Several million Americans voted last Tuesday in the first nationwide election since Donald Trump became President. In the 4-year cycle, this year has the fewest significant election results: two governorships (36 next year) and three state legislative chambers (87 next year) were decided. The media repeated constantly the idea that this was a referendum on Trump’s performance, which is true, but only part of the story. Every race concerned local issues and local personalities, yet we can learn much about our national mood from these statewide and local elections.
Most results are easily predictable from previous elections, because fundamental voting patterns remain dominant. The only Congressional election, replacing Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz who had resigned to become a FOX commentator, was won by another Republican with 58% of the vote. In New York, Democrat Bill de Blasio won overwhelming reelection as mayor, but lost Staten Island, typically a Republican stronghold, to his Republican challenger. In elections for NY City Council, 41 of 42 incumbents won and the last incumbent was in a race too close to call. All seven NY big city mayors won re-election, including the Republican mayor of Binghamton.
Only 2 incumbents lost in the 40-seat New Jersey Senate. Democrats picked up one seat in the Senate and one in the NJ House.
Exit polls in Virginia show how demographic differences in voter preference stayed relatively stable. Just as in the Clinton-Trump contest, voters over 45, men, and whites were more Republican, and women, under 45, and voters of color were more Democratic. The western mountainous regions went Republican and the Washington DC suburbs went Democratic.
But small shifts within these groups had major consequences for the outcome. Democrats slightly increased their percentage of votes in all demographic groups over previous years. For example, Trump won 52% among men and 59% of whites, but the Republican candidate for Governor, Ed Gillespie, won 50% and 57%. Clinton won 56% of women’s votes, but the Democrat Ralph Northam won 61%. The biggest shifts toward Democrats were among young voters 18-29 and middle-class voters with incomes of $50-100,000. The movement toward Democrats repositioned the Virginia House of Delegates, where Republicans held a huge 66-34 seat majority and all 100 seats were in play. Democrats defeated 10 Republican incumbents and picked up at least 15 seats, with 3 Republican seats still too close to call. Control of the Virginia legislature remains in doubt.
The deciding factor in this major legislative shift in Virginia may have been turnout. In the 15 districts that Democrats picked up, turnout increased by 26%.
A different sort of small shift occurred in Washington state, where only 5 state Senate seats were up for election. Two Democratic and two Republican incumbents won huge victories in safe districts, but one open seat in a formerly Republican district was won by a Democrat, switching control of the Senate from a one-vote Republican majority to a one-vote Democratic majority. Three other state legislative seats were flipped, all from Republicans to Democrats, in New Hampshire and Georgia.
One change that exhibited renewed liberal energy was the success of new candidates from previously under-represented groups. Trump’s sexism brought out an army of female candidates who won historic victories.
Dissatisfaction with Trump and Republican politics since his election is certainly one reason for Democratic gains through higher turnout in these local elections. Another change that exhibited renewed liberal energy was the success of new candidates from previously under-represented groups. Trump’s sexism brought out an army of female candidates who won historic victories. In Newton, MA, and Manchester, NH, the first women were elected mayors. Seattle elected its first woman mayor since the 1920s, and the number of female mayors in larger Washington cities rose from 11 to 27. Women increased their numbers on city councils in Massachusetts to nearly half in Boston and Newton, and doubled their numbers in Cambridge, including the first Muslim woman. In Atlantic City, NJ, 32-year-old Ashley Bennett, who had never held public office, defeated 58-year-old John L. Carman, well-known in local politics for 20 years, for county commissioner.
Non-whites won election firsts: the first black female mayor in Charlotte, NC, and a majority of people of color on the Seattle city council. At least 7 cities elected their first black mayor, including Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia, who was elected mayor of Helena, Montana. Elizabeth Guzman, an immigrant from Peru, trounced a retired Army colonel who has served in the Virginia legislature for 15 years in a traditionally Republican-leaning DC suburb.
Openly transgender candidates won unprecedented victories: first to win election to a state legislature – Danica Roem in Virginia; first to win election to city council seat in a major city – Andrea Jenkins in Minneapolis; first to win any election in Pennsylvania – Tyler Titus in Erie school board.
The Washington Post wondered whether “the Trump era will one day be remembered as the last gasp of white male privilege.” That will only happen if Trump continues his descent into national disapproval and the energy of liberal voters can be sustained through more election cycles.