For months, Republican strategists, and even some Democratic ones, have argued that because Trump is such a unique figure, voters unhappy with him were less likely to take it out on other candidates from his party than they’d been with previous presidents. Tuesday’s results exploded that idea. In both the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, exit polls found a clear majority of voters disapproved of Trump’s job performance—and that in both contests about 85 percent of those dissatisfied voters backed the Democrat. That result fits squarely in the range typical of House and Senate elections over the past two decades. In other words, it clearly signaled to congressional Republicans that they will be bound to Trump more than they hoped or expected in future elections.
The soaring wave of discontent translated into solid turnout and crushing margins for Democrats in their key voter groups, all of which have expressed intense resistance to Trump in polls. Although they declined in number from last year’s presidential race, Millennials slightly increased their share of the vote in both states compared with the 2013 gubernatorial races there. Sixty-nine percent of those young people gave their votes to Northam, and 75 percent gave their votes to Murphy. That’s a chilling trend for Republicans, given that more Millennials will be eligible to vote than baby boomers in 2018 and 2020. Turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities was also solid. In both states, Democrats carried roughly four out of five non-white voters.
But the principal engine of the Democratic sweep was a suburban tsunami in white-collar communities in Northern Virginia, Northern New Jersey, and even the suburbs of Seattle, where Democrats convincingly captured a state Senate seat that flipped control of that chamber to them. Those results will surely unnerve every U.S. House Republican holding a well-educated suburban seat.
“Tonight, college-educated white voters … collectively stood up and said, ‘Enough,’” said Jesse Ferguson, a former communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “If I was a Republican representing a suburb, I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight because there’s a storm brewing.”
Four years after Republican Chris Christie carried almost two-thirds of whites in New Jersey with at least a four-year college education, Murphy won 52 percent of them. In Virginia, Democrats had won between 42 percent and 45 percent of college-educated whites in each of their recent victories there, including Barack Obama’s in 2012, Governor Terry McAuliffe’s in 2013, Senator Mark Warner’s in 2014, and Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. But Northam blew past them to capture 51 percent of college-educated whites against Republican Ed Gillespie.
That emphatic shift undoubtedly reflected a backlash against Gillespie’s turn toward Trump-like themes of cultural confrontation on so-called “sanctuary cities” and Confederate monuments. But it also quantified how much of a potential burden Trump poses for the GOP among those well-educated voters: Fully 58 percent of Virginia’s college-educated whites said they disapproved of his job performance in the exit poll.