By Mark J. Rozell
President Donald Trump claims that Republicans who openly embrace him in election campaigns fare better than those who do not. That may be true in some very red states, but not in most of the country, and definitely not in Virginia. Indeed, two consecutive years are ample proof that, in Virginia, Trump is poison to his party.
Last year was a GOP wipeout in Virginia. The party handily lost elections to all three statewide offices and almost lost its two-decades grip on control of the General Assembly.
At the top of the ticket, gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie embraced some of the more controversial elements of the Trump agenda as he tried to ratchet up the red base, but in the end got swept away by massive Blue Tsunami 1.0.
This year was another wipeout for the GOP, as the party lost three incumbent members of the House of Representatives — a historically rare event in Virginia. At the top of the ticket, senatorial nominee Corey Stewart, who fully embraced Trump, again tried to ratchet up the reddest of the red base and in the end got swept away by massive Blue Tsunami 2.0.
It is as though the GOP learned nothing from last year. It does not take a very deep analysis to understand that in Virginia, embracing Trump and his agenda is a formula that guarantees disaster.
The Washington Post/Schar School polls prior to the election showed that Trump was by far the overriding factor driving voting decisions in this year’s elections in competitive congressional districts nationally and in Virginia.
The Post/Schar Election Day survey also revealed that voters declared Trump the single most important factor on their minds, by a substantial margin over health care, the economy, and immigration.
Trump thus shook up the usually stand-pat midterm electoral map in Virginia this year. In most years, maybe one or two House races are competitive here, but in this cycle there were four competitive districts. Even after major national events, partisan shifts in the Virginia House of Representatives delegation usually have been incremental.
Looking back over the past century, a three-seat swing occurred in 2008 in the Barack Obama wave election. Similarly, the Republicans picked up three House seats in Virginia in 1980 in Ronald Reagan’s landslide win, and in 1952 in the Dwight Eisenhower landslide. Before that, you have to go back to the roaring 1920s, when Herbert Hoover’s election (1928) swung three seats to the Republicans in Virginia.
But here is a caution for Democrats: What gets swept away in one cycle can come back in the next one — or very soon thereafter.
In 2010, the Republicans took back three seats; in 1982, the Democrats took back three seats; in 1930/1932 the Democrats took back three seats. Something similar could happen again.
Consider: In big wave elections, some House pickups by a party happen in districts generally favorable to the other one. Blue Tsunami 2.0 delivered to the Democrats victories in three districts held by Republicans — and in two of those, the district composition is generally more favorable to Republicans (the 2nd and 7th districts). Both of those races were quite close.
If history is any guide, the Democrats who won those districts will have very serious challenges in 2020 and could easily lose. The exception of course is the 10th District in Northern Virginia, which has trended Democratic and likely will remain so.
But before we get to 2020, there are elections in Virginia in 2019 for the General Assembly and a very big prize is at stake: The members elected in 2019 will re-draw state legislative and congressional district boundaries that will have a profound impact on elections here for the next decade.
Republicans have one advantage at least: They are generally more disciplined than Democrats about voting in off-year elections, amplifying their impact in those low-turnout cycles.
But Trump may still dominate the political climate, substantially complicating the party’s efforts. The question is: Will the GOP learn its lesson by 2019, or will there be a Blue Tsunami 3.0?
Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, where he holds the Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy.
Trump shook up the usually stand-pat midterm electoral map in Virginia this year.