Winning the odd-year elections is far short of winning midterms or presidential years, but chalk one up for the Democrats: They couldn’t have done much better Tuesday.
They added a governor in New Jersey and protected an open seat in Virginia. They gained far more seats in the lower chamber of the Virginia Legislature than anyone expected, giving them either a tie in that body or a slim majority. They appear to have won an open state Senate seat in Washington state, giving them a majority in that chamber. They picked up three more legislative seats in New Jersey to add to their large majorities there, and added three state legislative seats in Georgia special elections and one in a New Hampshire special. Democrats swept several mayoral races, won the biggest ballot measure of the night and expanded Medicaid in Maine. And while I don’t have comprehensive results on down-ballot races, there do seem to have been Democratic gains all over the place in local government.
Republicans did hold the only U.S. House seat contested Tuesday, which was in Utah. But other than that, it was a wipeout.
That said, it’s very easy to read too much into these results. Virginia is now a fairly solid Democratic state, and New Jersey is an extremely Democratic state. So winning those two is something Democrats are supposed to do. And as for the rest: Remember that Republicans had reached a historic high-water mark almost everywhere, so it’s no surprise Democrats will find some easy seats to win back, some of which won’t look as easy as they are based on previous returns from years in which Republicans overperformed.
It’s also the case that the in-party usually does poorly in midterms and off-year elections, even when the president is fairly popular.
But of course President Donald Trump is not fairly popular; he’s the most unpopular president at this stage of his presidency in the polling era, and if we restrict it to elected presidents (excluding Gerald Ford) he’s the most unpopular by a wide margin.
Even though some of the specifics of Tuesday’s elections were surprises, the overall result wasn’t. Everything we’ve seen over the last nine months indicated that Democratic energy is high; they are recruiting tons of candidates; and Trump is dragging down candidates all over, with Democrats picking up several state legislative seats and beating their previous margins (on average) in all U.S. House and state legislative specials. You’re going to see a ton of analysis about it, but it’s really very simple: This is what happens when a president is unpopular.
So what can Republicans do? Absent a time machine back to spring 2016 to get themselves a different presidential candidate, they’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place. Stick with Trump, and they energize Democrats and push away potential voters who already reject him. Dump on Trump, and they’ll drive down his approval ratings even more, further energizing Democrats and demoralizing the Republican party faithful.
The problems don’t stop there. Republicans don’t have a backlog of popular policy measures they could pass and implement. And they can’t really back off their unpopular tax plan, given that it’s a high priority for many Republican party elites and donors and also the lone promise remaining that the Republican Congress might be able to pass. About all they can do is plug away at policies (including, presumably, the tax bill) that they believe will deliver good economic results, and hope that’s enough to stabilize support for the party or even improve it a bit. I suppose they can hope that Trump learns how to behave himself in a way that doesn’t alienate over half the nation, but that seems even less likely.
Meanwhile, while the results don’t particularly predict anything other than what we already knew, they will have some electoral effects. The more everyone in both parties believes that 2018 will be a good year for the Democrats, the more resources will pour into their campaigns and away from Republican efforts. The biggest one is candidates. Two U.S. House Republicans announced retirements even before the polls closed Tuesday, one in a fairly solid seat but one in a seat that will be quite vulnerable. If there are more members of Congress or other Republican incumbents in state and local government who are on the fence between running or not, these election results might be enough to convince them not to run.
Even that, however, probably has a fairly small half-life, as the news from these elections fade and the next special election or major event takes their place.
So all in all: A great day for Democrats, one that will have plenty of important policy implications in the affected states and across the nation. But while it does confirm the trouble Republicans are in, it’s also easy to overhype results which will be mostly forgotten long before voters go to the polls next November. Republicans could still rebound, in theory; it’s just not clear that Trump has the capacity to do what he’d have to to help himself and the party.
— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.