A year after suffering perhaps the most demoralizing defeat in modern political history, Democrats roared back on Tuesday, claiming big victories in races up and down the ballot and across the country.
The breadth of the Democratic wins surprised even the most optimistic party stalwarts, who worried over their own chances in key races Tuesday. But as the results rolled in, those Democrats said they had energized their core voters and capitalized on President Trump’s unpopularity to reach swing voters.
“This is not a wave. This is a tsunami,” Virginia Del. David Toscano, leader of the Democratic caucus, told The Hill in an interview Tuesday night. “This is a huge, huge sea change here in Virginia.”
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) won the Virginia governorship by a wider-than-expected margin, even with Democrats fretting about his late campaign strategy. Democrat Justin Fairfax won the lieutenant governor’s office, becoming only the second African American to win a statewide post in Virginia since Reconstruction, while Attorney General Mark Herring (D) won re-election.
More astonishingly, Democrats appeared to have captured at least a share of control of the state House of Delegates, erasing what had been a massive Republican majority. Democrats picked up 16 Republican-held seats, giving them control of 50 out of the 100 seats in the lower chamber, with three more GOP-held districts likely headed for recounts.
In New Jersey, former Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy (D) easily won the right to replace deeply unpopular Gov. Chris Christie (R), cementing Democratic control in the Garden State.
In Washington state, Democrat Manka Dhingra (D) appeared headed for victory in a special election to fill an open state Senate seat. Dhingra’s win in a formerly Republican district would give Democrats control of all levers of government in the Evergreen State.
Georgia Democrats celebrated winning two deep red districts in special state House elections. Two Democrats appear likely to face off in a runoff in a suburban Atlanta state Senate district formerly held by a Republican after finishing first and second in the all-party primary — a result that would break the GOP’s supermajority.
Democrats added to their majority in the New Jersey state Senate, and picked up two additional state Assembly seats.
The party won a GOP-held seat in the New Hampshire state House, too.
Even local elections tipped left on Tuesday. In St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Rick Kriseman won re-election, after campaigning with former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democratic stalwarts, over former Mayor Rick Baker in an upset in a race in which early polls showed Baker leading.
In Manchester, N.H., Joyce Craig became the first woman to win the mayor’s office, and the first Democrat to win the city since 2003, after she ousted four-term incumbent Ted Gatsas (R).
Senior Democratic strategists said their candidates had found a way to tie Republican candidates to the deeply unpopular president, not through his uncouth statements and behavior but through his unpopular policies.
“We’re getting better about our Trump messaging,” said Jessica Post, who heads the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a group dedicated to winning state legislative elections.
Some Republicans, rattled by Tuesday’s losses, said they had more to learn about running for and winning office with an unpopular Trump in the White House.
“I don’t know how you get around that this wasn’t a referendum on the administration, I just don’t. Some of the very divisive rhetoric helped prompted and usher in a really high Democratic turnout in Virginia,” Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) told The Hill at Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie’s party. “We need to have some looking in the mirror.”
Post and Toscano pointed to Virginia delegate races in which the Democratic candidates talked about Trump and local issues, sometimes in the same breath — a lesson national Democrats might heed in next year’s midterm elections.
“You can’t just run on Trump. We used that energy to build our base, but we had to have something else. And in every one of these places, we had something else,” Toscano said. “It started to rain candidates for us. People came out of the woodwork and wanted to run.”
Some Republicans said they, too, have to chart an independent course ahead of next year’s elections, in part because voters still don’t connect Trump with the rest of the GOP.
“A lot of voters see Trump as a third party,” said Brad Todd, a GOP strategist who has long advised the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). “There is a sweet spot for Republicans to insist that Congress needs to enact the president’s agenda.”
“Republicans who will work with the president when they agree with him but who are also willing to break with him in a thoughtful way when they don’t agree or it isn’t right for their district or state is really the best place to be because it is where the American people are,” said Liesl Hickey, who ran the NRCC.
Still, a year after Trump upset conventional wisdom to capture the White House, Democrats saw Tuesday’s results as a cold dish of revenge.
“I don’t think there’s any way you can get away from the notion that this was a sound defeat for Donald Trump tonight with this outpouring of support for Democratic candidates,” Toscano said.