The Big Unresolved Question for 2018: Can Democrats Win in Trump Counties?

by Jim Geraghty

From the Thursday Morning Jolt:

The Big Unresolved Question for 2018: Can Democrats Win in Trump Counties?

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley of University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball lay out all of the extremely ominous signs for Republicans in Tuesday’s elections, but then add some key caveats:

The silver lining for Republicans in Tuesday night’s results is that Gillespie actually improved on his own showing in his 2014 Senate challenge to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Cuccinelli’s 2013 performance in western Virginia, a red-trending area (as noted above). Gillespie didn’t quite match Trump there, though, but remember that Democrats have to defend a lot of turf in dark red areas, such as Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D) Senate seat in West Virginia, the only state that is classified 100% Appalachian by the federal government and a state Trump won by 42 points. Manchin will have incumbency in his favor, but it is possible that he and other red state Senate Democrats could fall to Republicans even in a great Democratic national environment because of the way that places like Appalachia are changing. Many parts of the United States look like Appalachian western Virginia — rural, white, blue collar, and supportive of Trump.

Virginia Democrats were able to make huge gains in the state House of Delegates by effectively winning only Clinton-won seats (they only won a single Trump-won seat, and it was a marginal one at that). Democrats cannot get to a House of Representatives majority exclusively through Clinton-won seats. They need to net 24 seats next year to win the House, and there are only 23 Republicans in Clinton-won seats. It’s also impractical to think Democrats could flip all 23 of these seats: Many of them are held by skilled incumbents. So Democrats will need to win some Trump-won territory to capture the House — the median U.S. House seat, the 218th most Democrats and Republican seat by presidential performance, is Rep. Scott Taylor’s (D, VA-2) Hampton Roads-based district, which Trump won by 3.4 points, which makes it more than five points more Democratic than the nation (because Clinton won the national popular vote by about 2.1 points). This is a long way of saying that the national House playing field is more Republican-leaning, at least on paper, than the Virginia House of Delegates slate was. So, as we usually advise, don’t over-interpret and over-project these results, impressive though they are for the Democrats.

Another big question: Are the suburbs in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and other key states different than the ones in Virginia? Sure, Loudon, Prince William and Fairfax have lots of federal government workers, but is the political culture that different? (I’m getting a little irked hearing people dismiss Virginia’s seven most northeastern counties with comments like, “eh, they’re all federal workers.” Democrat Gerry Connolly’s 11th Congressional District, which includes parts of Fairfax and Prince William Counties, has 74,346 federal employees and retirees as of 2014. That’s a lot! But that’s also just 10 percent of the district’s population as a whole. And in 2010, Connolly survived by less than 1,000 votes.)

If the mood in the suburbs of other states is about the same as it was in Virginia on Tuesday, Republicans are in serious trouble.

Notice that Northam, who few considered to be a particularly exceptional candidate, enjoyed unbelievable Democratic turnout. The Democratic campaign committees and campaigns may not have to worry about funding problems or organizational blunders in 2018. Donald Trump is their get-out-the-vote program.

“You can’t explain what happened without starting with the backdrop that is the long shadow that Donald Trump cast over the election,” Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political science professor, said. “That explains in my mind probably 300,000 to 325,000 voters that may not have shown up yesterday to vote had it not been by them being energized by the 2016 election.”

That would be about 12 percent of the people who voted Tuesday. As Kidd puts it, “It wasn’t that Republicans didn’t show up, it’s that Democrats showed up in overwhelming numbers.” It is very tough to win when the other side is mobilizing close to 100 percent of their potential voters.

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