Suburban, college-educated white voters turned out in droves Tuesday to elect a slate of Democrats to state offices in Virginia. That’s not a good sign of a Republican congressional majority that seems increasingly imperiled.
Though Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie appears to have run slightly ahead of President Donald Trump in Virginia’s deeply conservative rural stretches, he was unable to overcome Democrat Ralph Northam’s commanding lead in the suburbs clustered around Washington D.C., and Richmond, locales where Republicans have competed to varying success in recent years.
To be clear, the densely-populated communities in Virginia’s northern reaches are a Democratic stronghold, burgeoning with a diverse base of well-heeled, college-educated voters. Though the party is almost a non-factor in those locales closest to Washington, Republicans have run well in the outer suburbs beyond the capital Beltway, where a strong showing is essential for GOP statewide candidates.
Results from three counties in particular portend struggles for Republican congressional incumbents next year: Northam posted decisive victories in Loudon, Prince William, and Henrico counties, three jurisdictions packed with upscale, suburban, college-educated voters.
Loudon and Prince William lie in the outer-edges of the Washington metro area. Prince William County in particular is something of a bellwether for the commonwealth — the county has backed the winning candidate in the last ten competitive statewide races. Though Trump lost both counties by some 20 points, some Republicans have done fairly well in both areas in recent elections. GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock was reelected in the commonwealth’s 10th congressional district in 2016, despite the president’s abysmal showing. Her district includes the whole of Loudon County and portions of Prince William County.
The GOP’s previous gubernatorial nominee, Ken Cuccinelli, ran reasonably well in both counties in 2013. He lost Prince William by nine points and Loudon by just four.
Those essential battlegrounds broke decisively for Northam Tuesday night. The unofficial returns show he carried both Loudon and Prince William by a whopping 20 points. Those margins are simply insurmountable for a statewide candidate. They were even more forbidding for local Republican officeholders, who were similarly routed in down ballot races.
The picture was similarly bleak in Henrico County, a jurisdiction further south near the capital, Richmond. Henrico has been less friendly to Republicans in recent years. Hillary Clinton won the county walking away in 2016, and the incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe beat Cuccinelli by 13 points in the last gubernatorial race. Northam improved significantly on McAuliffe’s performance, notching a 22-point victory Tuesday night.
All told, the trend from Tuesday night was clear long before Gillespie called Northam to concede. Educated, white-collar suburban voters surged to the polls in huge numbers, breaking decisively from the GOP to elect Democrats up and down the ballot. So dramatic a swing among this group of voters has little precedent in modern Virginia history, and seems clearly attributable to their aversion to Donald Trump’s Republican party. Northam, a fairly nondescript man running as a fairly ordinary Virginia Democrat, could not of his own power affect so substantial a shift. A national dynamic is clearly at play.
Virginia’s results are a harbinger for congressional Republicans representing districts with similar profiles — particularly in places like New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California — as they show a party hemorrhaging suburban voters, who have helped propel the GOP to its decade-long dominance of Congress.
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