Ousted from the White House and enduring opposition status in Congress since Hillary Clinton’s humiliating loss on November 8, 2016, Democrats bounced back Tuesday night with their biggest election victories of the Trump era.
They won gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia — the latter the scene of a command performance by progressives up and down the ballot — which analysts said could signal trouble for Trump’s Republicans in next year’s congressional mid-terms.
Democrats won mayoral races in New York and Boston, as expected, but also in cities like Manchester, New Hampshire; Fayetteville and Charlotte in battleground North Carolina; and Florida’s St Petersburg.
An Indian-American became the first Sikh mayor of a New Jersey city, Hoboken, while Virginians elected their state’s first openly transgender House of Delegates member.
Some of the results were expected, as in Virginia, which neighbors the capital Washington and has trended blue in recent years.
But the 8.5 percentage point victory margin for governor-elect Ralph Northam over his Trump-endorsed rival, Ed Gillespie, stunned analysts who did not expect so thorough a repudiation of Trump’s combative politics.
“We’re taking our country back from Donald Trump one election at a time,” Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said, adding that voters were “punishing Republicans for dividing our country.”
The results could emerge as a test of the unpopular president’s influence ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential contest.
They were also victories the party had been craving, having failed to win any of the five high-profile special elections for House of Representatives seats earlier this year.
Apart from a tweet criticizing his party’s gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Ed Gillespie, because he “did not embrace me or what I stand for,” the president himself appeared unfazed by the results.
Instead, he tweeted his thanks to Americans who elected him one year ago, including the “deplorables” criticized by Clinton during their toxic campaign.
“Congratulations to all of the ‘DEPLORABLES’ and the millions of people who gave us a MASSIVE (304-227) Electoral College landslide victory!” Trump posted on Twitter from China, during his nearly two-week trip to Asia.
– ‘Backlash to Trump’ –
One salve for Republicans was their candidate John Curtis’s victory in a Utah congressional race to replace the retired Jason Chaffetz.
Elsewhere, Democrats successfully mobilized to boost turnout in traditionally blue regions like populous northern Virginia, where Democratic candidates received upwards of 80 percent of the vote.
It was “a backlash to Trump and Trumpism, pure and simple,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Aware of Trump’s toxicity — his approval ratings are at historic lows — Gillespie did not personally embrace or campaign with Trump. But he did mimic Trump tactics, releasing advertisements addressing culture-war issues like illegal immigration and the fate of Confederate Civil War monuments.
Corey Stewart, a rightwing Trump acolyte who narrowly lost the Republican primary to Gillespie, said the establishment Republican had failed to motivate Trump’s core supporters.
“I think he made a mistake by not inviting the president to campaign for him,” Stewart told AFP.
A Gillespie win would have served to validate Trump’s aggressive style, and form a blueprint for how mainstream Republicans can fight for Trump issues without embracing the controversial man himself.
– Under pressure –
In South Korea, the president meanwhile trumpeted American successes on the anniversary of his election.
“The United States is going through something of a miracle,” Trump told the South Korean National Assembly, citing the record-setting US stock market, declining unemployment, and the battle against Islamic State extremists.
But congressional Republicans have not succeeded in pushing through some key planks of Trump’s agenda. They have failed to repeal and replace health care reforms known as Obamacare, and the prospects for the latest big-ticket item, tax reform, are cloudy in Congress.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Democratic victories have not changed his “reading” of the moment.
“If anything, this just puts more pressure on us to follow through,” he said.
But some Republican lawmakers were interpreting Tuesday’s thrashing as a warning.
“Last night was a referendum” on Trump, Republican congressman Scott Taylor of Virginia told CNN. “I don’t think there was any way you could look at it a different way.”