Sabato's Crystal Ball

Alabama Senate: Jones Now Narrowly Favored

The consequences of the awful allegations against Roy Moore; plus, stirrings of an upset in Tennessee?

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 16th, 2017


Editor’s note: The Crystal Ball will not be publishing next week. We wish our readers a Happy Thanksgiving.

It’s amazing to write, and there’s time for our outlook to change, but here goes: A Democrat is now a narrow favorite to win a Senate special election in Alabama. We’re changing our rating of the Dec. 12 special election from Likely Republican all the way to Leans Democratic.

Republicans already were deeply worried about former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s (R) Senate candidacy even before he defeated appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) in a runoff. Still, even a below-average GOP Senate candidate should still be able to hold Alabama, one of the hardest states for a Democrat to win statewide in the Union: By percentage, the Yellowhammer State was President Donald Trump’s sixth-best state in the 2016 presidential election, and it hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 (and that Democrat, Sen. Richard Shelby, switched parties in 1994 to become a Republican).

And yet, Moore’s candidacy has gone from troubled to radioactive as he has been rocked by very credible allegations of sexual improprieties with teenage girls several decades ago. The story is even more damaging to Moore because of some of the made-for-TV visuals that have accompanied the alleged victims’ stories, most notably Moore’s signature in a high school yearbook belonging to one of his accusers. As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in retracting his endorsement of Moore, “grown men don’t typically sign high school girls’ yearbooks.”

Meanwhile, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones (D) has run a competent campaign and has begun to use the latest developments to try to boost his standing among Republicans who might reconsider supporting Moore in the Dec. 12 special election. Polls, already close before the really bad stories about Moore began appearing about a week ago, seem to have tightened further, with Jones even leading in some. For instance, Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reported on Wednesday that the National Republican Senatorial Committee — no friend of Moore’s even before the sexual misconduct stories broke, to be sure — has Moore down 51%-39% to Jones in its polling. However, we’re not sure how useful polls will be in this race: Anticipating turnout in a special election like this is very hard. What we do know is 1.) Last week’s elections and special elections conducted throughout the year have shown high levels of Democratic enthusiasm in both liberal and conservative jurisdictions; 2.) Jones is likely to have a big resource advantage in this race — he’s already outspent Moore 11-to-one on TV ads, according to Advertising Analytics — with national Republicans staying away from Moore; and 3.) Moore may have trouble preventing poor Republican turnout given his horribly damaged candidacy.

National Republicans, who have no use for Moore anyway and dread having him as part of their Senate caucus because of his extreme conservatism and go-it-alone attitude, have been issuing extraordinary statements about Moore, necessitated by the extraordinarily damaged Moore candidacy. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the NRSC chairman and thus the man most responsible for preserving the GOP’s slim majority next year, said that if Moore is elected, the Senate should move to expel him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said “I believe the women” on Monday when asked about Moore and his accusers, using a phrase that has become associated with the flood of women (and some men) who have come forward across many different industries in the wake of the fall of film executive Harvey Weinstein with very believable accusations of abhorrent sexual behavior by powerful men. Moore’s position seems to be eroding by the moment. As of this writing (Wednesday afternoon), even seemingly ironclad Moore allies like Sean Hannity of Fox News and Trump ally Steve Bannon of Breitbart were having second thoughts about backing him. It’s worth nothing that none of the aforementioned figures is an Alabama voter.

Republicans are considering various stunts to shake off Moore. One hypothetical option would be for Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to cancel or shift the timing of the special election in some way so as to replace Moore on the ballot or to have a brand new election. We’re not lawyers, so who knows if that would be possible, but some conservatives have thrown around the idea.  However, using a procedural trick to get rid of Moore doesn’t really seem like fair play, although we also can understand the impulse to resort to extraordinary means to block his potential election. Moreover, halting an election because of an increased likelihood that your party could lose a Senate seat seems akin to being in a banana republic. At present, Ivey has no plans to move the election. It’s also possible that state Republicans could effectively revoke Moore’s nomination, but even then he would remain on the ballot; if he won, it’s unclear whether the election would be null and void or whether, potentially, the second-place finisher (almost certainly Jones) would be the winner.

Another option is for the GOP to run a write-in campaign. The GOP wants Moore to leave the race, but even if he did (and there’s little indication he will), his name would remain on the ballot, and votes cast for him would not go to the write-in candidate (potentially Strange, though McConnell has also mentioned beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose appointment to Trump’s Cabinet precipitated this special election). That is a possible avenue to victory for the Republicans, but the logistics are daunting. Yes, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) saved her career through a write-in bid after losing a 2010 primary. However, as our friend Michael Carey, a veteran Alaska reporter and observer, reminded us, the circumstances in Alabama are a lot different. For one thing, Murkowski announced her write-in bid 46 days before the November 2010 general election and her campaign apparatus from the primary was still intact when she launched, while the GOP Moore alternative would have less than a month and presumably would have to build a campaign from scratch or hastily reassemble Strange’s political team. Alaska also has less than one-sixth the population of Alabama, so it would be harder to get the word out about a write-in candidacy in the latter than it was in the former.

In other words, the GOP doesn’t seem to have many real options to supplant Moore — even if he drops out, his name would remain on the ballot and prove a hindrance to a write-in option.

Despite all of this, Moore could still win — to us, Jones is only a small favorite at this point, and there’s still a month to go in the race. Alabama after all is a very Republican state — President Trump won it by 28 percentage points last year — and many Alabamians will vote for any Republican over any Democrat. It is also worth noting that President Trump won last year despite the Access Hollywood tape and sexual assault allegations, but assuming that other politicians are blessed with the same Teflon as the president may not be the right way of approaching this. As noted earlier, Moore was already a weak candidate who only won by four points in his last election, a state Supreme Court race in 2012, and he has been kicked off the court twice for ignoring the law in favor of his own extreme social conservatism.

This race is beginning to remind us of the 2012 Missouri Senate race. That year, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) should have been an underdog in a red-trending state that Mitt Romney would win by nine points, but her preferred opponent, Rep. Todd Akin (R, MO-2) won the primary, and he almost immediately made an infamous gaffe: Answering an interview question about abortion, Akin said that the body of a woman who had suffered “a legitimate rape” had “ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” referring to a pregnancy. National Republicans recoiled in horror and asked him to leave the race, but Akin stood firm, and he completed the race as a political orphan. Despite some buzz that he might be closing the gap down the stretch, McCaskill outperformed the polls and won by about 16 points.

Alabama is a more Republican state than Missouri, but we can imagine Moore suffering a similar weak finish if he remains in the race. And while Akin’s comments were ridiculous and uninformed, the credible allegations against Moore are of course way worse than Akin’s words.

Perhaps Republicans find a way to maneuver out of this pickle, or Alabama voters are more disgusted by the idea of voting for a Democrat than they are of voting for a man facing multiple allegations of sexual assault against minors. But Moore’s implosion is so bad that we have to install Jones as a small favorite. If Jones were to win in a state Trump won by 28 points, it would be nearly the mirror opposite of Scott Brown’s (R) Obamacare-aided victory in a Massachusetts Senate special election in January 2010. Barack Obama had won the Bay State by 26 points in 2008.

A Republican loss in Alabama could open the door to a Democratic Senate next year. It would cut the GOP edge to 51-49, and Jones would not have to face the voters again until 2020.

We’ve noted throughout this cycle so far that the chances of a Democratic takeover in the Senate were almost beyond remote, for the simple fact that the map is so terrible for Democrats next year. They are defending 25 of the 33 seats being contested, including 10 in states that Donald Trump carried. Republicans are defending just eight, and only one in a Clinton state (Nevada), although Arizona, now an open seat, is a top Democratic pickup opportunity too. Still, even if Democrats held all their seats — and it is hard for the presidential party to beat a Senate incumbent from the other party in a midterm, although several Democratic incumbents, like McCaskill, should have very hard races — and won Arizona and Nevada, that would still get them to only a tied, 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking ties and keeping Republicans technically in the majority.

Well, a Jones victory in Alabama would turn that 50-50 to 51-49 Democratic, assuming a clean sweep for Democrats in all the states they currently hold and victories in Arizona and Nevada. We would not say such an outcome is likely, but an Alabama upset would at least open the door to the possibility of a Democratic Senate majority.

The potential for a Jones upset in blood red Alabama has us thinking about our ratings in the other six red state Republican Senate seats up for regular election next year (in other words, the ones besides Arizona and Nevada). We already have Texas, where Cruz is seeking a second term, as Likely Republican, a nod to Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D, TX-16) candidacy and the Lone Star State’s weakening but still- strong GOP affiliation (Trump won the state by a relatively modest nine points last year). We don’t see much potential for a Democratic upset in four of the other states, Mississippi, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming. But keep an eye on Tennessee, now an open seat thanks to two-term Sen. Bob Corker’s (R) retirement.

Alabama and Tennessee are somewhat similar, and we wrote back in September that we would use Jones’ performance in December as a way of gauging Democratic potential in the Volunteer State. It remains unclear what will happen in Alabama, but it seems reasonable to think that Jones will at the very least finish within 10 points of Moore. But perhaps more interesting than that is some Democratic bullishness on the prospects that popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who served from 2003-2011, could enter the race. Bredesen, a veteran politician who hasn’t been on the ballot in a while, might end up being a poor fit for the moment, like Democratic Senate candidates Evan Bayh (IN), Ted Strickland (OH), and Russ Feingold (WI) were last cycle, but at the very least, Bredesen would provide the party with a credible candidate. We’re moving the open Tennessee Senate seat from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, both as a nod to the potential Bredesen candidacy and also because in a poor national environment for Republicans, there is a small chance of an upset in an open seat.

The news is not all bad for Republicans. Since we’re moving Tennessee in part because of a potential candidacy, it’s only fair to move another race in anticipation of a likelier candidacy. According to Politico’s Florida Playbook, it appears that Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) is “increasingly likely” to run for Senate against veteran Sen. Bill Nelson (D). We’ve heard from several Democrats over the course of the last few months who are very concerned with the amount of money it will take to defend Nelson against Scott, who is so wealthy that he basically can spend as much as he wants in one of the nation’s most expensive media states. While Scott barely won in 2010 and 2014 — two good Republican years — his approval seems decent and he earned plaudits for his handling of Hurricane Irma: Positive natural disaster response can be a boon in an ensuing campaign.

Nelson is a proven campaigner, and the environment will likely be in his favor. But Scott, assuming he follows through on his telegraphed campaign, is a very formidable challenger, so we’re moving Florida from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. Florida is a must-hold for Democrats if they have any hope of winning back the Senate, even if they pull off the Alabama upset.

Meanwhile, we’ll surely have more to say about Alabama before Election Day. We’ll talk to you again after Thanksgiving.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Watch the 2017 American Democracy Conference

The Center for Politics’ 19th annual confab looks ahead to 2018 and 2020 while looking back on Trump’s first year

UVA Center for Politics November 15th, 2017


On Nov. 16, the University of Virginia Center for Politics hosts the 19th annual American Democracy Conference in Charlottesville, VA. The conference features leading journalists and political experts discussing the upcoming 2018 midterm election cycle, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and early thoughts on the 2020 presidential election.

The conference is taking place in Alumni Hall on the Grounds of the University of Virginia — 211 Emmet Street South in Charlottesville. Doors open at 8:30 a.m. and the event begins at 9:00 a.m. The conference is free and open to the public with advance registration, and the press is invited to attend.

The conference is being livestreamed online at the following link:

For more information on the conference, its panels, and its panelists, please visit

Democratic Domination in the Old Dominion

Danger signs abound for the GOP, with a few caveats

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 9th, 2017


Editor’s note: This piece is based on unofficial 2017 election returns.

Tuesday represented the best non-presidential election night Democrats have had since 2006. They swept the statewide ticket in Virginia for the second election in a row, and they picked up the New Jersey governorship. They also won a crucial, majority-making state Senate election in Washington state, so they won complete control of state government in two states (New Jersey and Washington).

Ever since the June primary, we thought Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) had a small edge in the Virginia gubernatorial race, which is why we rated it as Leans Democratic for the whole general election period even as Northam hit some seeming rough patches. But the size of his victory — nine points — was notable, and his ticket-mates, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) and Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax (D), won by smaller but still decisive margins.

But the big shock to us, and to anyone who is honest about their pre-election expectations, was the Democrats winning what could be a 50-50 tie in the Virginia House of Delegates. Democrats went into the election at a 66-34 deficit in the House, and while they were expected to win seats, the low double digits seemed like the absolute max. Instead they are on track to net 15 or more seats, with a chance of getting to a 50-50 split or even taking a slim majority (the canvass is ongoing and recounts loom in a few seats).

Democrats generally performed quite well across the country — it’s hard to find any silver linings for Republicans, although we’ll endeavor to do so (see the caveats section below).

There’s a single factor that links all of this: Donald Trump. This was a rebuke to the president and Trumpism generally.

Virginia polls were once again collectively off in this election — Northam was up by about three points in the RealClearPolitics average, and he won by nine — but this time instead of the Republican candidate outrunning his polling, as Republican Ken Cuccinelli did in 2013’s gubernatorial race and 2017 GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie did in Virginia’s 2014 Senate race, the Democrat, Northam, beat his numbers instead. In fact, the poll average basically nailed Gillespie’s 45% share of the vote, but underestimated Northam’s share by half a dozen points. Undecideds may still be breaking away from the White House, it’s just that now they are breaking toward Democrats, not Republicans. In the exit poll, Northam won voters who said they decided in the last week, about a fifth of the electorate, by 24 points; he had a more modest lead of seven points among the larger universe of earlier deciders. And this was at a point when many thought he was kicking the race away (more on that below, too).

The political dynamics we got used to during Barack Obama’s presidency — polls underestimating Republicans, Democrats getting crushed in off-year elections — showed signs of a reversal on Tuesday. That all makes sense given what we know about off-year elections: The White House party often suffers, particularly when the Oval Office occupant is unpopular, as Trump is. Anger is a great political motivator, and anger animates the Democrats now, just like it agitated Republicans to action in the Obama years. That the Republican-run White House and Congress has largely failed on its big-picture promises so far surely isn’t helping the GOP overcome that intensity gap. And this was an intensity surge for Democrats more than it was a falloff for Republicans: while it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison because there was a bigger third party vote in 2013, Gillespie got about 160,000 more votes than Cuccinelli did four years ago. But Northam got 335,000 more votes than outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

Last week, we asked five questions about what the results would tell us. Answering these questions will help us flesh out the story of what happened last night:

1. Will Ed Gillespie buck the typical anti-White House party pattern in Virginia?

No, he couldn’t. Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie continued a trend in the modern era of two-party competition in Virginia state politics (starting in 1969) of the presidential party’s gubernatorial candidate running behind his party’s two-party presidential margin. Trump won 47.2% of the two-party vote in Virginia, and Gillespie won only 45.5%. The Old Dominion’s gubernatorial race is always one of the first big statewide races held after a presidential election, and it can be a nationalized race that serves as a referendum on the man on the other side of the Potomac. Clearly 2017 was that kind of election.

2. Will Phil Murphy outrun Hillary Clinton?

Not quite. Clinton won New Jersey by 14 points, and it appears as though Gov.-elect Phil Murphy (D) will come up just slightly short of that margin (which as of this writing is a little over 13). That’s still a solid victory, although it did not represent the kind of surge we saw in Virginia. Part of that may be the fact that the New Jersey race was much sleepier than Virginia’s contest: Murphy always led polls over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) by double digits, and voters responded by turning out in about the same numbers (around 2.1 million votes as of publishing) as the uncompetitive 2013 contest in the Garden State. Whereas the total votes in the 2017 Virginia race fell by only a third from the 2016 presidential tally, the total votes in New Jersey shrank by almost half.

Unrelated to Murphy’s win, there was another big political development in the Garden State on Tuesday: Long-serving Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ-2) announced he would not run for another term. LoBiondo held down this swing seat with ease for more than two decades, but it should be much more competitive as an open seat: We immediately moved the race all the way from Safe Republican to Toss-up. However, Trump won this seat by about 4.5 points, a big improvement on a comfortable eight-point win for Obama there in 2012. Will such districts swing back to Democrats? There is some evidence that they could based on legislative election results from races this year, although the Virginia House of Delegates sweep came in bluer ground. Speaking of…

3. How will state legislative performance compare to last year’s presidential results?

The Democratic gains in the Virginia House of Delegates were nothing short of extraordinary. Even the most bullish Democrats would have been thrilled with a low double-digit gain. As of this writing, a 51-49 GOP edge or a 50-50 split seem like the likeliest outcomes (if it is 50-50, the two parties will have to come up with a power-sharing agreement. The state Senate, where all 40 seats are up in 2019, features a slim 21-19 GOP majority).

However, this was also a gain that was almost entirely predicated on winning seats Hillary Clinton carried last year. Republicans went into the election holding 17 House seats that Clinton had carried, and it looks like they will lose at least 14 of them (additionally, a Republican incumbent holds a 12-vote lead in Clinton-won HD-94, so expect a recount there). The Virginia situation was unusual because Republicans drew themselves this map at the start of the decade not thinking that some of these seats that lean blue in presidential elections could be competitive with lower off-year turnout. Six years after these maps were first used in state legislative elections, it seems they were mistaken; if the GOP had been a little less selfish in redistricting several years ago and had drawn a few extra safe Democratic seats, they might not have been so overextended in this election.

We also have been keeping tabs on special legislative election results across the country to see if a recent pattern of Democratic overperformance in such races would persist. There were 18 such races featuring two-party competition at the state level, and also a special congressional election in UT-3, where Rep.-elect John Curtis (R) won easily. Still, Democrats flipped party control in three of the 18 state legislative specials (Republicans didn’t flip any), and they ran ahead of Hillary Clinton’s presidential margin in nine of the 19 based on the most recent results (that is, the 18 state legislative specials and the UT-3 House special). That last point is a big caveat — five of the 19 specials were in Washington state, where there is vote by mail and results take a long time to finalize. The Democrats are running behind Clinton’s margin in all five districts, including the aforementioned 45th District Senate race they carried to win total control of Washington state government, but the margins may change. As it stands now, Tuesday’s special election results slightly eroded the Democrats’ average gain on Clinton’s margin in the specials featuring two-party competition so far — the average gain is about nine points, and the median is about 10 (the numbers are about the same in the two-party vote). And also keep in mind that four of the five Washington state races featured appointed incumbents, so they were not exactly open seats like the other races.

In Georgia, Democrats also picked up an additional two races not listed here because they won them in the first round, all-party primary. A Democrat carried HD-119 w/ 57% of the vote, thus avoiding a runoff, and in SD-6, two Democrats advanced to the runoff thanks in large part to a larger field of GOP opponents.

In the regular elections in New Jersey (where all 40 state Senate and 80 General Assembly seats were up for election) and in Virginia (where all 100 House of Delegates races were up), Democrats made only modest gains on Clinton’s performance on average in New Jersey and actually ran slightly behind in Virginia.

In New Jersey, 37 of 40 state Senate seats featured two-party competition, and nearly every seat featured an incumbent (so these are different than most of the special elections). On average, the Democratic margin was 3.5 points better than Clinton’s margin (with a median of 3.8 points), and they ran ahead of Clinton’s two-party margin in 25 of the 37 seats. So there was a small pro-Democratic shift in New Jersey, but not on par with the specials in other states. (We’re leaving the analysis of the New Jersey General Assembly performance for another day — two members are elected from each district there).

In Virginia, 60 of the 100 House of Delegates races had both a Democrat and a Republican, and 54 of those contests featured an incumbent. On average, the Democratic margin in those races was actually 1.1 points worse than Clinton’s two-party margin, and Democrats ran behind Clinton in 37 of the 60 races. And Democrats ran behind Clinton in 11 of the 15 seats that they appear set to win, with some races still uncertain. Many districts were fairly Democratic-leaning, though, because Democrats still managed to win that many seats while running behind Clinton.

However, the Democratic down-ballot performance in New Jersey and Virginia was predictably a lot better than it was in 2013, when their candidates ran well behind Obama’s 2012 showing in both states on average (Sean Trende wrote about this in 2013 for RealClearPolitics).

4. How much variation will there be in the Virginia’s three statewide races?

This was, for the most part, a straight-ticket kind of election, Northam did the best, winning by about nine points, but Herring (6.7 points) and Fairfax (5.4) were not that far behind. Calculating based on the two-party vote, the standard deviation of the Democratic ticket was just 0.8 percentage points in performance, the lowest standard deviation for any race going back to 1969, as displayed in Table 1. That is, there was very little variation in the performance of both parties’ tickets on Nov. 7, relatively unsurprising given the high rates of straight-ticket voting in our highly polarized political environment.

Table 1: Two-party election results for Virginia’s three statewide offices and variation in performance, 1969-2017

Notes: ^Indicates that while there was technically no Democratic nominee for governor in 1973, then-Lt. Gov. Henry Howell (I) had previously been a Democratic state senator and the Democratic State Central Committee “commended” Howell to the voters in his election against former Gov. Mills Godwin (R), a former Democrat. 2017 results are unofficial.

Source: Virginia Department of Elections

The one marginal surprise was that it was Northam, not the incumbent Herring, who led the ticket. Regardless, all three statewide Democrats turned in strong performances. Presumably, Herring is next in line to run for governor in four years, and he did defer to Northam this time by opting to run for reelection (Virginia, alone among the states, does not allow governors to seek reelection). However, just because Herring may be next up, another candidate could decide to crash the party, as former Rep. Tom Perriello (D) attempted to do in the Democratic primary against Northam and Cuccinelli successfully pulled off against then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) for the 2013 GOP nomination (Bolling had deferred to then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell in 2009 and then got pushed out of the race by Cuccinelli in 2013). Moreover, as the Cuccinelli and Bolling example shows, a potential future intraparty clash between Herring and Fairfax for the top job also can’t be written off.

5. What are some Virginia trends to watch out for on Election Night?

We speculated last week about what changes we could see from previous elections. Here’s what happened, comparing the two-party vote margin in 2017 to both the last gubernatorial race, in 2013, and last year’s presidential race.

Map 1: Change in two-party vote margin by Virginia locality, 2017 gubernatorial election compared to the 2016 presidential election

Source: Virginia Department of Elections. 2017 results are unofficial.

Map 1 shows the change in two-party vote margin from 2016 to 2017. Interestingly, Northam actually performed slightly worse than Clinton in much of Northern Virginia and in the city of Richmond by that measure (though he did do better than Clinton in raw percentage in those places — there was a larger third-party vote in 2016). It is worth noting that while Northam’s two-party margin wasn’t quite at Clinton’s level in places like Fairfax County (Clinton won it by 38.5 points, Northam by 36.7), Northam actually outperformed Clinton’s two-party margin in the Urban Crescent — the three major metro areas of Northern Virginia, Greater Richmond, and Hampton Roads. Meanwhile, Gillespie wasn’t able to win many parts of rural Virginia by quite as much as Trump in the two-party vote, as indicated by the blue shading in much of the western part of the state. Northam also improved on Clinton in Hampton Roads, his home base in the southeastern part of the state.

While Map 1 shows some changes, it masks the large shifts that have taken place in just a short time in Virginia. Map 2 shows just how much things changed between the 2013 and 2017 gubernatorial contests.

Map 2: Change in two-party vote margin by Virginia locality, 2017 gubernatorial election compared to the 2013 gubernatorial election

Source: Virginia Department of Elections. 2017 results are unofficial.

Northam won most parts of the Urban Crescent by larger margins in the two-party vote than McAuliffe, in some cases — such as Loudoun County in Northern Virginia (Northam by 20 points, McAuliffe by five) — far larger ones. In the meantime, parts of Southwest Virginia and Southside shifted more toward the GOP.

A couple of caveats

The silver lining for Republicans in Tuesday night’s results is that Gillespie actually improved on his own showing in his 2014 Senate challenge to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Cuccinelli’s 2013 performance in western Virginia, a red-trending area (as noted above). Gillespie didn’t quite match Trump there, though, but remember that Democrats have to defend a lot of turf in dark red areas, such as Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D) Senate seat in West Virginia, the only state that is classified 100% Appalachian by the federal government and a state Trump won by 42 points. Manchin will have incumbency in his favor, but it is possible that he and other red state Senate Democrats could fall to Republicans even in a great Democratic national environment because of the way that places like Appalachia are changing. Many parts of the United States look like Appalachian western Virginia — rural, white, blue collar, and supportive of Trump.

Virginia Democrats were able to make huge gains in the state House of Delegates by effectively winning only Clinton-won seats (they only won a single Trump-won seat, and it was a marginal one at that). Democrats cannot get to a House of Representatives majority exclusively through Clinton-won seats. They need to net 24 seats next year to win the House, and there are only 23 Republicans in Clinton-won seats. It’s also impractical to think Democrats could flip all 23 of these seats: Many of them are held by skilled incumbents. So Democrats will need to win some Trump-won territory to capture the House — the median U.S. House seat, the 218th most Democrats and Republican seat by presidential performance, is Rep. Scott Taylor’s (D, VA-2) Hampton Roads-based district, which Trump won by 3.4 points, which makes it more than five points more Democratic than the nation (because Clinton won the national popular vote by about 2.1 points). This is a long way of saying that the national House playing field is more Republican-leaning, at least on paper, than the Virginia House of Delegates slate was. So, as we usually advise, don’t overinterpret and overproject these results, impressive though they are for the Democrats.


While the Democratic wave in the Old Dominion and elsewhere was bigger than we and many others expected, there’s a key point to remember: The results made sense, historically. As we’ve been noting throughout the year, a party traditionally pays a price in off-year elections for holding the White House. That’s a trend we’ve seen throughout history, and vividly so in the three most recent midterms: 2006, 2010, and 2014. That effect is exacerbated by an unpopular president, and Donald Trump’s approval rating is under 40%.

In other words, the old laws of politics seem to still apply — even, or perhaps especially, in a world with Donald Trump as president.

The midterm is a year away, and we wouldn’t make any predictions so far in advance. But if Trump’s approval remains poor, and Democrats maintain a lead on the House generic ballot in the high single digits or more, as many polls now indicate, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is in serious jeopardy, and Democrats should also be able to pick up several governorships and many state legislative seats. Only the lopsided Democratic disadvantage on next year’s Senate map could prevent Democrats from gaining ground in the upper chamber as well.

So the Republicans have a lot of work to do to prevent Election Night 2018 from looking a lot like Election Night 2017.

One final thought, on the campaign by the Commonwealth’s new governor-elect, Ralph Northam and his opponent, Ed Gillespie.

On one hand, Northam’s chances of victory looked shaky before both the primary and the general election, and yet he clearly outperformed the polls in both races and ended up turning in dominant performances. That is a tribute to him and his team.

However: We have been hearing complaints for months from Democrats about Northam’s campaign, and we do think he allowed Gillespie to dictate the terms of the race down the stretch. Gillespie’s campaign was more aggressive, and Northam did make mistakes: For instance, he got totally spun around by the question of sanctuary cities last week and throughout the campaign. Gillespie clearly wanted to make this race about social issues like Confederate statues, illegal immigration, and felon voting rights. Now, it’s possible that Gillespie went overboard on these attacks and that he generated blowback in the urban areas and suburbs that powered Northam. Indeed, the pollster Latino Decisions argued exactly that on Wednesday: “Voters were very aware that the campaign had become heavily racialized and this moved them away from Gillespie and towards Northam,” according to the group’s Matt Barreto.

Whatever their ultimate effect, Gillespie’s preferred issues — racially-charged ones, to be sure — did dominate the final weeks of the race, and Democrats were worried sick that Northam would lose. Trust us: They had no idea his win would be by so much and that the party would make such huge gains in the Virginia House of Delegates.

So: Is it possible Gillespie did in fact run the tighter campaign, but that it didn’t matter because Democrats are so much more energized in the Time of Trump than Republicans are?

This is an impossible thing to prove, and the question of who ran the more effective campaign is an inherently subjective one. Given how Gillespie finished, one could just as easily say he ran a bad campaign. After all, the results are what they are: Northam and the Democrats romped.

But if you’re a Republican, isn’t it disconcerting to consider that Gillespie may have run the more skillful race and been the more skillful candidate — and still was beaten decisively?

There are only so many things a candidate can control in a bad environment, as Democrats learned over and over in the Obama years. Now Virginia Republicans know what it feels like — and Republicans in other places might find out, too.