Opinion: The big takeaways from 2017 elections aren't good for GOP

We'll get to the meaning of the local races later, but first let's do what I said yesterday we should be wary of doing: Looking at the results from a Republicans vs. Democrats perspective.

Why the change of heart? The magnitude of the results.

There is no good news here for Republicans. None. They lost a pair of state House seats in which just a year ago Democrats didn't even bother to compete. They saw a pair of Democrats advance to a runoff in a state Senate seat previously held by one of the GOP's gubernatorial hopefuls. They made no breakthroughs in Democratic strongholds. Even their lone candidate for Fulton County Commission chairman didn't make a runoff against two Democratic opponents.

Looking outside Georgia, the wipe-out in Virginia appears to be of epic proportions. Republicans entered Tuesday with a super-majority -- 66 of 100 seats -- in that state's House of Delegates. It appears the GOP will have no more than 50 seats after this election. That's a stunning reversal of fortune in one election. As I noted yesterday, there are reasons to think those contests collectively tell us more about national trends than Virginia's statewide races. Not that those went any better for the GOP: Democrats won races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general by comfortable margins.


The question of course is what this means for next year and beyond. Here, Democrats might want to tone down the exuberance just a tad.

Starting in Virginia, it's not clear that what we saw is anything more than the solidifying of that state as a blue one. As far as what it means for the GOP in 2018 and 2020, the New York Times' Nate Cohn offers this word of caution amid the otherwise good news for Democrats:

"The catch, though, is that the overwhelming Democratic strength in well-educated areas did not cross the political divides of the 2016 election into white working-class areas. In fact, (Gov.-elect Ralph) Northam, a Virginia Military Institute graduate with a strong Southern pedigree, didn't even come close to matching Gov. Terry McAuliffe, (Barack) Obama or Senator Tim Kaine in rural western Virginia. Democratic State Assembly candidates didn't run well ahead of (Hillary) Clinton, either.

"Yes, the political divisions of the 2016 presidential election wound up working pretty well for Democrats in Virginia, a highly educated state. But this might not be the case for Democrats in a lot of the rest of the country. There are only 11 Republican-held congressional districts in the United States where Mrs. Clinton won by five points or more. Even if Democrats swept those 11 districts, it wouldn't get them far toward the 24 seats they need to flip the House.

"To my surprise, it's not obvious that a rerun of the Virginia House of Delegates election on a national scale would yield Democratic control of the House. Without greater strength in areas that supported (Donald) Trump, it would still be a tossup."

Likewise, there's this bit of history about Virginia breaking with the previous year's presidential results:

As you surely already know, the last three presidents (Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton) won re-election anyway. But let's be honest: This is electoral nit-picking. A toss-up election for the U.S. House in 2018 is a far cry from GOP's initial hopes they could not only maintain that chamber but add strength in the Senate, as Democrats have a number of red-state seats to defend. In short, you would far rather have the Democrats' momentum today than whatever we might call what the Republicans have (since "momentum" doesn't seem to be the right word).


The story in Georgia is somewhat different. The partisan races Tuesday were mostly special elections, and a number of caveats about them apply.

Yes, the GOP lost two state House races in the Athens area that have been GOP locks in recent years. There's no way for the party to spin those particular results. But as we look ahead, let's consider turnout: In House District 117, just over 7,500 votes were cast Tuesday ; even in an uncontested race a year ago , there were 18,374. The same goes in HD 119, where the numbers were 7,900 and 19,055, respectively. Now, no one expected the Republicans to lose both of those races (or, arguably, either of them) outright Tuesday. Again, there's no good GOP spin there. But one would still expect Republicans to fare much better in a higher-turnout election, given those areas' usual propensity to vote for Republicans. Fundamentals should matter more in those districts next year.

Then there's Senate District 6, which covers Vinings and parts of Smyrna, Buckhead and Sandy Springs. The district in the past has leaned Republican. But Clinton won it in 2016, and now a pair of Democrats are headed to a runoff. That's a bad outcome for the GOP. But it's also true that the two Democrats split 47 percent of the vote fairly evenly, while a trio of Republicans split another 46.5 percent. (Three candidates, two Republicans and one Democrat, divided the rest.) Vote-splitting cost the GOP dearly, similar to what nearly happened in the first round of the 6th Congressional District race earlier this year. But as far as next year goes, there is ample reason to believe a Republican candidate in a head-to-head contest with even an incumbent Democrat will be a strong contender.


So, what are the big takeaways? Nationally, I think it's similar to what we've seen in other off-year elections over the past decade or two: The minority party tends to have more motivation. The question is why. And I think the answer has something to do with the fact neither party is truly resonating with the American people right now.

Think about it: Democrats lost big in 2010 after racking up big, but largely unpopular, legislative wins on health care and the economic stimulus. Republicans now are being blamed for inaction on health care and, potentially, taxes. But while I agree with the notion Republicans are in the most trouble if they don't notch some victories between now and next November, I don't think the answer in broad terms is that Americans want what the GOP is selling more now than what Democrats were selling then. I think both parties are generally guilty of working on old agendas, with marginal near-term benefit, rather than deeply addressing the needs of the moment. That translates to popular disapproval of the party in power, whether its mistake is overreach or underachievement. So the pendulum swings back to the minority ... but not for long.

That doesn't mean either party is supposed to abandon its traditional philosophical approach; there's always going to be a party advocating more government intervention and another advocating less. It does, however, mean each party desperately needs to apply its philosophy in ways different from how it was done in the 1960s (Democrats) or 1980s (Republicans).

The GOP is somewhat better off in Georgia because lawmakers here have done more to address citizens' concerns. But they need to do more. And the risk for the GOP here is that another election cycle of assuming satisfaction among voters -- but this time with candidates trying to various degrees to be like Trump, without the money, fame or brash personality -- gives Democrats an opening. If so, Tuesday's results show, even if on a small scale, that's an opening Democrats are increasingly prepared to walk through.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.