By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Voters sent a message Tuesday.
They sent it to President Donald Trump, who has frittered away his first 10 months in office engaging in one pointless and avoidable quarrel after another.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
And they sent it to the Republicans in Congress, in governors’ offices and in Statehouses across the land who have tolerated and at times even encouraged and abetted Trump’s destructive divisiveness.
The message was clear.
There is no other way to read the results from the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and New York than as a repudiation of Donald Trump.
The president’s incessant need to have people pay attention to him, all the time, every hour, every minute, every second, means that he inevitably was going to be the issue when voters cast their ballots. He just sucks all the oxygen out of the room, out of the house, out of the country.
One Hoosier Republican who is being heavily courted by the GOP to run for office here in Indiana told me privately he was resisting the pleas for that reason.
“Any Republican on the ballot is going to have to take a position on Trump,” he said. “And whichever position he takes – for or against – he’s going to lose votes. You just can’t avoid dealing with Trump. Any Republicans who think they can are fooling themselves.”
If this Republican is right and next year’s election turns out to be a referendum on the president, that won’t be good for the GOP.
It certainly wasn’t on Tuesday.
Virginia was perhaps the most important bellwether. Once a solidly red – Republican – state, it has edged into the purple category in recent years.
At the very least, Tuesday’s results continue that trend.
Democrats captured the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices. They also all but erased a 32-seat deficit in the Virginia House of Delegates, the state’s legislature. Control of that assembly now will be determined by recounts in close contests because Democrats made gains even in districts previously considered safe for Republicans.
Trump was the issue. Exit polls showed that between 55 and 60 percent of Virginians who cast their ballots disapproved of the president and the direction he is taking the country.
That’s why Virginia Democrats could claim the governor’s race even though their candidate, Ralph Northam, has all the charisma of a piece of stale cheese.
But it doesn’t take much personal magnetism to point at a picture of Donald Trump and say, “I’m not him.”
Last year, Trump lost Virginia to Democrat Hillary Clinton by six points. This year, Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points.
That matters because turnout among Democrats normally drops significantly in non-presidential election years.
Trump, though, has energized Democrats in ways no Democratic candidate possibly could. He’s become the best recruiter the Democratic party has ever seen.
That likely will have implications across America, including here in Indiana, where Republicans Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are in the middle of an all-out mud wrestling match to see which will challenge U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, in the general election next November.
Both Rokita and Messer have pursued Trump’s voters with all the dignity and discipline of a pair of rabid dogs. In the process, they’ve managed to drive disaffected Hoosier Democrats – many of whom were furious about Donnelly’s vote to confirm Trump U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch – back home and persuade moderate Republicans and independents at the very least to sit on their hands.
What’s even worse news for Republicans is that Trump’s polarizing effect could put other offices into play. The results in the Virginia House of Delegates contests demonstrate that just about any race – right down to dog catcher – can be cast as a referendum on the president.
That’s the good news for Democrats.
The bad news is that saying “I’m not Donald Trump” may be a message that wins at the ballot box, but it doesn’t give the party any mandate to govern. As Trump himself has demonstrated, rage may encourage them to vote, but it doesn’t help get things done.
That’s the meaning of Tuesday’s elections.
Democrats have a chance.
Republicans have a challenge.
And whichever party responds best could shape the future of the country.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.