In case nobody noticed, last week elections were held throughout the United States. The major races were mostly confined to the eastern part of the country, and they included the governorships of both New Jersey and Virginia. Yet it was the legislative elections, particularly in the Commonwealth that stole the show. Not only did the results give Democrats something to crow about but the numbers and the pickups exceeded the most wild expectations, though it’s worth pointing out that many Republicans in New Jersey vastly underperformed in fertile GOP territory also). More ominously, it confirmed what an already apprehensive bunch of Republicans fear exactly one year before the 2018 midterms: that total annihilation is certainly a possibility.
Phil Murphy’s thirteen percentage point victory in the Garden State was about in line with the expectations of most pollsters. Ralph Northam’s nine percent Virginia win most certainly wasn’t. The vast majority of polls in the Old Dominion at least until the weekend before the election showed a neck-and-neck race and some even suggested that the Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, might pull off a win. What was most extraordinary about Northam’s margin is that he didn’t run a strong campaign at all while by all accounts, Gillespie did. Add that to the fact the Democrats won the positions of Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General and it is clear that a mandate exists.
The real news was in the House of Delegate races. With Republicans holding 66 seats and Democrats just 34, no one expected the partisan hands to come close to changing. Even the most optimistic prognosticators were opining that the party should be happy with an eight seat pickup. Instead, they clearly won 15 and are within 10 votes in a 16th district that would tie the partisan ratio of the chamber at 50 seats for each party (incidentally, word came in the last few days that in a 17th seat where the GOP nominee prevailed by a mere 84 votes, 668 ballots in a fairly liberal area were given ballots with the wrong candidates, so while it’s still a longshot, litigation and a potential special election may yet give Democrats a slim majority).
The successes or near successes were not just in districts Hillary Clinton carried last year. Democrats wrested one seat away from Republicans that in districts that voted for Trump, and came within 150 votes of winning two others, suggesting that Republicans may have to worry about light-red districts all throughout the country of which there are plenty. The first transgender woman unseated a vocal homophobe, two Latina women won seats that do not have large Hispanic populations and a number of new African-American and women one seats as well. What is most remarkable is that though Clinton carried these districts, many had voted Mitt Romney and John McCain and regularly vote Republican at the local level.
That’s not all. In Oklahoma, which gave Donald Trump a bigger percentage than any in the nation, a Lesbian Democrat won a special election to the State Senate in a district that gave Trump 69% of the vote. This was the fourth legislative seat held by the GOP to flip in the Sooner State (a fifth was within 70 votes of doing so last Spring) and while incumbent Governor Mary Fallon was likely a factor, it might signal the Trump brand might be wearing a little thin even on conservative terrain.
It’s a shame the pendulum has to swing with whichever party holds the White House but, it seems like for the opposition to make gains in every given cycle, that must happen. 2010 and to a lesser extent 2014 would not have taken place without Barack Obama as president and last week would not have happened with Donald Trump as president. But, to paraphrase what someone famous once said, “you go with the battlefield you have rather than the battlefield you want.” But as the calendar gears toward 2018, the battlefield the Democrats want is to obviously put as many GOP held seats – particularly in the House, in play and even before last week, all indications are that it is taking place. So toxic is the Republican brand right now that suggesting a tidal wave is forming against the party is actually a major understatement. In fact, the sky may very well be the limit.
In 2006, Democrats captured 30 Republican House seats, more than enough to claim the majority. This was done in part by claiming GOP seats that had long proven elusive, like Colorado-7, Connecticut-2 and 6, and Iowa-1, yet also by stunning incumbents in the most unexpected places, including Iowa-2, New Hampshire-1, and Pennsylvania-4. Interestingly, at least four of the most battle hardened incumbents saw what they were up against and managed to survive against the odds. Among them: Chris Shays of Connecticut, Heather Wilson of New Mexico, Steve Chabot of Ohio and Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania.
Because Virginia Democrats far and away exceeded their expectations, it’s a fair assumption that unless the climate changes by this time next year, Democrats will exceed expectations at the national level as well, but they don’t even need to in order to take back the House. There are plenty of seats on the table that voted for Clinton for president that could flip by themselves. Many analysts think that because the Virginia gains came at every corner of Republican Barbara Comstock’s Congressional district, she will need a miracle to win a third time (Comstock may very well be the most endangered incumbent in the GOP conference). California and Pennsylvania alone have the vulnerable seats that could provide the Democrats with half of the 24 that they need, New Jersey has at least three while New York has as many as six, including the once invincible, Peter King. At least two GOP incumbents in Texas are gearing up for titanic struggles. The betting is that Democrats may pick up one seat in Iowa and are on the bubble of doing so in Michigan.
This hardly takes into account the retirements that have or may occur (of those states, Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania are open due to a retirement). This followed earlier announcements from Washington’s Dave Reichert and Florida’s Ileana Ros Lehtinen, who had announced her intention to bolt for the exits earlier in the year. Centrist in the Senate are the Republicans are still reeling from the shock of Jeff Flakes retirement. It is so early in the cycle and for all of the retirements that materialize before the first of the year, many more typically occur after and a fair number are unexpected.
And now, once secure incumbents such as Peter Roskam of Illinois and Pete Sessions of Texas are on the watch list. That doesn’t mean both will lose. But if Republicans are able to consider it a victory simply to preserve those two seats, it is clearly a signal of how far they have fallen.