Psychologically, I think this phenomenon is closely related to why people see the image of the Mona Lisa in a piece of toast, or the shape of a ducky or a horsey in clouds floating across the sky. Since we’re always trying to impose a sense of order on the chaotic universe around us, we seek out patterns to try and make sense of it all. Not only does this offer a sense of comfort, it also gives us a feeling of control: if X happens, then Y is sure to follow.
It’s therefore no surprise that politicians and pundits alike are making all kinds of hay about the results of the Virginia and New Jersey elections yesterday. In all fairness, there’s no other way you can spin it—the Democrats had a great night, and the GOP pretty much sucked wind. Polling had Ed Gillespie running neck-and-neck with Ralph Northam, but in the end Northam blew him out with a comfortable margin. In the Garden State, meanwhile, Phil Murphy utterly trounced Kim Guadagno, who had served as lieutenant governor to the notorious beachcomber Chris Christie. Dems also racked up huge numbers in the Virginia legislature, erasing the Republican majority there in one fell swoop. Naturally, this has all the talking heads asking what it all means for 2018, when control of Congress will be up for grabs in the first midterm election since Donald Trump won the presidency.
For what it’s worth, I summed it up in a single tweet:
As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Give them credit, they were able to gin up and harness a mother lode of angst against Donald Trump, and then use it to drive voter turnout. The enthusiasm gap between them and the GOP was indeed palpable, and as any seasoned politico will tell you, that’s where the battle is won and lost. The Democrat rank and file saw themselves on a mission to save the country from Trumpzilla, whereas Republican voters largely yawned. If they can keep the momentum they started going, the GOP just might have some big trouble ahead next year.
But let’s also look at the landscape. New Jersey was a lost cause from the start, after Chris Christie throughly destroyed the GOP brand there. The man who once thought he could be president rendered himself so toxic that he now couldn’t even get a Reform Party nod to run as dog catcher in Trenton. Anyone connected to him was a long shot to begin with, especially in a state where Democrats enjoy a 2-1 advantage over Republicans. Guadagno’s loss there was a foregone conclusion, so it doesn’t signify much of anything.
As to Virginia, the political terrain there was also tough for Gillespie. He had already lost a Senate bid there before, and political comebacks are tough no matter how you slice them. There are also a great number of people in Northern Virginia who make their living off the federal government—which doesn’t exactly make them friendly to Republicans. Add to that the tens of thousands of felons that outgoing governor and Terry McAuliffe put back on the voter rolls, and what you have is a basically blue state getting even bluer. That trend started before Trump entered the picture—although having him as president has probably accelerated the change.
In other words, what happened in Virginia does mean something. But it doesn’t mean everything, in spite of what the Democrats would have you believe.
There isn’t much positive to say about the GOP here. While it’s true that Donald Trump has been a polarizing figure, he’s not the only one responsible for the drubbing that happened on Tuesday night. The GOP itself has sunk to levels of disapproval that would make Kevin Spacey wince—except they can’t make a dash into rehab to pretend that they’re working on their problems.
How did this happen? Simple. Voters gave them the House, then the Senate, and then the White House in the hopes that the GOP would actually fulfill its promises it had been making for seven years to roll back the Obama agenda. Instead, they got plenty of nuthin’ as the GOP Senate failed to deliver. Balking on Obamacare was the last straw, which led voters to ask why they should bother giving Republicans a majority when they refused to do anything with it.
On the other hand, at least the GOP now has a clear message from its base: get to work or be out of a job. There’s still a full year before the 2018 midterms—lots of time to develop a clear agenda and then push it through. Tax reform is already in the works, so they can start there. Then they can actually show that they’re serious about meaningful immigration reform with national e-Verify and funding the border wall. Get some of the Big Ticket items under their belts and demonstrate that Republicans are ready to seize the opportunity that the voters have given them and effect some real change.
Otherwise, jilted voters will treat them like jilted lovers always do—and it will get ugly.