First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
WASHINGTON — How big of an Election Night did Democrats have on Tuesday? And how rough was it for Republicans one year after Donald Trump’s surprising victory in 2016? Consider all of these results across the country:
- In the marquee gubernatorial contest in Virginia, Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 points, 54 percent to 45 percent, marking Democrats’ biggest gubernatorial win in the state since 1985;
- Also in Virginia, Democrats swept the statewide races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and they have a shot at winning control of the House of Delegates, which was unthinkable going into last night;
- In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy bested Republican Kim Guadagno by 13 points in that state’s gubernatorial race, 56 percent to 43 percent;
- In Washington state, it appears Democrats won control of the state Senate;
- In New Hampshire, Democrat Joyce Craig defeated incumbent Republican Ted Gatsas to become Manchester mayor, per New Hampshire political reporter Paul Steinhauser.
- In Georgia, Democrats picked up two state legislative seats in special elections;
- And in Maine, a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid in the state easily passed.
The one bright spot for Republicans was their special congressional victory in Utah, where Republican John Curtis beat Democrat Kathie Allen in the race to fill former Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s, R-Utah, seat.
Add it all up, and you can clearly see that the political winds are at Democrats’ backs right now, on the same day when two more House Republicans announced their retirements.
And while off-off year elections are hardly a guarantee to predict what will happen in the following midterms, remember that 1993 (when Republicans George Allen, Christine Todd Whitman and Rudy Giuliani won big) told us a lot about how 1994 would play out, and ditto 2009 (when Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie won) for the 2010 midterms.
What was extraordinary about last night was that it featured generic Democrats and Republicans — Northam vs. Gillespie in Virginia, Murphy vs. Guadagno in New Jersey, Medicaid expansion vs. not to expand it — and Democrats came out on top.
So last night was more than Virginia’s increasingly blue tint, or the power of the Northern Virginia suburbs. It was a drubbing across the entire country.
Trump drags down GOP candidates in Virginia and New Jersey
Heading into last night’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, we asked the question: Which would be the more powerful force — the environment or campaign tactics?
And we got our answer, big time: the environment.
In Virginia, 57 percent of voters said they disapproved of Trump's job performance, according to exit polling in the state. And those voters broke for Northam, 87 percent to 11 percent. By contrast, 40 percent said they approved of the president's job, with Gillespie winning those, 90 percent to 8 percent.
Perhaps more importantly, half of voters in Virginia said that Trump was a factor in their vote, and they opposed the president by a 2-to-1 margin — 34 percent oppose, 17 percent support.
Trump's standing was even worse in New Jersey, where 36 percent of voters said they approved of Trump’s job. And among the 39 percent of voters in New Jersey who said Trump was a factor in their vote, 28 percent said it was to oppose him, versus 11 percent who were supporting him — a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
Make no mistake: Democrats are still a party without a leader and without a clear message. Only one thing was the secret to their success last night: the man residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Rockin’ the suburbs
What was especially striking about Northam’s victory last night was that he EXCEEDED Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s margins in Virginia’s key urban suburbs and exurbs:
- 2012: Obama: 71 percent, Romney 28 percent
- 2016: Clinton: 76 percent, Trump 18 percent
- 2017: Northam: 78 percent, Gillespie 21 percent
- 2012: Obama: 69 percent, Romney 29 percent
- 2016: Clinton: 76 percent, Trump 17 percent
- 2017: Northam: 80 percent, Gillespie 19 percent
- 2012: Obama: 60 percent, Romney 39 percent
- 2016: Clinton: 64 percent, Trump 29 percent
- 2017: Northam: 68 percent, Gillespie 31 percent
- 2012: Obama: 55 percent, Romney 43 percent
- 2016: Clinton: 57 percent, Trump 37 percent
- 2017: Northam: 60 percent, Gillespie 37 percent
- 2012: Obama: 52 percent, Romney 47 percent
- 2016: Clinton: 55 percent, Trump 38 percent
- 2017: Northam: 59 percent, Gillespie 39 percent
- 2012 Obama: 57 percent, Romney 41 percent
- 2016 Clinton: 58 percent, Trump 37 percent
- 2017 Northam: 61 percent, Gillespie 38 percent
For Gillespie, there was no needle to thread
In 2014, Ed Gillespie came within ONE POINT of defeating Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. But last night, he lost to Ralph Northam by NINE POINTS.
We wrote that, on paper, Gillespie’s biography (former RNC chair, former George W. Bush aide) gave him the potential to overperform in the Northern Virginia suburbs, while picking up Trump’s voters in the rural parts of the state. Threading that needle was his path to victory.
But there was no needle to thread last night. Despite his biography, Gillespie lost Northern Virginia by a bigger margin than Trump and Mitt Romney did. And despite utilizing the Trump playbook (hitting Northam with ads on immigration and crime, calling to keep Virginia’s Confederate monuments), rural voters didn’t come out in droves.
Trump tweeted last night that Gillespie didn’t embrace him. “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”
Another big factor in Virginia last night: Women striking back
According to exit polls, Northam won female voters by a huge 22 points. That’s five points better than Hillary Clinton performed among female voters in the state last year.
Among white women with a college degree, Northam captured 58 percent of the vote compared with 42 percent for Gillespie; among married women, Northam won by ten. And Democratic women made up about a quarter of the electorate — the largest share of any partisan gender group by far.
Here’s how that 22 point gender gap compares to past elections in the state:
Among female voters
- 2013: (McAuliffe): D+9
- 2014: (Warner): D+12
- 2016 (Clinton): D+17
- 2017 (Northam): D+22
What’s on the line in 2018: Was 2016 an accident?
Given the results from last night, one of the stories on the line in 2018 will be whether Trump’s 2016 was an accident. Do remember, he didn’t win the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
Per our recent NBC/WSJ poll of the “Trump Counties” – the counties that fueled Trump’s 2016 win – the most popular political figures in those places are … Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders:
- Obama: 48 percent positive, 37 percent negative (+11)
- Sanders: 42 percent positive, 31 percent negative (+11)
- Trump: 44 percent positive, 45 percent negative (-1)
- Republican Party: 31 percent positive, 40 percent negative (-9)
- Democratic Party: 27 percent positive, 40 percent negative (-13)
- Mitch McConnell: 11 percent positive, 35 percent negative (-24)
- Nancy Pelosi: 16 percent positive, 44 percent negative (-28)
- Hillary Clinton: 23 percent positive, 60 percent negative (-37)
So was 2016 an accident? Due to Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity? We’ll get a clearer answer to this a year from now…