In my last post, I talked about what exactly happened on Election Day and why. In a nutshell, an electorate that was old, white, and very friendly to the GOP went to the polls last week and delivered a massive win for Republicans all over the country. As I wrote last week, the Republican Party hasn’t done a whole lot to improve its showing with minority voters, but as several key races from this cycle illustrate, the Democratic Party’s continued slide among white voters means that it’s not just the Republicans who will need to alter their strategy if they want to keep winning elections in the future.
Let’s take a look at the Senate race in Colorado, where Rep. Cory Gardner (my favorite candidate of the entire cycle) defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall last week. I’m not alone in thinking Gardner was a fantastic candidate—the authors of The Fix blog at The Washington Post named Gardner the best candidate of the year—and there’s a reason for that. Basically, Cory Gardner was the exact opposite of the kind of crazy, firebrand culture warrior that Democrats love to run against. Try as they might, Sen. Udall’s campaign and their allies couldn’t convince the Colorado electorate that Gardner was anything other than the smiling, affable guy that he is. And that strategy not only failed but backfired on Udall, who is actually one of the nicer guys in politics himself. His relentless attacks on Gardner made him look like a cantankerous old incumbent who would rather smear his opponent than have a substantive debate about the issues.
In an attempt to replicate Sen. Michael Bennet’s upset win amid the 2010 GOP wave, Udall took the winning play out of Bennet’s playbook and used it relentlessly. Again and again, Udall’s campaign hammered away at Gardner’s stance on reproductive issues, arguing that he supported fetal personhood measures that would outlaw all abortion and certain kinds of contraception. But, very early on, Gardner made a decision that was brilliant in its simplicity—he completely reversed his position on personhood and said he didn’t support it anymore. And just like that, he eliminated the one avenue of attack around which the entire Udall campaign was built. And, on Tuesday, he won.
According to exit polls, Gardner only lost the female vote by eight points, 52%-44%. The margin among white women, while still in Udall’s favor, was even smaller at 50%-46%. This isn’t really much of a “gender gap,” especially if you compare it to Gardner’s margin of victory among men, which was a whopping 56%-39%. He won white men by over twenty points, 59%-36%. This is one of the many reasons why Gardner’s campaign this year should be a blueprint for future Republican efforts in competitive elections. He did what far too few Republican candidates do and not only refused to give his opponent cudgels to beat him with, but actively removed one that had previously existed. He didn’t double down on social issues and didn’t let Udall define him for the voters. As The Fix puts it, “He focused on energy, the economy and the idea of fresh-faced leadership who wouldn't be a supporter of most of President Obama's policies. Even when Democrats boasted that they had destroyed his candidacy in the summer with their attacks on his record on reproductive rights, he stayed totally focused on his own message and refused to bend to the whims of the political moment.” The result was that Gardner could make his case directly to the Colorado electorate and, it seems, they liked what they saw. He limited his losses among female voters and emerged as the first Republican candidate to win a top-of-the-ticket race in Colorado in a decade.
If there was a true shocker in the battle for the Senate last week, it was definitely the race in my home state. Sen. Mark Warner, repeatedly referred to as the most popular elected official in Virginia, was considered as close to a lock as any Democratic Senate candidate this year. Virtually no one expected his race against former RNC Chairman and sleazy beltway insider Ed Gillespie to be close. And yet, when the dust had settled, Warner won by less than a percentage point. This race, as much as any other on Tuesday, demonstrated just how poorly the Democratic Party is faring among white voters these days. Let’s compare Tuesday’s results with those of Warner’s two previous wins to get some perspective.
Here’s the county-by-county map of Warner’s successful gubernatorial run in 2001:
Note how strong his support was in predominantly rural Western and Southside Virginia. Warner ran a very blue-collar campaign that year, going to NASCAR races and running campaign ads with Appalachian folk music in the background. He won largely on the strength of his performance among the rural white electorate in what was a low-turnout, off-off-year election. You’ll note that he even lost the important Hampton Roads swing cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, usually a key part to a Democratic win in The Old Dominion. But if you’ve won over the NASCAR voters, you can afford to lose a few suburbs.
This is the county-by-county map of Warner’s first run for the Senate in 2008:
Obviously, he destroyed his opponent in this race. There were several reasons for this, but basically that sea of blue is the result of an extremely popular former governor running for the Senate in a year in which his party is experiencing a national wave. There’s not really much else to talk about here.
But take a look at the map for Warner’s squeaker of a win last week:
This is radically different from his wins in 2001 and 2008. His support in Southside and especially Western Virginia eroded considerably, with only a smattering of counties voting for him in those areas. He significantly underperformed compared to Tim Kaine’s performance two years ago, when he managed to sweep Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. Warner lost in population-rich Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Loudoun County. This meant that his narrow victory came almost entirely at the mercy of voters in a few Northern Virginia counties and Richmond. Basically, he won like a generic Democrat would win in Virginia, not like a well-respected and popular moderate. Indeed, this map is almost indistinguishable from Terry McAuliffe’s win in the gubernatorial race last year. That’s not the kind of company Mark Warner should be keeping.
The exit polls for this race provide a pretty simple answer as to why this happened—Warner lost the white vote by an astonishing 60%-37% margin. That’s almost unthinkable for a candidate who won the white vote 56%-43% in his first Senate run six years ago. White men, who backed Warner 53%-45% in 2008, abandoned him for Ed Gillespie to the tune of a 63%-33% whooping last week. That means only one in three white males voted for Mark Warner last Tuesday. Gillespie even won white women by an impressive 57%-41% margin, again illustrating that the GOP’s struggles among women voters are mostly a symptom of their poor showing among minorities. Basically, Mark Warner’s standing among white Virginians, once the backbone of his winning coalition, had deteriorated to the point that he nearly lost his seat last week. It seems that any Democrat, even one with a reputation as a moderate and who isn’t associated with the unpopular Democrat in the White House, still has a significant uphill climb in capturing the white vote.
In a nutshell, I think the Colorado and Virginia races illustrate two factors that are bright spots for Republicans: the GOP has the ability to win in blue states if they run good, savvy candidates and the white vote is continuing to abandon the Democratic Party in droves. Cory Gardner proved that if the Republican Party is smart enough to nominate non-crazy people as its nominees, then they can actually win elections on their own terms and with their own message. Too often Republican candidates double down in the face of criticism and allow Democrats to paint them as extremists. But if a candidate reaches out to the electorate with a friendly, down-to-earth message, it’s hard for that label to stick. And the key is to get that message out early. Even non-crazy candidates can lose winnable races if they allow their opponent to define them. (I’m looking at you, Mitt Romney.)
And then there’s the matter of the white vote. Although Cory Gardner lost white women last week, many Republican candidates did not. Some of them, like Ed Gillespie, won them quite handily. The so-called “gender gap” that is said to favor Democrats doesn’t really exist, as I’ve said many times before. The performance of Republican candidates among white women goes a long way toward closing that gap and, in many cases, eliminates it entirely. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor whose entire claim to fame was as a women’s rights advocate, lost the overall female vote in that race by a 54%-45% margin. If anything, the Democrats’ growing deficit among male voters is more of a factor in who is winning and losing.
Now, I would be remiss if I made all of these points and didn’t emphasize that all of this data is coming from a midterm electorate. Although the Republican Party is doing remarkably well among old and white voters, those demographic groups will make up a smaller slice of the electorate in the 2016 presidential election. Basically, I think the turnout factor provides both a bonus and a warning for each party. The Republicans have a motivated and reliable base that can be counted upon to show up and vote in every election, be it presidential or midterm. This gives them a distinct advantage in midterms because the Democratic coalition is so very unreliable. Obviously, this gives the Democrats a built-in advantage in presidential years, when their voters actually tend to show up. Moreover, their coalition continues to grow as a share of the electorate each year, just as the Republicans’ gets smaller and smaller.
Nevertheless, those factors mean that while the Democrats can feel bullish about the next presidential election, they should very seriously consider retooling their strategy for midterms. After all, dominating on the presidential front doesn’t do much good if you never have majorities in Congress to go along with it. Just as there are talks of a “permanent Democratic majority” at the presidential level, one could just as easily call the Republicans a lock for Congressional majorities until 2020. (Both of these claims would be bogus.) And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the Republicans’ utter dominance in governorships and state legislatures, which are the building blocks for a strong national party.
And so, heading into 2016, there are good and bad signs for both parties. Just as the Republicans need to improve their standing among minority voters to bolster their performance in presidential elections, the Democrats need to focus on putting together a more reliable coalition that can come through for them in off-year elections. These are very real challenges that neither party can truly afford to ignore—and how they deal with them will have a profound impact on who sits in Congress and the White House in just a few short years.