The nine percentage point win by Democrat Ralph Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie for governor was far greater than his lead in polls before Tuesday’s voting, and the party captured races from the top of the ballot to the bottom. In the only other governor’s race in the U.S., Democrat Phil Murphy won as expected in New Jersey, but Democrats also picked up two seats previously held by Republicans in state Legislature.
Along with a smattering of other results around the country — including a vote in Maine to expand Medicaid — the races gave Democrats some hope that they can translate President Donald Trump’s historically low approval ratings into a wave in the elections a year from now that will decide control of Congress.
“Every cycle after the presidential election people try take away national lessons from New Jersey and Virginia and are almost always off-base,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster who tracked both governors races for Monmouth University. “I think this is the first time that this off-year election did actually have national implications.”
Key for Democrats in Virginia was turnout by voters who have been central to the party’s national election strategy for decades. Northam won women by 22 percentage points on Tuesday, outmatching Hillary Clinton a year earlier, when women backed her over Trump, 56% to 39%, according to NBC News exit polls. Among voters 18-29, Northam beat Gillespie, 69% to 30%, a margin that doubled Clinton’s performance a year earlier.
Rep. David Brat, a Virginia Republican who unseated one of his party’s leaders in an upset victory in 2014, said he was surprised by Tuesday night’s results. He said Democrats won by making the race about broader issues.
“They nationalized a campaign we failed to nationalize,” he said.
Brat said Gillespie would have fared better had Republicans managed to pass health care and tax legislation. To keep control of the House of Representatives, Republicans had “better not face-plant on taxes like we did on health care,” Brat said.
In the aftermath, Democrats in Congress sought to nationalize the results by injecting it into the battle over the Republicans’ still-unfinished tax legislation. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the middle-and upper-income suburban voters who helped elect Northam would be hurt by provisions in the tax plan.
“The election results should be a stop sign for Republican efforts to pass their tax bill,” Schumer said in Washington.
Republicans face a historical headwind, as well. The president’s party typically loses seats in Congress in the first mid-term election.
Rep. Dan Donovan, a New York Republican, said it’s too soon to say if next year’s environment will be difficult for Republicans.
“There’s a long time between now and then," he said. “A lot of thing are gonna change between now and then, some for the better, some for the worse maybe, I’m not sure.”
—With assistance from Margaret Talev and Laura Litvan.
—Read Scott White to Lead Virginia Bureau of Insurance on ThinkAdvisor.