After a year of high-profile moral victories in special congressional elections, Democrats finally got actual victories on the board, and more. They won big in Virginia, took full control of state government in New Jersey and Washington State, prevailed on an important ballot measure in Maine, and generally posted strong results across the nation.
Together, it was the clearest sign yet that college-educated white voters’ unhappiness with President Trump would jeopardize suburban Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.
But the biggest difference between Tuesday’s Democratic wins and the earlier Republican wins is deceptively simple: This time, elections were held on neutral or even Democratic-leaning terrain.
For that reason, it is not obvious that Tuesday’s performance represents a significant improvement over the Democrats’ showings earlier in the year. In 2018, they won’t always get the luxury of competing in such favorable districts. To take the House next November, they might have to do even better than they did on Tuesday.
Make no mistake: The results Tuesday are fully consistent with a so-called wave election, like the ones that brought Democrats to power in the House in 2006 and back out in 2010.
All of the conditions for a 2018 wave are in place. The president’s approval rating is stuck in the mid-to-high 30s. The Democrats hold nearly a double-digit lead on the generic congressional ballot. The president’s party nearly always struggles in midterm elections.
These conditions have been in place all year. It just hasn’t yielded Democratic victories until now because the high-profile races have been fought in reliably Republican areas — districts that voted for either President Trump or Mitt Romney by at least 15 points.
But Virginia voted for Hillary Clinton by five points in 2016, and it backed Barack Obama twice as well. New Jersey, Washington State’s 45th Senate district, New York’s Westchester and Nassau Counties and Maine are generally even more Democratic-leaning.
The big surprise of the night was the huge Democratic surge in Virginia’s house of delegates, but that also came in Clinton Country. Of the 16 districts where Democrats currently lead in Virginia, Mrs. Clinton won 15 of them and received 49.7 percent of the vote in the other, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project and Daily Kos Elections. Twelve of those 15 districts voted for Mrs. Clinton by at least five points.
Just because Tuesday’s victories came in states or districts won by Mrs. Clinton doesn’t mean they can be dismissed, however. College-educated white voters, paired with nonwhite voters, could profoundly endanger the G.O.P. in traditionally Republican, upscale districts.
Up until the polls closed in Virginia, it was reasonable to suppose that Mrs. Clinton’s performance represented something of a ceiling for Democrats in well-educated areas. It would be easy, the theory went, for Republican voters to distinguish their longtime Republican representatives from Mr. Trump. Jon Ossoff’s failure to outdo Mrs. Clinton in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District seemed fully consistent with that possibility.
But well-educated voters in Virginia didn’t appear to make any distinction between Mr. Trump and their incumbent representatives. Ed Gillespie, who was thought to have run a pretty strong campaign for governor against Ralph Northam, wound up running well behind Mr. Trump in many well-educated suburbs, a possibility that few imagined heading into the contest.
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, Mr. Northam, a Virginia Military Institute graduate with a strong Southern pedigree, didn’t even come close to matching Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Mr. Obama or Senator Tim Kaine in rural western Virginia. Democratic State Assembly candidates didn’t run well ahead of Mrs. 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 that 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 that 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 Mr. Trump, it would still be a tossup.
The good news for Democrats is that they did run well ahead of Mrs. Clinton in white working-class areas during this spring’s special congressional elections. And on Tuesday, Mr. Northam ran ahead of her in some areas, too, even if he landed short of prior Democratic benchmarks.
The big question in 2018 might prove to be whether Democrats can have it all: Will it be possible to combine a Virginia-like near sweep of Republicans in Clinton districts with a broad Democratic overperformance in white working-class districts? If they can do both, they will be favored to retake the House. One or the other would probably make the fight for House control a tossup. The fact that they’ve done both at various points this year might be an early clue.