Tuesday was the best day for Democrats politically since Barack Obama won re-election in 2012. Remember, conservatives scored significant victories in the November 2014, 2015 and 2016 elections. Democrats desperately needed some wins after they went all-in on a House special election in Georgia this spring and lost. Tuesday night, they got them.
Voters came out in droves. They braved the rain and the cold to send a message to President Donald Trump. The results across the country represent nothing less than a stinging repudiation of Trump on the first anniversary of his election.
▪ Democrat Ralph Northam was elected governor of Virginia Tuesday by an unexpectedly large margin of nine percentage points. He won more votes than any previous candidate for Virginia governor.
Republican Ed Gillespie could not escape Trump’s unpopularity, despite his best efforts to thread the needle. Four in 10 Virginia voters Tuesday approved of the job that the president is doing, according to preliminary exit polls. Gillespie received over 9 in 10 votes from Trump approvers, but among the larger group of Trump disapprovers, Northam had nearly as large an advantage: 87 percent.
Trump’s impact on the race was also clear from other questions in the exit polling: 34 percent of voters said expressing opposition to Trump was a reason for their vote, with almost all of this group favoring Northam, per our in-house pollster Scott Clement. Half as many (17 percent) sought to express support for the president, while 47 percent said Trump was not a factor in their choice.
▪ Women made the difference. White women with college degrees -- a group that split evenly in the 2013 Virginia governor’s election - favored Northam by 16 points over Gillespie in preliminary exit polling, 58 percent to 42 percent. Northam’s margin is more than twice as wide as the margin Hillary Clinton won those voters by last year, 50 percent to 44 percent.
Married women voted for Northam by 10 points according to preliminary exit polls, 54 percent to 44 percent. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump eked out a one-point lead with this group, 48 percent to 47 percent. Married women consisted of 30 percent of Virginia voters this year, about the same share as in 2016 and 2014.
▪ Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican who represents Virginia Beach, said both Democrats and Republicans registered their disenchantment with Trump. “I don’t know how you get around that this wasn’t a referendum on the administration, I just don’t,” he told reporters. “Some of the very divisive rhetoric really prompted and helped usher in a really high Democratic turnout in Virginia.”
“Ed couldn’t escape being a proxy for Trump, which killed him,” added Tom Davis, the former GOP congressman who represented Northern Virginia. “It’s a huge drag on the ticket,” he told The Post’s Paul Schwartzman. “It motivated the Democratic base. 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. Ed did as well as he could do with the hand he was dealt.”
▪ Tweeting from South Korea, Trump quickly distanced himself from Gillespie - who he had embraced earlier in the day:
Trump tweeted: “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”
▪ But Democrats prevailed Tuesday night from sea to shining sea, up and down the ballot:
Maine, where Trump won an electoral vote last year, became the first state to expand Medicaid via ballot initiative. Despite active opposition from the Republican governor and an influx of outside money, the measure passed by a nearly 20-point margin. This will mean health-care coverage for an estimated 70,000 low-income residents.
Democrat Phil Murphy, a former banker and first-time candidate, won the New Jersey governor’s race by 13 points over Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor. That’s on par with Clinton’s margin a year ago, but it’s a remarkable turnabout from four years ago - when Christie got reelected with a 22-point margin of victory. It means that Democrats will have unified control of the Garden State’s government.
By winning a special election, Democrats took control of the Senate in Washington State. This gives the party full control of all three states on the West Coast: a blue wall of sorts.
▪ Democrats didn’t just run up the score on blue turf, though:
In Georgia, Democrats picked up three seats in the state legislature - replacing Republicans who stepped down to lead the state forestry commission, become a judge and run for governor.
In New Hampshire’s largest city, Manchester, the incumbent Republican mayor went down. Joyce Craig is the first Democrat elected mayor there in 14 years.
In the beating heart of Florida’s crucial Interstate 4 corridor, the former Republican mayor of St. Petersburg unexpectedly failed in a comeback bid after his Democratic opponent tied him to Trump and defined him as a denier of climate change.
In North Carolina, the Republican mayor of Fayetteville lost his bid for a third term. In Charlotte, despite being heavily outspent, Democrat Vi Lyles will become the city’s first African American female mayor.
▪ For the first time, Democrats were winning because of Obamacare - not in spite of it. Maine approving Medicaid expansion by such a margin should be a warning sign for Republicans to tread very carefully when it comes to their continuing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In Virginia, the network exit poll asked respondents which one of five issues mattered most in deciding their vote for governor: 39 percent said health care, far more than any other issue. And health-care focused voters favored Northam by a giant 77 percent to 23 percent margin in preliminary exit polls. Gillespie won handily among those who named taxes and immigration as their top issue. The candidates split among those who picked gun policy.
▪ To understand the true magnitude of the Democratic victory, look to the down-ballot races in Virginia. Democrats, many of them unknown first-time candidates, are poised to pick up at least 14 seats in the House of Delegates. Unofficial returns showed Democrats unseating at least 11 Republicans and flipping three seats that had been occupied by GOP incumbents who didn’t seek reelection. Four other races were so close that they qualify for a recount, and results will determine control of the chamber. Democrats needed to pick up 17 seats to gain control of the House of Delegates. No one thought going into Tuesday night that it was seriously in play.
“The results marked the most sweeping shift in control of the legislature since the Watergate era,” writes The Post’s Fenit Nirappil. “The biggest battleground for the House was Prince William, a Washington exurb where people of color constitute a majority of the population. A diverse group of five Democratic challengers hoped to channel demographic changes and Democratic energy to take seats held by white men - and all won.”
Virginia’s most socially conservative state lawmaker was ousted from office by a Democrat who will be one of the nation’s first openly transgender elected officials. The race pitted Danica Roem, a 33-year-old former journalist who began her physical gender transition four years ago, against Robert G. Marshall, a 13-term incumbent who called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and earlier this year introduced a “bathroom bill” that died in committee. “Discrimination is a disqualifier,” Roem said in her victory speech, per The Post’s Antonio Olivo.
“This is a tidal wave,” said David Wasserman, who tracks U.S. House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s hard to . . . conclude anything other than that Democrats are the current favorite for control of the House in 2018.”
One ominous sign for congressional Republicans: Northam won the district held by Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., in the D.C. suburbs by 13 points.
Several other Democrats who won these down-ballot races are going to have national profiles: In southwest Virginia, former television news anchor Chris Hurst - whose girlfriend was fatally shot during a live broadcast in 2015 - toppled Republican incumbent Joseph Yost.
The results are a big validation for outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, who is term-limited and could use the gains as a rationale to run for president in 2020. He was surprised by the scale of the pick-ups. “I always say you’re going to get it back because you have to say that politically, but in my mind I was thinking six to eight [seats gained] would have been a great night for the Democrats,” he told one of my colleagues.
Virginia’s General Assembly has a well-earned reputation as an old boy’s club, but the composition of the body changed bigly Tuesday night: All 14 of the seats that Democrats flipped are held by GOP men. Ten of their replacements will be women.
More on turnout
▪ Trump proved to be just the boogeyman that Democrats have needed to galvanize their liberal base for an off-year election when Obama was not on the ballot: 28 percent of voters identified as liberals in preliminary exit polls, up eight points from the 2013 governor’s race and two points from last year. Democrats composed 41 percent of the electorate, up four points from 2013 and one point from last year. Republicans were 31 percent of the electorate, a record low in two decades of exit polls.
▪ Turnout was the highest in 20 years for a gubernatorial race, five percentage points and 10 percentage points higher than the last two. “Northam’s vote margin in Hampton Roads was more than 4,000 votes bigger than Clinton’s last year, a surprise since so many more people vote in presidential elections. Northam’s military background and hometown on the Eastern Shore may have provided extra momentum in that region,” The Post’s Dan Keating and Kevin Uhrmacher explain. “Northam’s margin in Central Virginia around Richmond was similarly more than 4,000 votes bigger than Clinton’s there. His margin in Northern Virginia did not top Clinton’s, but it was bigger than [Obama] won it by in either of his winning campaigns. . . . Gillespie was not able to mount anywhere close to Trump’s margins in the Republican areas.” Consider this amazing statistic:
Dave Weigel tweeted: “In 2014, Gillespie won Loudoun County (DC exurbs) by 456 votes.
“He lost it today by 23,432 votes”
▪ Nonwhite voters turned out at presidential election rates in Virginia, surprising the experts who were trying to model the election on both sides. African Americans accounted for 21 percent of voters, according to the exits, the same as in 2016. When McAuliffe won four years ago, nonwhite voters accounted for 28 percent of the electorate. On Tuesday, they made up 33 percent of those who voted. That five percent is pivotal because black voters favored Northam by a 73-point margin and Hispanics favored Northam by 33 points.
Obama went to Richmond last month for his first campaign rally since leaving the White House to help gin up African American turnout. “Off-year elections, midterm elections -- Democrats sometimes, y’all get a little sleepy. You get a little complacent,” the former president said in his speech. “And so as a consequence, folks wake up and they’re surprised -- ‘How come we can’t get things through Congress? How come we can’t get things through the state house?’ Because you slept through the election!”
Well, Democrats weren’t sleeping Tuesday.
-- Gillespie “suffered mightily from the utter failure of the Republicans in Washington to do what they said they’d do,” said former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, R, who lost the governor’s race four years ago. “Trump is Trump,” he told our Marc Fisher Tuesday night. “Let’s not kid ourselves that he’s going to make any changes. It’s up to the Republicans in Congress. If they can’t deliver to their voters, those voters simply won’t come out, and that should scare the bejesus out of the Republicans in Washington.”
Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve contributed to this article.