It would be a mistake to assign much significance to Democrat Ralph Northam’s victory over Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia gubernatorial race on Tuesday.
For one thing, Northam’s triumph was not so much a repudiation of President Trump as it was a sign-off on business as usual in the Old Dominion. Gillespie, the one-time lobbyist and chair of the Republican National Committee inexplicably chosen to represent the GOP, is an almost painfully anodyne representative of the consultant class, not a populist — much less a sinister racist villain, despite what Northam’s backers tried to suggest in an ad that could have been an outtake from the new season of Stranger Things.
Northam and Gillespie’s respective campaign websites were virtually indistinguishable: “Virginia students, teachers, and families will benefit from innovative solutions — driven by technology — to more efficiently deliver and monitor learning and teaching in the 21st century” vs. the need for “classroom innovation to develop new methods of teaching our kids the skills they need for a 21st century economy.” Both candidates promised a continuation of the bleak suburbanization of the commonwealth that has continued apace under both Terry McAuliffe and Bob McDonnell. Northam talked a little bit more about why abortion was fine, while Gillespie made some vaguely anti-crime noises. Both men eventually joined President Trump in tripling down on their hypothetical opposition to so-called “sanctuary cities” in Virginia. They were essentially the same candidate. Voters on Tuesday were making a decision with all the moral and political weight of deciding whether to use the red or the blue guy in Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots.
In New Jersey, the news is even less promising for the handful of people who like to pretend that the Democrats are a force for progressive interests in this country or that Trump’s presidency has done meaningful damage to the Republican brand. Kim Guadagno, lieutenant to arguably the least popular governor in the United States, lost in a solidly blue state (the Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, a majority of its U.S. congressional districts, and both of its U.S. Senate seats). Her opponent, Phil Murphy, spent two decades at Goldman Sachs — just like the last Democratic governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, a former Goldman CEO, who also represented New Jersey in the Senate.
If Democrats proved anything this week, it is that wealthy suburbanites ultimately motivated by their pocket books still trust the party to safeguard their interests while deferring on specific questions of taste to cable television. The concrete bad things about Trump’s presidency — his deference to Wall Street and big business, his de facto support for free trade, his hawkishness — are fine as long as they are issuing from someone who is not rude on Twitter.
Bad news for the Democrats is not necessarily good news for Trump or the GOP. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator whose populist presidential campaign in 2012 was a forerunner of Trump’s, is right when he says that the president’s first year in office has been a failure. But he is discounting the nature of Trump’s appeal, which has very little to do with “delivering on what he said he was going to deliver on.” The current occupant of the Oval Office running on flags, a return to harder hits in football, and a renewed call to “Lock Her Up” versus a generic woke capitalist Clintonite handpicked by the DNC? Email me to discuss how to go about collecting when Trump wins Michigan again.
If Trump needs to be concerned about anything, it is the difficulty of getting his coalition to show up at the polls in 2020. In many ways the modern president he resembles most is Barack Obama; for many of his supporters voting for him was some kind of epochal event that was by definition not repeatable. Pulling the lever for Trump was an intangible rebuke to equally intangible enemies, an act of pure spite. There is no reason to think the second time will be just as good.
The 2017 election has shown us that the GOP will continue to be safe in the places where it has been for decades. The main question going forward is whether they will be able to hold out in areas where they have recently made unexpected gains, of which neither Virginia nor New Jersey were examples. Just as Republicans cannot expect to win over Trump voters with cardboard-cutout business-class GOP operatives, Democrats are going to need more than one-minute pastiches of Netflix dramas and former Goldman Sachs executives if they want to make inroads in the Senate in 2018, much less re-take the White House two years later.