Judging Trump: How the Dem Victory in Virginia Changed Everything

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

What are we to make of the elections last Tuesday?

We have already seen some impressive and interesting statistical analyses of the votes and what they mean, especially focused on the governor's race in Virginia. I don't want to replicate those, or just add my two cents' worth.

Instead, I think the most interesting thing to reflect on is not who voted and why, but what the implications are of the impressive Democratic victories, almost across the board.

Results from off-off-year elections cannot be projected linearly into predictions for what will happen in 2018. But a decisive and not entirely predictable set of outcomes can have a major effect — in large part via the perceptions and reactions of key players on both sides.

Ed Gillespie ran a campaign focused heavily on attacks on Latino gangs and non-existent sanctuary cities, support for Confederate monuments, and attacks on felon re-enfranchisement that used as a prop a vile child predator, tying him to Ralph Northam.

Barack Obama at a campaign rally for Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Ralph Northam in Richmond, Virginia October 19, 2017. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

If he had won, or come within a whisker, we can be sure that his campaign would have become a template for many campaigns for Congress and state legislatures around the country, and would have encouraged Steve Bannon both to recruit candidates eager to promote those themes and to push more conventional Republican candidates to change their preferred approaches.

Gillespie's drubbing changes that. We will have many such campaigns, but many fewer than we would have seen otherwise.

At the same time, Republican morale sagged with the nationwide results. That probably means more retirements from Congress and state legislatures; the prospects of a tough campaign in a general election, with the requisite fundraising and nastiness, is a major motivator for lawmakers unused to real competition to decide to hang it up.

More open seats means more vulnerability, and more vulnerable seats in turn mean that campaign money from places like the congressional campaign committees gets spread thinner. And the aura of defeat can also discourage donors who do not want to throw money away.

For Democrats, the opposite is true. A set of victories brings ebullience and optimism, which in turn makes recruiting candidates with strong resumes and resources easier, including in long shot districts. Most of those will still be lost, but upset victories in even a few can make the difference between minority and majority.

And the more tangible possibility that Democrats can recapture the House majority may discourage retirements, as lawmakers decide to stick it out to see what happens. Excitement brings more volunteers, more funders, and more organizers.

None of this means a sweep for Democrats in 2018 is inevitable. Much can happen in a year to change the political dynamic.

But the results in 2017 do put more weight on the scales to help Democrats, and more burden on Republicans, already facing the usual headwinds that hit the president's party as midterms approach.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).