Big victories in Virginia and New Jersey and in the mayor’s race in St. Petersburg on Tuesday have Democrats crowing about momentum and the toxicity of President Donald Trump heading into the 2018 midterm elections.
But many Republicans say results from a pair of states that Hillary Clinton carried and a heavily Democratic city don’t have much bearing on America’s largest swing state, Florida, where the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat are among the races on the ballot next year.
Tuesday’s results suggest that Democratic voters, often sluggish in non-presidential elections, can be prodded to the polls by their dislike of Trump – much as Republican voters channeled their enmity for former President Barack Obama into big midterm gains in 2010 and 2014.
In Florida, Democrats are optimistic that anti-Trump zeal can overcome the party’s historic midterm turnout struggles, which have helped Republicans win five consecutive governor’s races.
“I like the atmospherics of what we’re seeing because I don’t think any of us believe Trump is going to change or there’s going to be some warming to the guy,” says Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who is working for Gwen Graham’s campaign for governor.
In Virginia, Anzalone said, voters turned out “because they needed a way to express their anger at having to wake up with Donald Trump as president. I think that is a real signal for 2018 that the electorate is going to look a lot different from the electorate in 2010 and 2014.”
Republican consultant Brad Herold says that doesn’t worry him in Florida, where he advises U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Palm Coast, a potential candidate for governor.
“Virginia is a state that’s been trending Democrat for years. I don’t think it’s applicable to Florida. Florida’s a state that Trump won. And Republicans do a better job of turning out voters in midterms than Democrats,” Herold said.
Veteran Florida GOP operative Susie Wiles agreed.
“You shouldn’t read more into it than one mayor’s race and one race in another state,” Wiles said of the St. Petersburg and Virginia results. Wiles ran Trump’s general election campaign in Florida last year and Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s first anti-establishment victory in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary.
Since Trump carried Florida a year ago with 49 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 47.8 percent, Wiles said, “There’s no erosion in the president’s numbers with the base.”
A Florida Atlantic University poll this week showed Trump with 41 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval among Florida voters — a negative rating, but considerably better than his national numbers.
In Virginia, where Clinton defeated Trump by 5.3 percent last year, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor’s race by a 8.9 points on Tuesday thanks to high Democratic turnout and the lowest Republican participation rate since 1996, according to exit polls.
Independent voters in Virginia broke for Republican Ed Gillespie, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the Democratic turnout advantage or the 34 percent of Virginia voters who said they were motivated “to express opposition to Donald Trump.”
The president and his supporters blamed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, for not being a full-throated supporter of the Trump agenda.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump tweeted from Asia on Tuesday night.
In addition to Northam’s statewide win, Democrats in Virginia won at least 15 seats in the state House of Delegates that had been held by Republicans. According to data from the Virginia Public Access Project, all but one of those seats were in districts that Clinton carried last year.
In New Jersey, a state Clinton won by 14 points last year, Democrats took back the governor’s mansion from the GOP as Phil Murphy defeated Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Perhaps more worrisome for Republicans were results in Georgia, where Democrats on Tuesday won a pair of state House seats that had been held by Republicans in districts that voted for Trump.
In Florida, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a registered Democrat, won re-election in a theoretically nonpartisan race over former Mayor Rick Baker, a registered Republican. Kriseman overcame a summer polling deficit after Democrats began airing TV ads linking Baker to Trump — an effective strategy in a city where Democrats enjoy a 46-to-28 percent registration advantage.
History suggests 2018 will be a good year for Democrats nationwide. Since 1970, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the party that controls the White House has lost an average of 22 House seats and three Senate seats in midterm elections.
With Democrat Obama as president in 2010, Republicans picked up 63 House seats and six Senate seats. Four years later, the GOP gained 13 House seats and nine Senate seats under Obama.
Scott was a huge beneficiary of the 2010 and 2014 Republican waves. After upsetting establishment favorite Bill McCollum in the 2010 GOP primary, Scott won the general election by 1.2 percent over Democrat Alex Sink in 2010, then won a second term in 2014 by 1 percent over Democrat Charlie Crist.
“He’s never had to run in a year where he wasn’t running downstream,” said Democratic strategist Steven Schale. “And the thing about wave year elections is, in a wave year, it’s the late deciders that break your way. That helps Nelson.”
Schale, who ran Obama’s winning Florida campaign in 2008, recalled voters in 2010 and 2014 “coming to the polls simply to send a message to the Democratic president.”
Now it’s Republican candidates who will be on defense, Schale said.
“They have to figure out a way to talk about Trump and it’s not easy and sometimes it doesn’t work…I certainly lived it for a few cycles,” Schale said.
Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is running for governor in 2018, previewed one GOP approach on Wednesday in Winter Park.
“It is certainly a wake-up call,” Putnam said of Tuesday’s results, according to a transcript provided by his campaign.
Putnam went on to acknowledge voter dissatisfaction without mentioning Trump.
“People are fed up with an absence of results in Washington. Members of Congress were sent there to fix the health care system, reform our tax code, and there are no results,” Putnam said. “It’s a warning against being complacent on turnout. But every election, every campaign, is local. You look at the strength of Florida’s economy, the growth in the number of jobs in Florida, and I think Floridians are looking for a governor who will build on our economic progress and give young people the skills they need to succeed.”