Republican Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore.
Republican Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore.
WASHINGTON – Momentum in politics is fleeting.  A candidate can be riding a wave of momentum only to have it vanish with a quick turn of events.  During his 1980 quest for the Republican presidential nomination, George H. W. Bush claimed to have grasped “the Big Mo” after he won a surprising victory in the Iowa caucus.  But Bush’s momentum evaporated days later when Ronald Reagan defeated him by a wide margin in the New Hampshire primary.

Following a year of finger pointing and handwringing, Democrats have regained their optimism and captured the political momentum leading into next year’s midterm elections.  In last week’s off-year elections, they scored big in state and local races, flipping executive offices and legislative seats across the country.  Democrats won offices in New York and Pennsylvania that had been held by Republicans for over a hundred years. 

In Virginia, energized Democrats and moderate swing voters — mostly suburban  — turned out in droves to repudiate Donald Trump.  Exit polls found 57% of voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance — and that 87% of those dissatisfied voters backed the Democrat.  Forty-seven percent strongly disapprove of Trump with 95% voting Democratic.

Demographic breakdowns indicate a revived Obama coalition even without the former president on the ballot. According to exit polling data, 61% of Virginia women voted for Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, a soft-spoken former Navy doctor, over former RNC chair and lobbyist Ed Gillespie for governor.  Sixty-nine percent of Millennials gave their votes to Northam. Democrats also carried approximately four of five non-white voters.  

Virginia is a state where Democrats should win.  It has become more of a mid-Atlantic state than a southern one as the results in populous Washington, DC suburbs now determine the outcome of statewide elections. 

But no one predicted Northam’s nine-point margin in which he outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers in many areas, including Richmond suburbs and Virginia Beach.  Nor was anyone expecting that Democrats would erase a 32-seat Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, bringing them within one of a majority.  Democrats won in districts gerrymandered to guarantee a GOP majority.

Many Democrats are looking to Northam’s success in Virginia for a roadmap to winning back the U.S. House of Representatives and, perhaps, even the U.S. Senate in next year’s midterm elections.  But the Virginia formula will not be an easy one to replicate in many races beyond the east coast.  Northam combined a conservative resume (VMI graduate and Desert Storm veteran) with the most progressive platform in state history, putting health care at the center of his campaign. It worked as 39% of voters identified health care as their top issue, more than double the next issue.

However, Democrats continue to struggle with blue collar and rural voters. Gillespie outperformed Trump in areas of southern rural Virginia.   Democrats must win 24 seats in House races next year to regain a majority.  Hillary Clinton carried 24 districts currently held by Republicans, though Democrats are not likely to win all of them. Inside Elections currently rates only 28 Republican held seats as competitive in 2018.   As a result, Republicans could still narrowly hold on to the House in a wave year by maintaining support in small town, exurban and rural American—areas where Trump remains popular.

In Indiana, even a wave may not be enough to carry Hoosier Democrats into Congress due to extreme gerrymandering.  The only two U.S. House seats where Democrats have any shot of knocking off an incumbent are in the 2nd and 9th Districts, neither of which are identified by national handicappers as truly competitive in 2018.  The Republican advantage in the 2nd is plus 11 and in the 9th is plus 13, according to the Cook Political Report.  Those are difficult numbers to overcome, especially in a 9th District that is predominately rural where few Republicans would be expected to cross party lines. 

Democrats have one key advantage in the 2nd District. Sen. Joe Donnelly will be on the ballot and he remains popular in his former district. When Donnelly won his  Senate seat in 2012, he almost carried Democrat Brendan Mullen in with him as Republican Jackie Walorski won the 2nd by less than 1.5%.  Neither Walorski nor 9th District Republican incumbent Trey Hollingsworth are particularly strong incumbents, making upset wins in either the 2nd or 9th Districts still possible if the wave is large enough.

If it weren’t enough to worry what 2017 portends for 2018, Republicans are also in a panic over the Roy Moore pedophilia scandal. The Alabama U.S. Senate Republican nominee in the special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ former seat has put the GOP in a no-win situation.  Moore has eschewed calls to step aside. Polling shows his numbers have tumbled but not so much that he might not win a low turnout election. Many Alabama Republicans would rather believe Moore than vote for a pro-choice Democrat, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify as more victims come forward.  

If Moore does win, then Republicans in Washington have to grapple with expulsion — not a quick and easy process under Senate rules.  If Moore loses, Republicans are down to a one-seat majority.  Senate Republicans have made it clear they would rather lose a seat than have Moore hanging around their necks.

Some Democrats argue they are better off if Moore wins since the scandal would drag on into the election year. It was the Mark Foley sex scandal that helped Democrats win back the House in 2006. However, a Democratic win in Alabama will further boost Democratic momentum and Moore has already severely damaged the Republican brand.

Previous midterm election waves didn’t start taking shape until much later in the election cycle.  Republicans have plenty of time to slow or reverse the Democrats’ momentum. Passage of a tax bill that actually helps Middle Americans—not currently on the table--would go a long way to helping the GOP turn things around.  

But Donald Trump himself is what drove the 2017 election results and the 2018-midterm elections will again be a referendum on Trump.  With new revelations surfacing nearly every day about the Trump’s campaign ties to Russia, Democrats have every reason to believe momentum will build through 2018. 

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant based in Washington.