated them themselves. Democratic activists made jokes about strapping on their “presidential kneepads” to follow Monica Lewinsky’s example in a show of gratitude. Ed Gillespie, hoping to flow with the go, followed the 2016 Republican example and tried approximately the same thing in Virginia. That didn’t work out for him.
If Republicans decide to get off their knees and back on their feet, whither will they go?
If “winning” isn’t winning — and it surely didn’t last night — then Republicans have some decisions to make. They did not win on Tuesday night. The question for Wednesday morning is whether they deserved to, and whether they might deserve to again in the future.
The countdown to November 2018 starts now.