We just got our clearest sign yet that the 2018 elections could be a Democratic ‘tsunami’

Ralph Northam.

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Ralph Northam.
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Win McNamee/Getty Images

    Democrats just had their best Election Day in years. Some say it’s a sign of a coming “wave” election in 2018. But there is reason for Democrats to be cautious.

Democrats just had their most successful Election Day in years – and now many are predicting that 2018 will bring with it a Democratic “wave” election that could sweep the party back to control in Congress and in certain state governments.

The brightest sign for Democrats came in Virginia, an increasingly blue-leaning swing state where Democratic Governor-elect Ralph Northam defeated Republican nominee Ed Gillespie by roughly 9 points. That was almost double the margin by which 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton defeated President Donald Trump in the state just last year.

But further down the ballot is where Democrats got perhaps even better news. In the Virginia House, Democrats erased a 32-seat deficit. As of Wednesday night, Democrats flipped 15 seats and had the chance to take the majority with a number of contests still outstanding. It was the largest red-to-blue flip in the Virginia House since 1899.

Dave Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report, said early on Tuesday that if Democrats could flip 10 seats in the Virginia House, it would signal a wave election in the 2018 midterms.

“This is a tidal wave,” he tweeted after it became apparent Democrats would flip far more, adding, “You can’t really look at tonight’s results and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the current favorites to pick up the US House in 2018.”

Ed Gillespie.

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Ed Gillespie.
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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Another positive sign for Democrats came by way of winning the three marquee off-year races – the governors races in Virginia and New Jersey and the mayoral race in New York City. Democrats won all three for the first time since 1989.

‘The 2017 election represents the waters receding before the 2018 election tsunami hits’

The results come at a time when Trump’s approval ratings have sunk to new lows, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been unable to pass major legislation during a time when they have control of both chambers and the White House.

“The 2017 election represents the waters receding before the 2018 election tsunami hits,” Rick Tyler, communications director for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Business Insider in an email.

Democrats zeroed in on Virginia as proof that both momentum was finally translating into victories and that enough voters were not enthralled by the Trump agenda. And they were eager to discuss the gains the party made in the northern part of the state with suburban voters – voters who have tended to lean center-right.

Exit polls showed that many voters in the state wanted to send a message to Trump with their ballot.

“A revolution started in Virginia from college-educated white voters and an uprising began from people of color – both against Donald Trump,” Jesse Ferguson, a senior spokesperson on Clinton’s campaign, told Business Insider in an email. “Virginia has always been an early-warning system for midterm elections – almost always showing us what will happen in the next year if the course of the storm doesn’t shift. As of now, there is a storm brewing and it’s heading right for the Republican districts in the suburbs.”

He pointed to exit polls that showed healthcare the top issue for almost four-in-10 voters – and those voters overwhelmingly chose Northam.

“I’m not an expert in how you win elections as a Republican, but I’m pretty sure it’s not by losing bigly on the top issue to voters,” he said.

Jesse Lehrich, another former Clinton campaign communications staffer, told Business Insider that the results in the Virginia House, where a number of GOP incumbents were unseated, marked the “clearest sign yet that a wave election is possible.”

For Lehrich, the victories provided further reason to believe that the Democratic Party’s message on healthcare, economics, immigration, and gun control were not a losing formula in 2017. He said the wins gave more reason for Democrats to “contest every election at every level, reject cynicism and the politics of division, and have faith in the goodness of the American people.”

“We are winning the battle of ideas,” he said.

Former Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, who was instrumental in helping Democrats erase a massive hole in the Virginia House, told Business Insider that the state, “and probably the country” were going through “the Prop 187 experience,” referencing the California ballot initiative to establish state-run citizenship screening. It passed in 1994 and helped Republicans at the time, but soon led to Latino voters abandoning the party in droves and turning California into a solidly blue state for the past two decades.

“I think this is Republicans really becoming the identity politics party, and how that plays out on the map was something that did have a boomerang effect of massively turning out diverse communities and millennials who really want to see an inclusive Virginia,” said Perriello, who ran unsuccessfully for the governor nomination.

“For 10 years Democrats have talked about taking state and local elections seriously, but haven’t really done it,” he added. “And this year it happened for a variety of reasons.”

Wait – there’s a catch

But there is reason for pause for Democrats looking to pop the champagne on 2018.

As Nate Cohn laid out in The New York Times, Democrats benefitted from a state that is bluer than the places they will be competing in 2018 to retake the House. The surge in the Virginia House, he noted, came in many districts that Clinton won in 2016 by at least 5 points.

Kyle Kondik, an expert at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the Virginia House results were certainly the “most surprising.” Although looking at the number of pro-Clinton districts, he said, “maybe they shouldn’t have been.”

Though he said the massive victory is “a great sign for Democrats,” he, like Cohn, pointed to the House landscape tilting “a little bit redder” than the Virginia House, “so caution is warranted.”

Republicans say this shouldn’t be overlooked

Regardless of the difference in the maps, Republicans were sounding the alarm after the Tuesday blowouts.

Donald Trump.

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Donald Trump.
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Thomson Reuters

Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said there is “a tendency to over-hype some of this.” But, he said, there is an equal tendency to downplay losses in Virginia and New Jersey, two elections that can “be precursors to a national environment in the first-term of a new presidency.”

He pointed to 2009, when Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie won big in Virginia and New Jersey, a precursor to a massive Republican wave in 2010.

“Three months later we were all introduced to Scott Brown,” he said of the former Republican Massachusetts senator. “Eleven months after that, we were introduced to a whole new House majority.”

Holmes said “discounting that situation is a huge mistake.”

“The national environment does have something to do, particularly with House races,” he said. “More concerning from a congressional point of view is that the House majority is built in large part upon successful appeal to suburban districts.”

Enthusiasm among both party’s bases is not the issue Republicans need to be worried about, he said, as staunch Republicans and Democrats were as motivated as ever to go out and vote. The losses among suburban voters, however, is cause for concern.

“What there is is a suburban population where there is no currency in stupid,” he said. “These are folks who have been responding favorably to Republican economic messaging for the better part of the last decade. Last night they left.”

He said a must for the GOP in the coming months is “getting everybody on the same page on this tax bill.”

“Because that population is disproportionately motivated by pocketbook issues,” he continued. “They don’t have the same kind of acute anxiety that more rural areas have about joblessness and things like that, but they certainly do have a fair amount of concern about the well-being of their family and the economic vitality of their region. And that’s the area that Republicans are going to have to figure out how to recapture if they’re going to win in 2018.”

Reed Galen, who served as deputy campaign manager to Republican Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign, pointed to Trump as the reason for Democrats huge successes on Tuesday, but added that they “shouldn’t take anything for granted.”

“If Trump gets out on the stump and fires up those voters who still believe he’s the only one who can drain the swamp, it might not be so bad,” he told Business Insider. “But that might be the best outcome Republicans can hope for. ‘Not so bad.'”