Can You Say Blue Wave? Democrats Defy Expectations with Huge Gains in Virginia and New Jersey
Editor’s note: This report will be updated as additional results become available.
A giant blue wave swept 2017’s most important state elections Tuesday as Democrats won governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey.
Moreover, in a feat some analysts did not think was possible, early returns showed Democrats on the verge of taking control of Virginia’s House of Delegates, its lower chamber, in a state that the GOP gerrymandered in 2011 to create a red super-majority.
In Virginia's governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam beat Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, by 9 percentage points, 54-45. The nation’s leading voter turnout experts said the race was marked by women voting in historically high numbers and overall voter turnout exceeding expectations in non-presidential years.
In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a first-time candidate, took back the governor’s seat for the Democrats by defeating the lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, capping a turbulent eight years under Republican Gov. Chris Christie. The party was also on track to win a state legislative majority, putting Democrats back in control of the state.
Both parties’ political insiders will see Virginia’s election as a national bellwether. Virginia was viewed as an indication of whether swing-state Republicans could survive President Trump’s deep unpopularity. In addition to winning the governor’s seat, a race where the GOP threw everything nasty at the Democrat, including race-baiting, the biggest shock was early returns suggesting Democrats could take over the House of Delegates.
“BREAKING: Democrats are IN THE LEAD to pick up the VA House of Delegates. They've picked up 12 GOP seats & currently lead in 6 (!!!) more. Whoa,” tweeted Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report and one of the nation’s foremost experts on extreme redistricting—which Virginia Republicans did in 2011 to their legislative seats. “You can’t really look at tonight’s results and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the current favorites to pick up the U.S. House in 2018.”
“Some of these leads are nail biters. Could see recounts,” countered a tweet by Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who specializes in voter turnout. Earlier in the day, he tweeted, “The first hints of a 2006 [blue] wave came when Democrats took back control of the Virginia Senate in 2005. Was first Southern legislative chamber to flip back to the Democrats.”
Other leading pollsters and data crunchers also did not foresee Virginia’s blue wave.
“Massive turnout. Running 8 percent higher ahead of our estimates, which were 8 percent ahead of 13! Could be heading for nearly 2.7 million votes,” tweeted the New York Times’ Nate Cohn.
Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia's Institute of Politics executive director, said the results were an open rebellion against the GOP and President Trump.
"Dear Pundit Friends, please stop attributing this D landslide in VA to 'changing demographics'. VA hasn't changed that much since last Nov. 8 (Hillary [won] by 5%). The bigger explanation is a backlash to Trump and Trumpism, pure and simple, " Sabato tweeted.
Among the unexpected victors in Virginia was Democrat Danica Roem, 33, who became the first openly transgender elected official in Virginia.
Roem defeated longtime Republican incumbent Del. Robert G. Marshall. Their race primarily concerned local issues like traffic in suburban Prince William County, the Washington Post noted, but “also exposed the nation’s fault lines over gender identity. It pitted a local journalist who began her physical gender transition four years ago against an outspoken social conservative who has referred to himself as Virginia’s ‘chief homophobe’ earlier this year introduced a ‘bathroom bill’ that died in committee.”
When asked by reporters about Bob Marshall, Roem replied, “I don't attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.”
It may be several days until the final composition of the House of Delegates, including its majority, is known, Wasserman said.
"Amazingly, the current margin is 150 votes or less in 5 of the 7 VA HoD districts that are still too close to call," he tweeted. "That means control will be decided by absentee/provisional ballots, and may not be determined for days."
"Virginia House of Delegates shaping up to be a 50-50 tie, with one or more recounts. Dems could take HD-94 where Yancey (R) leads by 12 votes with provisional ballots outstanding," McDonald tweeted. "In upside down bizzaro world where Trump is a boring politician, Reps probably wouldn't have had such a bloodbath tonight. Voters would have been satisfied with the economy."
"BREAKING: Cheryl Turpin (D) has unseated Del. Rocky Holcomb (R) in Virginia Beach's
#HD85, reversing the Jan. special election result. Dems +14, need 3 more for control," Wasserman tweeted, just after 11 PM EST. "In a sign of just how bad tonight was for VA GOP, a Dem is within 47 votes in retiring House Speaker Bill Howell's #HD28. Likely headed to recount."
Meanwhile, in Washington state, it appeared Democrats were poised to take complete control of their state government.
"First results in in WA state Senate race: Dem leads Repub 55-45. Looks like Dems will pick up the seat, and with it total control of WA government," tweeted Reid Wilson, a reporter for TheHill.com.
"Washington an all-mail ballot state. Ballots post-marked today will continue to be accepted. WA election officials joke their highest turnout day is day after election. In other words, if this one is close, don't bother to stay up," replied McDonald. "Is it time yet for Democrats to thank Russians for helping take back control of state governments?"
Analysis: Look at Virginia Turnout Margin for 2018
As midnight passed on the east coast, Wasserman noted what might be the most important statistic of the night as applied to the Democrats' prospects in 2018. "Across VA today, raw votes cast were up 16% vs. '13."
The 16 percent figure is key. In states where the GOP imposed extreme gerrymandering after the 2010 election, the Republicans created a starting line advantage of 6-to-8 percent by segregating each party's reliable voters. In other words, they looked at which voters turned out in every election and made sure that Republicans had a 6-8 percent advantage when drawing election districts. They also packed Democrats into districts where they'd win by upwards of 70 percent of the vote.
In addition to the 6-to-8 percent starting line advantage from extreme partisan redistricting, the GOP also imposed voter suppression tactics like stricter voter ID requirements to get a ballot. Those deter another 2-3 percent of likely Democratic voters in fall elections. Thus, the GOP has a structural advantage in many swing states of roughly 10 percent.
However, Virginia's turnout, which as Wasserman said was 16 percent above 2013, its last gubernatorial race, is an indication of what Democrats must do in 2018, voter turnout-wise, to take back the U.S. House and win other key governors' races, such as in Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Georgia (all GOP-gerrymandered states). Keep that figure in mind as you hear analyses of Tuesday's vote; it's the real baseline for 2018.