Democrats are feeling buoyed this morning after winning on Tuesday the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, plus a handful of other lower-ticket state races in Virginia.
They believe the results portend well for them in next year’s mid-term congressional elections, which they hope to turn into a referendum on President Donald Trump, as they did in New Jersey and Virginia.
Not so fast.
Tuesday’s results probably are as much of a harbinger of what’s to come next year as were the four previous special congressional elections, all won by Republican candidates: that is, not much of one.
The Democratic candidate in New Jersey, Phil Murphy, was heavily favored to win in a state that has been trending Democratic for the past couple of decades. The blip on the screen was the two terms served by Republican Chris Christie.
As for Virginia, again that state isn’t really much of a bellwether anymore. It was the only Southern state to go for Hillary Clinton in 2016. As the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area has steadily expanded into northern Virginia, so also has the state become more liberal. The upset was not that Ralph Northam beat Ed Gillespie. The upset would have been for Gillespie to have won in a state that is trending Democratic.
So, while the Democrats had a very good day, it wasn’t as if it was a surprise. Neither were the results in the congressional special elections earlier this year, in which the Republican candidates won in districts that have been GOP-friendly in recent years.
Here’s what we know about mid-terms historically. They generally are good for the party that’s not in the White House, no matter which party that is. Trump’s low approval ratings — plus the internal fighting between the GOP’s “establishment” and “tea party” factions — would seem to also bode ill for Republican candidates.
However, in the Senate, where the GOP margin is slimmest, almost three-fourths of the seats up for re-election in 2018 are presently held by Democrats, so there aren’t all that many places the Democrats can realistically hope to turn.
Plus, as the president tweeted in the aftermath of Tuesday’s setback, the economy is doing better in most of the country, even if Mississippi has not felt it yet. When voters are optimistic about the economy, they are much less likely to turn out those who are in power.
Thus, the 2018 mid-terms could break either way. Anyone who says differently 12 months out is guilty of wishful thinking.