For the better part of 2017, the conventional wisdom painted a bleak picture for Democrats. With Republicans in a dominant position, Dems were characterized as lost and leaderless. The party lacked direction, a credible bench, and an agenda that appeals to a national electorate. The party's base, the argument went, would rather bicker over 2016 than look ahead. It'd be a while before Democrats found any joy in an Election Day.
Last night, this picture was turned on its head. With big victories in races from coast to coast, Democrats had their best Election Day in years. Indeed, in Virginia's gubernatorial race -- the marquee contest of the year -- the Democratic candidate, whom many pundits assumed would lose, scored the biggest win for a Dem nominee in the commonwealth in more than three decades.
The key, evidently, was a voter backlash to Donald Trump. NBC News had a report examining the exit polling in yesterday's gubernatorial contests:
In Virginia, where Democrat Ralph Northam bested Republican Ed Gillespie, 57 percent of voters said they disapproved of Trump's job performance, according to exit polling in the state. And those voters broke for Northam, 87 percent to 11 percent.... Perhaps more importantly, half of voters in Virginia said that Trump was a factor in their vote, and they opposed the president by a 2-to-1 margin -- 34 percent oppose, 16 percent support. [...]Trump's standing was even worse in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy beat Republican Kim Guadagno in that state's gubernatorial race. Just 36 percent of Garden State voters said they approved of the president's job, while 63 percent disapproved, according to exit polls there.And among the 39 percent of voters in New Jersey who said Trump was a factor in their vote, 28 percent said it was to oppose him, versus 11 percent who were supporting him -- a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
The president's name wasn't literally on the ballot, but there's no mistaking the fact that Trump's presidency played a key role in driving the results. Yesterday was a referendum on Trump, and his party lost in spectacular fashion.
And that leaves the Republican Party -- which has spent a year supporting, defending, and enabling the hapless GOP president -- facing a difficult question this morning: "Now what?"
Virginia's Ed Gillespie thought he had an answer. The former RNC chairman ignored his own instincts and ran a general-election campaign based on racist appeals and cultural grievances intended to energize the GOP's far-right base. The Republican gubernatorial hopeful believed he could win by effectively running Trump's playbook.
As recently as the weekend, Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in the Trump White House, seemed confident it would work, boasting that Gillespie had positioned himself for success by "rallying around the Trump agenda."
And yet, once it was clear that the GOP candidate had fallen short, there was the president, declaring via Twitter that Gillespie "did not embrace me or what I stand for. "
For those who paid any attention to the Virginia race, it's obvious the president's message is wrong. It's equally obvious that Trump has no real sense of loyalty to anyone but himself. But most importantly, GOP candidates were reminded that if they're counting on Trump to give them an election boost, this isn't a president who can deliver -- even for those who stick to the Trump script.
And that leaves the president's partisan allies in an exceedingly awkward position. If they start moving away from Trump, the GOP's rabid base will punish them. But if Republicans continue to carry water for Trump, the party will face a backlash, just as they did yesterday.
Passing unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy won't help. A renewed push to take health care benefits from millions would be worse. Focusing on construction of a giant border wall is pointless.
Trump is firmly of the opinion that everything's fine and there's no need for the GOP to change course. If Democrats are very lucky, the president's Republican brethren will agree.