Historic victories have political scientists and analysts looking at the White House to explain how Democrats won across the board.
In Virginia, Democrats flipped the state House and Senate, securing full control of the government for the first time in a generation. In Kentucky, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear turned a 9-point Democratic loss in the 2015 race into a half-point win.
Democrats had surprise victories in smaller races across the country, too. In Indiana, for example, Democrats won three seats on a Hamilton County city council that had not had Democratic members in decades. And in the ruby red southwest suburbs of St. Louis, the Democratic candidate for Missouri House District 99 won a special election by 8-points.
According to several political experts, these elections were a referendum on President Donald Trump.
“I think that that’s where the Democratic energy is coming from,” said Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “If Hillary Clinton were in the White House, we would not be talking about the Democrats today.”
Days before the Tuesday election, Trump appeared to embrace his connection to the outcomes in Virginia and Kentucky. At his rally in support of Republican incumbent Matt Bevin on Monday, President Trump said if Bevin lost, “they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me!” In Virginia, the president tweeted Sunday that if voters backed Republicans, it would send a “strong signal” to D.C. that they support his policies.
Instead, voters showed up in droves to hand Democrats historic wins. Voter turnout in Kentucky was 43% higher than the previous gubernatorial election. Electoral officials are still tallying ballots in Virginia, but it’s already certain that more people voted in this state-legislative-only election since at least 1976.
“There’s nothing localized about what happened in Virginia last night,” Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, told Rolling Stone in an interview. “Turnout went way, way up … It went up because people are unsettled about Donald Trump. People are freaked out.”
In Virginia, Democrats didn’t just win more seats, they also outperformed the partisan make-up of state districts, a metric of how each party performed relative to the base partisanship of the districts.
In the Virginia state Senate, the average winning margin was 4 points higher for Democrats than the average partisan make-up in the districts. In the House of Delegates, the average winning margin was 3 points higher for Democrats, according to figures from FiveThirtyEight.
“Because partisan lean is meant to represent a district’s partisanship in a neutral political environment, that’s consistent with a somewhat Democratic-leaning national mood, like the one we see in polls of the generic congressional ballot,” FiveThirtyEight elections analyst Nathaniel Rakich wrote.
“What happens in Virginia doesn’t stay in Virginia, because everyone knows Virginia’s off-year elections are a national bellwether,” Everytown for Gun Safety President John Feinblatt said in a press call. “That’s especially true for candidates, including President Trump, who are looking for a read on what suburban voters want.” Everytown invested $2.5 million into the Virginia elections, making it the largest outside spender.
Feinblatt added that Trump is in “serious danger,” of falling into the same trap as Virginia Republicans did on issues like gun policy, the top issue for Virginia voters.
“After the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton this summer, Trump said he was open to taking action to prevent gun violence,” Feinblatt said. “But when NRA CEO Wayne La Pierre met Trump in the Oval Office, he said ‘stop the games on gun safety,’ and Trump quickly fell in line.”
“Just look at the spending numbers,” Feinblatt continued. “The NRA may be based in Fairfax, Virginia, but we outspent them in Virginia by 8:1. In other words, the NRA couldn’t defend its own backyard, which raises the question: will the NRA, which was Trump’s biggest donor in 2016, be a major player in 2020?”