WASHINGTON - Virginia Republicans were licking their wounds this week after a humiliating election beating from the Democrats who swept every statewide elective office on the ballot.
If there was any doubt that once hardcore, conservative Virginia, formerly the seat of the old Confederacy, was now firmly in liberal Democratic hands, Tuesday’s off-year election nailed that hard reality into the history books.
At last count, Democrat Ralph Northam, the lieutenant governor, crushed Republican Ed Gillespie — a longtime GOP strategist — by 54 percent to 45 percent of the vote, to become the state’s next governor.
More than anything else, Gillespie’s defeat was seen as a rebuke of President Trump, whom Northam called a “narcissistic maniac,” while criticizing his opponent for not “standing up to” the president’s policies.
Throughout his campaign, Gillespie kept his distance from Trump, who did not campaign for him, and almost never mentioned the president in his speeches.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump tweeted from South Korea shortly before the final vote was in.
But in the campaign’s final weeks, as polling numbers showed Northam strengthening his lead, Gillespie was not able to change course, nor have much of an impact in a state that had grown more Democratic and where Trump was unpopular. Recent statewide polls gave Trump a 38 percent job approval score.
Voter exit polls on Tuesday showed that 28 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals, eight points higher than earlier elections.
The same exit polls showed Northam’s voter base was propelled by white, college-educated women, voters who worried about health care, and Virginians who said they “strongly disapprove’s” of Trump politics.
Meantime, the Republican base had shrunk to just 31 percent of the electorate, a new low in the party’s voting strength.
Another strategic factor was the wide political division between heavily Democratic Northern Virginia and the rest of the state that is largely rural and still generally more conservative.
In the last two decades or so, there’s been a significant migration from the Washington metropolitan urban areas into Northern Virginia, including many minorities who have moved up the income scale and transformed its politics by making the state more Democratic.
Prince William County, for example, has more minorities than whites. In upper income Loudoun County, the white population has declined by almost 30 percent since 2000, while Asians are its largest minority group, making up 17 percent of the county.
The state’s growing diversity was a major factor helping to elect Justin Fairfax as lieutenant governor, the first African American to win a statewide election in Virginia since L. Douglas Wilder won the governorship in 1989.
It was a nasty gubernatorial campaign on both sides in the TV ad wars. Gillespie ran weeks of ads that dealt with crime, violent Latino “MS-13” gangs, and sex offenders, issues that don’t make the top five list of the voters’ major concerns.
In the final days of the race, Gillespie ran a powerful ad where he talked about the state’s weak economy that had fallen well behind most other states in the country. Had he begun his campaign on those bread and butter issues that matter most to Virginians, he would have run a much more competitive race, and maybe would have won.
Gillespie is a bright, knowledgeable, hard working guy who would have been a great governor. Unfortunately, he ran the wrong kind of campaign that failed to recognize the state’s changing political complexion.
Meantime, the broader political picture in next year’s elections is looking bleaker for the Democrats and rosier for Republicans.
The reason: Republicans will be defending just eight seats in the 2018 Senate elections, while the Democrats will be fighting to hold nearly two dozen seats, plus two others held by independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Many of these Democratic seats that are up for grabs are in deeply conservative states that Trump carried last year, including Montana, Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, and West Virginia.
“The GOP could amass a filibuster-proof majority by running the table in those states and other battlegrounds,” Politico reported.
There’s a lot at stake in the 2018 midterm elections, but don’t expect the political discourse to improve much after this month’s slug-fest in the Old Dominion.
If anything, it’s probably going to get a lot uglier.