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How Republican losses in Virginia could mean real trouble for the GOP in 2018

- November 10, 2017
Danica Roem, who beat GOP incumbent Robert G. Marshall in the race for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates, is greeted by supporters in Manassas on election night. Roem will be the first openly transgender state legislator in the United States. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via AP)

In 1897, an earthquake that hit 5.8 on the Richter scale shook Virginia and was felt across 12 other states. Six months later, William McKinley’s Republican Party experienced its own disaster in Virginia, losing 15 seats in the state House of Delegates.

Not until Tuesday night did another such earthquake strike a president’s party in Virginia elections. The figure below puts the Republican Party’s losses in historical perspective. What happened Tuesday was worse than normal.

Now the question is whether the GOP’s losses in the Virginia legislature should be a warning sign for Republicans next year. If past elections are any indication, the answer is yes.

All politics is not local

National politics has long dominated state legislative elections. That’s true in Virginia, too. The left panel in the graph below shows that presidential approval, as measured by the last national Gallup poll before an election, is strongly associated with seat changes for the president’s party in the House of Delegates. The right panel shows that this is true in state elections nationwide.

What is particularly worrisome for Republicans is that their Virginia losses were worse than what is predicted by presidential approval alone. In the left-hand graph above, the 2017 point is well below the line that captures this relationship. With Trump’s approval rating at 38 percent, Republicans should have lost two to four seats, not 15.

This simple analysis suggests that a 38 percent approval rating could translate in 2018 into Republicans losing about 300 state House seats. This is why the GOP’s losses in Virginia may hint at a larger earthquake.

Indeed, the fortunes of the president’s party in Virginia House elections are related to how the president’s party fared in midterm elections the next year. The graph below shows a clear correlation emerges in U.S. House and state House elections.

A 10-point change in seats in the House of Delegates is associated with a 4-5% seat change in midterm state House and U.S. House elections. The points labeled “2018” indicate the predicted loss in Republican seats, which would be almost as large as Democratic losses in 2010 and exceed Republicans losses after Watergate in 1974.

A key lesson for Democrats from Virginia is: Make sure Democratic candidates run. In 2017, Democrats ran for 88 of the 100 House of Delegate seats, compared with only 55 in 2015.  Many Democratic candidates in 2017 likely hoped to ride an anti-Trump wave. Such strategic behavior is consistent with studies of U.S. House elections by Gary Jacobson and Sam Kernell and my own research on state legislative elections.

Since Tuesday’s election, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is already actively recruiting candidates to ensure Democrats are similarly positioned nationwide. Jessica Post of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (the national organization devoted to electing Democrats to state legislatures) says, “In 2018 we’ll continue working with state leaders to recruit smart, strong candidates in every district.”

If Democrats can do this, and if Trump’s approval rating continues to languish, Republicans may suffer just as much in the 2018 midterm election as they did on Tuesday.

Steven Rogers is assistant professor of political science at Saint Louis University.