WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s elections were a much-needed jolt for Democrats on the anniversary of Hillary Clinton’s loss last year. Jubilant Democrats say the election results are a rejection of President Trump and that they’re just getting started.
Democrats won the governor’s mansions in Virginia and New Jersey. They also flipped a massive number of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, and Maine voted to expand Medicaid. And voters elected a slew of women and minorities along with several transgender candidates to government offices around the nation.
“The Democratic Party is back,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez announced on a call with reporters Wednesday morning. “We’re taking our country back from Donald Trump one election at a time.”
After a year with Trump in the White House and Republicans holding both the House and Senate, Democrats feel like this is finally their time — even if the wins were all in blue or blue-leaning states. But as election handicapper Nathan Gonzales wrote on his website Inside Elections Wednesday, "Everyone take a deep breath." A few nice wins in off-year elections does not guarantee a 2018 wave, even with some positive signs for the minority party.
Results show anti-Trump sentiment
“There was an overwhelming thing that was looming large and I think that was the divisive rhetoric," Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican, told CNN. "I think that last night was a referendum. I don’t think there's any way that you can look at it in a different way."
“I would say that the top four reasons are Trump, Trump, Trump and Trumpism,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told USA TODAY. “I’m not saying that the candidates weren’t good, but I am saying that plenty of good candidates have lost. What’s the difference? The difference is Democratic anger in Trump.”
Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a counselor to former president George W. Bush, lost to Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam by 9 percentage points in Virginia. Gillespie had tried to run as a centrist while still embracing some of the issues — such as being tough on illegal immigration and protecting confederate monuments — that the Trump base had embraced.
Sabato said the high turnout in an off-year, the clear margins of victory and the sheer volume of seats that flipped in the House of Delegates all while rain poured down in Virginia could not be ignored. Voters “were determined to send Trump a message.” Republicans went into Tuesday with a 66-34 advantage in the House of Delegates; by the end of the night, Democrats controlled 48 seats, Republicans 47 and the rest were still undecided.
Dems still haven’t won in red states
Sabato cautioned Democrats shouldn’t get too confident yet. The wins were all in states that are clearly blue or leaned that way, and Democrats still had a long way to go if they were going to start flipping seats in purple or red states.
The current Virginia governor is a Democrat, and New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie is historically unpopular. Democrats have yet to flip a national seat held by Republicans, though they came close in a couple of special elections for the House of Representatives.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine — who also was Clinton's running mate — told USA TODAY that anyone arguing Virginia was a blue state was leaving out a lot of information about the state's chambers and congressional delegation, which is 7-4 Republican.
"We were the reddest state in the country in 2001 and the Republicans have blown it and we’ve done some things well and there’s been some demographics that have helped us, but look in some ways — yeah go ahead and dismiss the lesson from last night," Kaine said. "Just pretend like there’s nothing there to pay attention to. If they do that we’re going to have some really good elections coming up across the rest of the nation.”
Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, an organization focused on getting progressive women elected, dismissed criticism that Democrats were just winning in states that were favorable to them.
Schriock said EMILY's List had 55 women running for office across the country and by Wednesday morning, 32 of them had won and six were either headed to a runoff or were in races that remained too close to call. In Virginia, a handful of races were so close they qualified for a recount, and the results will decide which party controls the House of Delegates.
She said that Virginia — with its wealthy suburbs and rural areas — acts the way much of America does and should be a signal of Democrats wins to come.
A sign that Democrats have a chance to take back the House
“I smell a wave coming,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Wednesday. Schumer chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2005-2006 when Democrats took back both the House and Senate. “The results last night smell exactly the same way” as they did that year, Schumer told reporters.
“The door is certainly open for us,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said about retaking the House.
“It’s hard to look at last night and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the narrow favorites for control of the House next year. The results could unleash more Republican retirements and it could spur Democratic recruitment,” Dave Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told USA TODAY. Nearly three dozen Republicans have have left Congress or announced they plan to retire or seek another position at the end of their term. Just about a half-dozen Democrats have said they won't seek re-election.
Trump: Gillespie lost because he didn’t embrace me
President Trump and his anti-establishment wing of supporters said that Democrats were only able to win because Republicans didn’t cozy up to Trump enough. Less than an hour after the race was called for Northam, Trump tweeted from Asia that Gillespie “did not embrace me or what I stand for.”
Corey Stewart, an anti-establishment, pro-Trump candidate who ran against Gillespie in the primary and came within 1 point of taking the Republican nomination, said Gillespie had “no message (and) refused to embrace the president’s message”
“The Trump base and my supporters did not come out because they knew that Ed Gillespie was an establishment Republican who was not supporting the president and who was not going to be supporting their issues,” Stewart told USA TODAY. In the days leading up to the campaign, Stewart had celebrated that Gillespie was starting to focus more on base issues. The day of the election Stewart told Fox Business that "Gillespie's campaign does sound a lot like the one that I ran against him, so I'll take it as a vindication, a victory."
Stewart is now running against Kaine in 2018 and said he will make sure his pro-Trump message is on full display.
Suburban Republicans should be nervous
Some mainstream Republicans saw Tuesday’s Democratic wave as a real concern.
“I just don’t think anybody can pretend that this isn’t a problem,” Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told USA TODAY. Holmes said that Tuesday’s elections reminded him of the Tea Party wave in 2009 following President Obama’s election, which brought a wave of anti-establishment candidates to Washington and gave Republicans the House in 2010.
Holmes said that Republicans running in 2018 would have to figure out how to continue to energize the GOP base, which includes Trump voters, while convincing suburban, highly educated voters to vote Republican.
“The problem for Republicans is your suburban higher-educated, higher-income swing voters, which your congressional majority is literally built upon, and last night those voters abandoned Republicans in droves,” Holmes said.
A day of 'firsts'
Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person to be elected and seated in a state legislature. Roem beat Del. Bob Marshall, who has referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and introduced a bill that would have required people to use the bathroom that matches their birth certificate gender. While Roem was the first transgender person to be elected to a state legislature, there were three other transgender people elected to city council and school boards. Andrea Jenkins, who was elected to the Minneapolis City Council, was the first out transgender black person elected to public office in the United States. Seattle elected its first openly lesbian mayor.
The Virginia House of Delegates got its first Latina and Asian-American members, and the first black mayors were elected in more than a half dozen cities. City Councilman Ravi Bhalla became the first Sikh mayor to be elected in the state of New Jersey.
Contributing: Herbert Jackson and Nicole Gaudiano