Tuesday’s election was bad for Republicans, but not catastrophic

A rejection of Donald Trump! A rejection of the establishment Republicans! A validation of Obamacare! A harbinger of a coming wave election! Speaker Nancy Pelosi! The revenge of the Democrats! An election that means so much! An election that means nothing!

There is no shortage of hot takes about what happened on Tuesday night, almost all of which are engineered nonsense. Do yourself a favor and turn off the cable news, and take a deep breath before you come to any kind of conclusion about what happened.

Still, the election likely told us something both nationally and here at home in Maine, so what should a reasonable person take away from election day 2017?

Well, to begin, it was not a good night for Republicans, or conservatism broadly. To deny that would be the worst kind of delusional partisanship, and wouldn’t even pass the straight face test.

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy cruised to a 13-point win over Republican Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno. In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam coasted to a larger than expected nine-point win over Republican Ed Gillespie.

New Jersey doesn’t really tell us anything, in my estimation. That was a state that was never expected to go Republican given Chris Christie’s unpopularity and the partisan bend of the state.

Virginia Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam addresses supporters at an election night party at George Mason University on Nov. 7. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Virginia, on the other hand, has been trending blue for a while, but is in actuality a purple state. This race was viewed as competitive through most of the campaign, with Northam holding a slight three-point edge in polling to the end. But Virginia has a history of crummy polls, including the last gubernatorial election where Terry McAuliffe maintained an eight-point lead in the polls, and only squeaked out a narrow two-point win in the end over Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

With Gillespie himself massively overperforming in the 2014 Senate contest against popular incumbent Mark Warner, nearly beating him, there was some belief that he could win, or that at the very least it would end up being close. That he lost by nine is a terrible showing.

But what does it mean?

Gillespie ran a campaign that has been labeled by some as “Trumpism without Trump.” In essence, he sought to capitalize on the electoral benefits of certain issues that Trump champions, while also trying to keep distance from the man himself by not inviting him to campaign in Virginia for him.

The man derisively nicknamed “Establishment Ed” for his time served as a lobbyist, his tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee, his role in the Bush administration and his support for Mitt Romney was trying to have it both ways. He thought the president was unpopular in Virginia — particularly northern Virginia — and didn’t want him coming around to make a mess of his well-oiled campaign and its uncontroversial candidate, but he also wanted to pretend to buy into “Trumpism” as a concept, to hopefully attract his voters.

The result was predictable. Authenticity is what sells in politics, and Gillespie’s campaign felt phony and cynical and voters rejected it.

Don’t try to learn too many lessons from a crummy candidate running a crummy campaign in an off-year election.

The more worrying result from Virginia on Tuesday for Republicans, though, had to be what happened in the Virginia House of Delegates, a body that has been controlled by a substantial Republican majority since 2000.

There, Republicans fell left and right. Trump Republicans, establishment Republicans and everyone in between. The former bulletproof majority was erased in a single election, leaving the body deadlocked between 50 members of each party.

This is a far more useful exercise in testing the Republican brand, and has more lessons to be learned about what will happen in congressional elections in 2018. The news isn’t good for the GOP, giving indications that Democratic enthusiasm and irritated, depressed and frustrated Republican voters can conspire to do significant harm to the majorities in the U.S. House and Senate.

Still, though, it is hardly a harbinger of the massive wave we saw in the other direction in 2010. The year prior to that, Republican Bob McDonnell obliterated his opponent in Virginia by 17 points, and the aforementioned Chris Christie humiliated an incumbent governor Jim Corzine in deep blue New Jersey.

Those were unmistakeable tea leaves.

What happened last night was a worrisome, troubling sign for Republicans, but not one that looks catastrophic. They, like parties always do when they control the White House, will suffer major setbacks next year. But 2010 all over again? Not even close.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.