On Tuesday night, a socialist beat an incumbent GOP delegate for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates, while Democrats swept the statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. The Democrats also recaptured the governorship in New Jersey following Chris Christie’s retirement due to term limits. In the final months of 2017, Donald Trump’s Republican Party has lost the plot.
It’s one thing for Trump’s party to lose an election cycle. It’s quite another feat to become the party that loses elections, a mantle that Donald Trump may well ensure that the Republican Party inherits from the Democrats after a handful of high-profile GOP defeats Tuesday night.
Since losing America to the dastardly Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the Democrats have suffered a bad rap. In perpetual defeat and humiliation, they became a political party that negotiated with itself, swirling frightfully toward a terminal centrism that undermined its civil rights principles with a practical fear of alienating white voters. This crisis of priorities turned Democratic governance into quicksand. Bill Clinton became president, but then the Democrats lost Congress. Barack Obama became president, and then, right on cue, the Democrats lost Congress again. Of course, the Republicans, too, have suffered an electoral setback or two in the past half century, but they have, on the whole, become more powerful than they've been at previous points in their 163-year history. The Democrats, a 189-year-old party, haven't aged so gracefully. After losing the 2016 presidential election to Trump, the Democrats have spent the past year worrying that they’ve locked themselves out of power at virtually every level of American governance.So perhaps you’ll understand why the Democrats are so ecstatic after Tuesday night, having just won a couple of gubernatorial races, in Virginia and New Jersey, plus a smattering of state legislative seats in Georgia, Michigan, and New Hampshire. In the grand scheme of the GOP's dominance, these are modest gains for the Democrats, but they are crucial encouragements for the party’s renewed, long-term focus on statewide leadership and anti-gerrymandering efforts, which GOP leaders and strategists notoriously prioritized, at the Democratic Party’s great expense, throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. The gains that these strategies afforded the GOP laid the groundwork for Trumpism’s political dominance, but Trump himself has proved to be a demoralizing leader and a weak campaigner whose unprecedented unpopularity as president has poisoned the GOP brand. Virginia’s governor-elect, Ralph Northam, didn’t just win a competitive, high-profile race; he effectively concluded his state’s long turn from GOP dominance to Democratic preference. Northam’s victory suggests that the GOP brand is in decline.
So the Democrats are poised to end 2017 on a modestly optimistic note. Their hyperactive fears that Northam would blow the Virginia race despite maintaining a steady lead over his Republican opponent, the former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, in the final weeks of the campaign proved unfounded. For once, the Democratic Party’s characteristic “electability” anxieties didn’t end in self-sabotage and failure. December will bring a special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama that the GOP nominee, Roy Moore, is favored to win. But so long as Trump’s governing coalition falters as badly as it has for the past year, 2018 favors the Democrats, who have adapted slowly but surely to their vast political disadvantages. (Earlier this year, the Democrats bet on a young and telegenic novice candidate, Jon Ossoff, to beat Georgia’s former secretary of state, Karen Handel, in a special election for a U.S. House seat. In June, Ossoff lost, having succumbed to GOP concern trolling about coastal, out-of-state support for his glitzy, high-dollar campaign.)
The Democrats who won state races Tuesday night were scrappy and low-profile in comparison. In Virginia, a Democratic challenger, Danica Roem, defeated an incumbent GOP delegate, Bob Marshall, to become the first openly transgender representative in a U.S. statehouse. Winning a state delegate race isn’t as immediately empowering as recapturing a U.S. House seat, but local victories such as Roem’s will prove crucial to building a new, competitive, national Democratic majority from the ground up. The GOP lost Tuesday night. Under Trump, losing may just be what they do.