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Ralph Northam’s win in the Virginia governor’s race shows the GOP is in big trouble

A wave is building.

Democratic Gov. Candidate Ralph Northam Attends Friday Prayers At VA Mosque Win McNamee/Getty Images

Despite all the hand-wringing, Ralph Northam didn't blow it. And it seems that neither did his fellow Virginia Democratic candidates Justin Fairfax for lieutenant governor and Mark Herring for attorney general. Dems also won the New Jersey governor’s race in a landslide, and seem to be in position to pick up a bunch of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Off-year gubernatorial elections are only weak predictors of future midterm results, but tonight’s outcome is yet another sign that the GOP really is in electoral peril. Donald Trump’s flukey, narrow win in the 2016 presidential election did not inaugurate some crazy new era in which the rules don’t apply and nothing matters. If you have an incumbent president who’s unpopular, backed by a Congress that’s pursuing an unpopular agenda, you’re going to be in trouble.

And Republicans are definitely in trouble.

Republicans have been ignoring warning signs

Across a series of special elections held over the past year, Democratic candidates for House and state legislature have been outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin by 11 points and Barack Obama’s 2012 margin by 9 points.

It’s not a completely uniform trend. Cuban-American Republicans running in South Florida continue to do far better locally than the national GOP does even when, as in Florida’s 40th Senate District, they ultimately lose. And Democrats are struggling in Connecticut, where the local economy is bad and the incumbent governor unpopular. But nationally it’s clear that the traditional trend against the incumbent party is, indeed, in effect.

Eight state legislature seats flipped from R to D in special elections, with none going the opposite direction. A couple more flipped already Tuesday night, and it seems likely that a state Senate special election in the Seattle suburbs will flip the entire Washington state Senate when those votes are all counted.

And of course, nothing about this should be surprising. It’s entirely typical for the president’s party to struggle down ballot. That happened to Democrats under Obama, but it also happened under Bill Clinton and Kennedy/Johnson. It happened to Republicans under Eisenhower and Nixon/Ford and George W. Bush. The only exception to the rule of down-ballot losses is that the South continued to shift toward the GOP under Ronald Reagan — more an effect of long-term partisan realignment.

On top of all that, Trump is unusually unpopular for an incumbent president. The handy approval tracker tool from FiveThirtyEight lets us see that no previous president has ever had such a low approval rating at this point in his term, and this has been true for the overwhelming majority of his tenure. An unpopular incumbent president is a recipe for defeat, and Republicans have barely been trying to do anything about it.

Republicans might want to consider changing course

Chris Collins, a House Republican from New York whose constituents’ interests would be devastated by the GOP tax plan’s treatment of residents of high-tax states, pretty much summed up the current thinking of the Republican Party on public policy by explaining that it’s important to pass the bill because donors want it.

Republican candidate Ed Gillespie’s campaign in Virginia was supposed to show how this works.

If Republicans can raise money, they can air plenty of dishonest, demagogic ads on hot-button culture war topics. Since those ads are so inflammatory, they will dominate secondary media coverage of politics and win elections for Republicans. Then, having won, Republicans can pursue an agenda of regressive tax cuts and business-friendly regulation to keep the campaign contributions flying. Gillespie executed this plan well, and his opponent countered it rather ineptly. That he lost in the end goes to show that it’s simply hard to swim against the current even with a tactically savvy campaign.

And Republicans right now are very much swimming against the tide. Generic balloting shows them 10 points down in the House popular vote, far too large a gap for Republicans to gerrymander away. And while Trump has often seemed indifferent to the electoral fate of the congressional GOP, the reality is that their fates are intertwined in a more profound way than the White House seems to recognize. Even a thin Democratic majority would open the floodgates of oversight that Republicans have kept shut, with hearings extending well beyond the Russia matter to the Trump family’s systematic conflicts of interest and beyond.

A year, of course, is a long time. But Republicans are already enjoying a decent economy, relatively few foreign conflicts, and battlefield progress against ISIS. Their unpopularity stems from a blend of their erratic leader in the White House and their profoundly plutocratic policy agenda. The message Tuesday night is clear: Unless they do something about it, they’re going to lose.

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