Amid a record-high Dow, low unemployment, a rise in job creation, a housing boom and overall consumer optimism, the party in charge took a thumping Tuesday night.
It’s now the Republicans turn to figure out “What Happened,” the title of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election post-mortem, after Democrats took the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, regained control of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Washington State Senate, won mayoral races in Charlotte and St. Petersburg, and celebrated the passage of a referendum on Medicaid expansion in Maine.
President Trump blamed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, who lost by 9 points, for the setback in Virginia.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard 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!” Trump tweeted.
On the anniversary of his election, Trump can boast of major domestic and foreign policy successes, with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, major battlefield gains against ISIS and a revived economy. On Election Day, the president was some 30 miles from the DMZ delivering a speech his predecessor likely would have never given to South Korea’s National Assembly amid Pyongyang’s continued threats of nuclear war.
“North Korea is a country ruled by a cult. At the center of this military cult is a deranged belief in the leader’s destiny to rule as parent-protector over a conquered peninsula and an enslaved Korean people,” Trump said.
In a paean to free enterprise, he told the lawmakers “the more successful South Korea becomes, the more decisively you discredit the dark fantasy at the heart of the North Korean regime.”
“In this way, the very existence of a thriving South Korean republic threatens the very survival of the North Korean dictatorship.”
At home, GDP has grown at least 3 percent in all three quarters of his presidency; unemployment had dropped to 4.1 percent, a 16-year low; consumer confidence is the highest since 2009; and the Dow has increased by 29 percent, reaching an all-time high.
Nevertheless, with the failure to pass an Obamacare repeal, the recent unveiling of a watered-down tax-reform plan and a party-divided – with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recruiting anti-Trump candidates while former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon goes to war against nearly every GOP incumbent – Trump’s approval rating is at just 37 percent, and Democrats believe the the stars are aligning for a return to power in Congress in the 2018 midterms.
Their leaders in Congress saw the results Tuesday as a rejection of the Trump administration and its agenda.
“The door is certainly open for us,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the results Tuesday night “smell exactly the same way” as 2005, when Democrats won in New Jersey and Virginia then regained Congress the following year.
“Our Republican friends better look out,” he said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., insisted voters were not rejecting Trump Tuesday but delivering the message that Republicans in Washington have yet to deliver on Trump’s agenda.
“What people want to know and see is that this Donald Trump presidency and this Republican Congress makes a positive difference in my life,” Ryan said on the “Brian Kilmeade Show.”
Kilmeade asked the speaker if the party will now return to George W. Bush-style politics.
“We already made that choice. We’re with Trump,” he said. “We merged our agendas. We ran with Donald Trump.”
A Wall Street Journal analysis of the House’s tax-reform plan found that most Americans would get a modest tax cut, but millions would face higher taxes immediately, and the number of losers would grow over time. Families making between $75,000 and $100,000 would see a cut of only about $100 or more.
‘Backlash’ to Trump?
The widely read political prognosticator Nate Silver – who was hardly alone in predicting a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016 but gave Trump better odds than most – said Wednesday that “we didn’t need Tuesday night to prove that the national environment was good for Democrats; there was plenty of evidence for it already.”
He cited Trump’s low approval rating, the Democrats lead by 10 points on the generic congressional ballot, Democrats’ performance relative to the partisanship of districts in special congressional elections and strong performances in special elections to state legislatures. He noted, too, that the opposition party almost always gains ground at midterm elections.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato took issue with pundits who attributed the Virginia victory to changing demographics, arguing Virginia “hasn’t changed that much since last Nov. 8, when Clinton won the state by 5 percent.
“The bigger explanation is a backlash to Trump and Trumpism, pure and simple,” he said.
Responding to Sabato’s analysis, the Daily Caller’s Scott Greer said that while it’s hard to say Tuesday results proved Republican critics of Trump correct, “it is certainly thick-headed to dismiss how demographics have transformed Virginia politics.”
He contended the increase of Democratic-leaning professionals in Northern Virginia’s D.C. suburbs and fewer Republican-leaning working-class whites likely explains the larger margin of victory for Democrat Ralph Northam.
“The implication behind the argument of Sabato and other analysts is that a Republican could have won if he had been free of the taint of Trumpism,” Greer said. “There is no evidence that an anti-Trump Republican running on the Jeff Flake agenda would have done any better than Gillespie, who reluctantly adopted a Trumpian platform during the GOP primary.”
Laura Ingraham, on her Fox News show “The Ingraham Angle,” argued there is no middle ground with conservative populism.
“That is the wave of the future. That there is no constituency for open borders, open markets, and endless military interventionalism. There’s no constituency,” she said.
“So maybe Gillespie wouldn’t have won if President Trump campaigned with him. But trying to be half-in half-out with Donald Trump was never going to work. If you dip your toe in just a little bit you’re going to turn out just like Ed Gillespie did – political road kill.”
Trump’s former chief strategist Bannon sounded a similar theme Wednesday in an interview with Breitbart News Daily radio, asserting the lesson from Tuesday is that “if you’re going to win, you’ve got to embrace the entire Trump agenda, and you’ve got to do it early, and you’ve got to be dedicated to it.”
“You can’t phone it in,” said Bannon, who has returned to his position as Breitbart executive chairman. “You’ve got to do rallies. You’ve got to get the president out with you. You’ve got to go all-in on this. I just think campaigning with people like President Bush and Marco Rubio during these type of economic times sends the wrong signal. I think Gillespie’s campaign had ample opportunity to get Corey Stewart, get other people involved.”
But he said Tuesday was “a wake-up call.”
“People have to understand that the Democrats did a very good job of getting the vote out. You’ve got to give the devil their due, and when we think about 18, you’ve got to get very focused,” Bannon said.
Democrats in Virginia attributed their success Tuesday to a combination of early voter enthusiasm and micro-targeted campaign efforts, the Washington Times reported.
“We saw tremendous energy coming out of various districts,” Democratic House Leader David J. Toscano said in a call with reporters. “We found that the enthusiasm we had was unprecedented.”
He said “few people predicted the degree of this wave.”
The Democratic National Committee boasted of spending more than $1.5 million in Virginia, knocking on more than 256,050 doors, nearly double that of 2013. In a news release, the DNC said it reached voters in a personal way with new technology and through a partnership with outside groups.
DNC CEO Jess O’Connell referenced Bannon in a statement.
“So while Steve Bannon tries to primary Republicans in 2018, the Democratic National Committee will be Winning with Partners in 2018 – working with state parties and progressive allies – to elect Democrats across America and ensuring Every Zip Code Counts.”
Conservative talk-radio host Steve Deace, an influential voice in his home state of Iowa’s crucial presidential caucuses, said in a series of tweets he thinks it’s more likely the Virginia result is “the culmination of a blue wave that’s been sweeping the state already.”
“Angst about Trump just cemented or accelerated that which was already happening before him,” he said.
Some Trump supporters are noting that Republican Roy Moore maintains an 11 percent lead over Democrat Doug Jones in a new poll gauging the special election Dec. 12 for the Alabama U.S. Senate seat vacated when Jeff Sessions became attorney general, reports WAFF, although neither side said it was putting much stock in pre-Election Day polling.
Deace argued Trump “isn’t a slate of issues or an ideology.”
“It’s strictly a persona. And the issues can be crafted and/or abandoned depending on the persona,” he said.
“If you don’t understand that, you don’t truly understand why you have Trump. Why he won. Why people turned to him, many of them out of frustration with Republicans like Gillespie.”
Deace pointed out that the left cast Republicans as redneck racists in a controversial Virginia ad.
“And instead of declaring war on it, Gillespie basically punted. Trump would’ve gone DEFCON 1 over that garbage,” he said.
“And while doing so would’ve angered his opposition, Trump’s base would be FIRED UP. Believing he was defending them, not just himself. That’s why Trump, for all his faults, has a loyal base most Republicans don’t.”
‘Our brand was never on the ballot’
Conservative Review columnist Daniel Horowitz contended “our brand was never on the ballot in any of these races.”
“The question conservatives must ask themselves, headed into the next major election cycle, is: At what point will we finally die on our own hills? At what point will we succeed or fail on our own merits and stop losing for the other SOB’s ideology, to paraphrase George Patton,” he wrote.
Horowitz continued with specific criticism of Republican lawmakers’ handling of Obamacare and tax reform:
It’s not just that they failed to repeal Obamacare; it’s that they have championed every premise of Obamacare as an imperative to society and have made it popular. Meanwhile, they refuse to even utter a word about $2,100 premiums.
It’s not just that they have failed to cut spending, shrink the federal government, and devolve power to the states. They have increased spending by $130 billion.
They talk about “tax reform” and then promote a bill that is so muddled, random, and gratuitous that more people are worried about getting a tax increase.
Horowitz noted that tax reform was the top policy issue in the media in the week leading up to the election.
“And Republicans are actually on the side of tax increases for the first time since George H.W. Bush,” he said. “Democrats are now using our arguments to show how Republicans are raising taxes on middle-income families.”