The Tuesday night rout of Republican candidates up and down the ballot has triggered alarm bells in Republican circles that a deteriorating political environment could set in motion a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections.
The most dramatic results unfolded in Virginia, where Democrats swept up victories in the governor’s race and delegate contests across the state, fueled by suburban voters who once favored Republicans. But it wasn’t just Virginia: Democrats won the New Jersey governor’s mansion and in several suburban Philadelphia counties, where they nabbed local offices that have long been controlled by the GOP.
“I had an expectation that it would be tight, I did not expect it to break as dramatically as it did,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican who represents suburban Philadelphia’s Chester County, where Democrats notched unprecedented local wins. “It is largely driven by mainstream Republicans and independents being displeased by the tone and style of the administration, coupled with an historic off-year intensity by Democratic voters who wanted to make a statement. This is their first opportunity to do that.”
For Republicans, who have won all of the marquee special congressional elections of the Donald Trump era to date, Tuesday’s results across the country were a reminder that Democrats are, in fact, capable of translating liberal anti-Trump energy into actual votes. It was evidence of the environmental perils that often await a president’s party in the midterm elections—especially when that president has historically low approval ratings.
“A major statewide race where both candidates are well defined is one thing,” said Republican pollster Robert Blizzard. “State legislative races, where candidates typically aren’t as well known, typically follow environmental trends.”
Following results in places like Virginia and Pennsylvania, those concerns are now particularly acute for moderate suburban areas that weren’t natural territory for Trump to begin with.
“If you’re a GOP incumbent in a heavily suburban, college-educated district, I think you’re worried today, and rightfully so,” said veteran Republican strategist Chris Wilson.
Trump won an Electoral College victory without the support of some of those voters, while others, seeing the race as a binary choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton—who also had high unfavorable ratings—reluctantly backed him. The concern is that, without facing that stark choice again, some of these suburbanites may be inclined to more actively consider Democrats going forward.
“Clinton was such a horrible candidate that distaste for her may have held back the swing of college educated whites towards the Democrats,” Wilson said. “If that’s true, it’s a real problem and one that Republicans must address prior to 2018.”
For members of Congress like Costello—whose competitive district is a top Democratic target—the outcome underscored the urgent need to strengthen individual brands, or risk being overtaken by what looks to be an increasingly rough environment for Republicans.
“If you don’t give your constituents enough opportunities to see you, listen to you, then you run the risk of being caught up in a wave,” said Costello, noting his commitment to doing constituent meetings and holding town halls, as well as to making more appearances on local and cable news—where he is willing to discuss his disagreements with Trump as they arise.
“In a district like mine, No. 1, that’s just what you should be doing, that’s the job. But No. 2, what are Democrats going to do in 2018? They’re going to try to tie every member such as myself to the president, regardless of how much I speak out, no matter what I do,” he continued. “I need to make sure that voters have a good sense of who I am, what I do.”
Certainly, the biggest races on Tuesday unfolded in deep-blue New Jersey and in Virginia, a state that has been trended more and more Democratic. GOP strategists cautioned against reading too much into results in those states, especially in an off-year election cycle, and given that efforts in 2016 to make every race about Trump backfired spectacularly for the Democrats. And there is still time for Republicans to make good on their legislative promises, they say, as GOP lawmakers scramble to land a tax reform deal.
“What we all have to acknowledge and address is that the electorate all over the country is mad at Congress, mad at Washington, D.C., mad at both political parties,” said Rob Simms, the former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The way to address that is to…legislate and govern. If we don’t, then we are setting ourselves up to be held hostage by an extraordinarily volatile environment in which our opponents are extraordinarily energized and engaged.”
David Kochel, a longtime Iowa-based Republican operative, said that the best way for individual Republican members to guard against that kind of environment is to make every effort to carve out identities that aren’t reliant on the rest of the party.
“The biggest lesson for any Republican coming out of last night is to take care of your own message, your own district, your own state,” he said. “The cavalry from Washington isn’t coming.”