The Republican defeat in New Jersey is unsurprising. The deep-blue state went for Hillary Clinton by 14 points, and on Tuesday the next governor, Democrat Phil Murphy, won by 13. The Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, simply couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of her unpopular boss, Gov. Chris Christie, whose favorability in exit polls was a sad 22%.
The GOP’s loss in purple Virginia is far more problematic, with grave ramifications for the 2018 midterms. Mrs. Clinton carried the state by 5 points, but Democrat Ralph Northam won the governorship Tuesday by almost 9.
That’s hardly the worst part. The Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, took about 11,000 more votes than former Gov. Bob McDonnell did in 2009 when Mr. McDonnell won that year’s race with 59%. In fact, Mr. Gillespie won more votes than any Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate in history, yet he netted only 45%.
In 2013 the GOP’s nominee for governor took 45.2%, even though he collected 100,000 fewer votes than Mr. Gillespie did. The difference is that turnout this year was up 16% from 2013. Most of the additional voters were white independents and Democrats in the suburbs who wanted to send President Trump a message.
Turnout in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington was way up from four years ago—by 23% in Fairfax County, 26% in Alexandria and Arlington County, and 31% in Loudoun County. That tilted the state’s electorate Democratic by 11 percentage points, compared with 7 last year and 5 in 2013.
Exit polls showed that only 22% of Virginia voters strongly approved of Mr. Trump’s job performance, versus 47% who strongly disapproved. Just 17% said their vote was meant to express support for Mr. Trump, versus 37% who wanted to signal opposition.
Yet on the issues, Virginians don’t uniformly disagree with the president. In the exit polls 57% said Confederate statues should be left in place. Still, independents are weary of Mr. Trump’s tweets, divisiveness and unpresidential rhetoric. Democrats just want to sock him politically in the nose.
Mr. Trump responded to the defeat by saying Mr. Gillespie “did not embrace me or what I stand for.” This is presidential self-deception. Mr. Gillespie won 95% of Republicans, 7 points more than Mr. Trump last year.
The president is spurring Democrats to the voting booth while letting his own base drift away. His job approval in the Real Clear Politics average is 38%, 8 points below his share of the vote last November. In other words, 1 out of 6 people who cast ballots for Mr. Trump disapprove of his performance. This showed up in Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley—the commonwealth’s Trump Country. Mr. Gillespie carried these areas by impressive margins, but turnout was either down or simply not up as dramatically as in the anti-Trump suburbs.
Consider, too, the GOP mass extinction in the Virginia House of Delegates. Before Tuesday, Republicans held 66 of the chamber’s 100 seats. Now the most likely outcome is a 50-50 tie. As of Wednesday, Democrats had won 48 seats and Republicans 47, with five contests being recounted. Among the GOP casualties were many incumbents who toed the Trump line. Fortunately for Republicans, the state Senate isn’t up for election until 2019. The GOP’s 21-19 majority there is likely to be the party’s only foothold in Richmond.
Mr. Gillespie did win independents statewide, 50.5% to 48.9%. He also poached some Democratic voters in the Richmond area, across the state’s Southside, and even in the northern suburbs. But Mr. Northam pilfered Republican votes in Tidewater areas that he previously represented in the state Senate for six years.
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Therein may be the only good news from Virginia for the GOP. Mr. Northam is a Gulf War veteran and pediatric neurologist who voted for George W. Bush twice and who once toyed with becoming a Republican. He appealed to independents in a way that Trump-hating left-wing Democrats can’t. As the campaign progressed, Mr. Northam put aside attacks on Mr. Trump and pledged to work with the president on behalf of Virginia. He flip-flopped on sanctuary cities, abandoning his support and coming out for cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
When Democrats pick their candidates for the U.S. House and Senate in 2018, they are unlikely to choose many Ralph Northams. Most Democratic activists are insisting the party nominate only ideologically pure candidates in the mold of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Nevertheless, the results Tuesday from Virginia should set off alarm bells for Republicans. Mr. Trump’s poor standing threatens their congressional majorities. He must try to improve his numbers, and the GOP must prepare itself for an extraordinarily tough battle. For Republican officeholders, this is life in the Trump presidency’s shadow.