Although most of the attention was focused on Donald Trump’s stunning Election Night victory, the real story of Republican resurgence has happened at the state level. In November, Democrats lost control of state legislatures in Iowa, Minnesota and Kentucky. The state senate in deep-blue Connecticut was split down the middle. And Republicans ousted Democrat governors in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
All told, during Obama’s tenure in office, Democrats went from holding 31 governors to now holding just 16. They went from having majorities in 62 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers to now having majorities in just 30. During that span, more than 1,100 Democrat elected officials at the federal and state level were bounced out of office, an unparalleled number in history. Taken together, Democrats are weaker at the state level than they’ve been in nearly a century.
In a desperate effort to turn the political tide, Democrats threw enormous amounts of money, countless celebrity endorsements, and gobs of grassroots energy at a handful of special elections. They won precisely none of them. And now comes perhaps the biggest test of all: Their ability to hold onto the Virginia governor’s mansion. Caitlin Huey-Burns writes for RealClearPolitics:
The race to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe appears to favor his party as the Nov. 7 contest nears, with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam leading Republican Ed Gillespie in the polls. McAuliffe’s approval rating is above water and the state has a low unemployment rate of just 3.8 percent. But Democrats expect the race to tighten in battleground Virginia, and they can’t afford to lose one of just 15 governorships they hold — especially in the only Southern state Hillary Clinton carried last year and where Donald Trump remains unpopular.
In many ways it shouldn’t be a test at all. After all, the state supported Barack Obama for president twice, opted for Hillary Clinton over Trump, and has elected governors from the party that lost the presidency in nine of the last 10 elections. But Democrats can’t afford to take chances with this one and are thus are pulling out all the stops in to get Northam over the finish line. President Barack Obama is set to make his first post-presidential campaign appearance on Wednesday and Vice President Joe Biden was sent over the weekend to underscore the stakes.
Just as in Democrats’ loss in the Georgia special election, all of this attention could backfire, demonstrating that despite built-in advantages and intense focus by donors and surrogates, the party’s message isn’t resonating. Neither are their candidates.
Governing magazine reports that Northam “has yet to catch fire among many Democrats,” in no small part because of his ideological inconsistency. On some issues, like the minimum wage, he’s deeply progressive; on others, such as support for a controversial oil pipeline, he’s conservative; and on others, such as taxes, he’s purposefully avoided taking a position.
The resulting ennui among donors and the grassroots activists is leading some to sound the alarm.
“[N]one of the enthusiasm that bubbled around Ossof’s long-shot bid [in Georgia’s special election] is apparent around Northam,” Sam Stein writes for The Daily Beast. “With just a month to go before the vote, Democratic operatives working on the race and those closely following it are more openly panicked that complacency has set in.”
Northam’s campaign also appears to be suffering from a sense of security bordering on smugness. Rather than learn the hard lessons of 2016 or even the easy lessons of his Democratic predecessor Mark Warner, Northam is “leaving the state’s rural residents feeling increasingly written off by a party that used to reach for their votes.”
“I don’t get the sense that the Northam campaign is trying to win in the election by expanding the rural Democrat vote,” political science professor Quentin Kidd told The Washington Times. “I think what they are trying to do is re-create the demographic vote that [Hillary] Clinton got in 2016.”
That strategy doesn’t appear to be working. The latest poll of the race by Monmouth University shows Republican Ed Gillespie now leading by a 48 percent-to-47 percent margin, a six point swing since their last poll in September. And that sets up a real conundrum for Democrats. Right now, a decisive win is expected, and a loss would be seen as yet another catastrophic setback for a party looking for some momentum heading into the midterms. That means Democrats not only have to work hard to win the race, they have to work hard to prove that their win wasn’t a shoo in.