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Analysis: Democratic surge in suburbs forecasts a potentially rough 2018 for GOP

Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Republicans awoke Wednesday facing a tortuous road ahead for their candidates in the 2018 elections, particularly in suburban areas where animosity toward President Donald Trump overwhelmed his party in Tuesday's elections.

In the northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, D.C., Democrat Ralph Northam captured 69 percent of the vote in winning Tuesday's race for governor, five points better than Hillary Clinton did against Trump in the same area last November. In Hampton Roads, the southern end of an urban crescent that has helped reshape Virginia into a reliably Democratic state in presidential elections, Northam finished seven points stronger than Clinton.

The view from the suburbs is key because it points to the central problem for Republicans in 2018: Control of the House will be decided in large part in districts similar to those that retaliated against Trump on Tuesday.

Republicans next year will face the same conundrum that befell the losing Virginia gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie: The racially tinged, culture war themes that appeal to Trump loyalists provoked a giant backlash among moderate suburbanites and nonwhite voters.

In 2016, Trump managed to eke out a narrow victory with those themes, in part because of the deep unpopularity of his opponent. But nothing that has happened since then has contributed to turning that upset into a formula that can consistently work for candidates other than Trump himself.

"Republicans have a lot to worry about this morning," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes political races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's not just the fact that Northam won. It's by how much."

The margin -- nine points, almost twice Clinton's margin over Trump -- was not due to any paucity of Republican support for Gillespie. The GOP nominee outdistanced previous Republican candidates in terms of votes earned. It just was not enough given the huge groundswell of Democratic voters.

Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., noted that Northam won six congressional districts, including two held by Republicans, who likely also would have been drowned by the blue wave had their seats been on the ballot.

"Republicans have to look at what happened last night in Virginia soberly and think about states like Nevada and Colorado," he said. "If Democrats turn out in 2018 like they did in Virginia this year, that has to spell difficulties."

Their successes in upscale suburban regions don't by any means give Democrats a lock on success next year. Virginia and New Jersey, which also elected a Democrat as governor Tuesday, both have higher shares of college-educated white voters than many other states. As Trump did last year, Gillespie won heavily among whites without a college degree. In states where those voters predominate, the lessons from Virginia may not fully apply.

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