WASHINGTON – What happened at the polls Tuesday was a good old-fashioned butt-kicking that exposed the cynical fraud called Trumpism. Hallelujah, people, and let’s do it again next year.
Perhaps Republicans forgot that Hillary Clinton – rightly or wrongly, a candidate distrusted by much of the nation – won nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump. Or that bigger crowds came to Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration than to celebrate it. Or that voting trends in special elections since Trump took office were against the GOP.
Maybe all of that slipped Democrats’ minds as well. Many expected Ralph Northam to squeeze out a victory over Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race, but I don’t know anyone who predicted Northam would win by 9 points, the biggest margin in that contest in more than three decades. And no one imagined that Democrats would nearly erase the GOP’s 32-seat advantage in the Virginia House of Delegates, with recounts pending that could still put Republicans in the minority.
I hope the message to the Republican Party is clear: If you embrace Trump’s angry, nativist, white-nationalist politics of division, you will pay a price.
Democrats did well from coast to coast in Tuesday’s voting, winning the New Jersey governorship and control of the Washington state senate, among other triumphs. It’s possible, of course, to read too much into an off-year election. But Virginia is especially telling because it is a genuinely purple state – and because Gillespie ran a flat-out Trumpist campaign.
Gillespie, a lobbyist and stalwart of the Republican establishment, is a creature of the Washington swamp. His campaign, though, was straight out of the sewer.
His television ads were among the most appalling I’ve ever seen. One tried to link Northam with the murderous MS-13 street gang, composed largely of Central American immigrants – an echo of Trump’s jingoistic screeds. Another claimed Democrats were accusing all Trump supporters of racism – an attempt to stoke anger and a sense of victimization.
Another pro-Gillespie ad took aim at National Football League players who kneel in protest during the national anthem – a cohort that happens to be almost exclusively African-American. And yet another sought to link Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist, with a sex offender who went to prison on child pornography charges. The courtly and understated Northam called that last one “despicable.”
The result was an anti-Republican tsunami. In metropolitan areas across the state, voters turned out in huge numbers to defeat Gillespie and the rest of the GOP ticket.
It was a clear and explicit repudiation of Trump and what he stands for. Tolerance, inclusiveness and common decency are still American values, it seems.
Democrats won the Virginia governorship with a candidate who is not, shall we say, overburdened with charisma. They did it without a vivid and unforgettable bumper-sticker message. And they swept the state without forsaking progressive principles. Perhaps the most stunning result came in Prince William County, a Washington exurb, where Danica Roem became the first openly transgender member of the state legislature – defeating Del. Robert G. Marshall, who called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and authored a discriminatory “bathroom bill” that mercifully died in committee. Sweet.
Some of Trump’s apologists sought absurdly to claim the result was unsurprising because Virginia is a blue state anyway, which simply is not true. It’s headed in that direction, but the state legislature remains solidly in GOP hands (depending on those recounts) and seven of the state’s 11 members of the House of Representatives are Republicans. That’s no Democratic stronghold.
Trump could hardly deny the election was all about him, since he believes (BEG ITAL)everything(END ITAL) is all about him, so he came up with an exculpatory spin: Gillespie would have won easily if he hadn’t kept Trump at arm’s length.
That is beyond ridiculous. Exit polls showed Trump’s approval at 40 percent – considerably worse than Gillespie’s eventual showing. Gillespie was wise not to have Trump at his side; he was unwise, and craven, to run a full-bore Trumpist campaign. In the final days, as polls tightened and it seemed Gillespie had a chance, Trump piled in with a series of anti-Northam tweets, obviously planning to claim all the credit for a GOP victory. Oops.
Democrats do need a resonant message that connects with as many voters as possible. They do need fresh and appealing candidates for 2018 and beyond. But Tuesday’s election sent a righteous message about what the country thinks of the Trump presidency. Republicans can save themselves and their honor – or go down with the ship.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.