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Commentary: Last night's GOP bloodbath means both more and less than you think

Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam greets supporters at an election night rally Tuesday in Fairfax, Virginia. Northam defeated Republican candidate Ed Gillespie. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Things did not go well for the GOP last night. To some degree, the Republican Party's poor performance can be excused by external circumstances; namely, Chris Christie's historic unpopularity in New Jersey and the ongoing shift in partisan demographics in Virginia. Still, even taking into account these excuses, the Republicans' performance fell somewhere between "disappointing" and "panic-inducing."

Although the specter of Christie doomed New Jersey GOP gubernatorial nominee Kim Guadagno from the get-go, Republicans were at least hopeful that Ed Gillespie would either pull off a mild upset in Virginia's race for governor — or at least match Donald Trump's performance in the state in 2016. He did neither, as Democrat Ralph Northam outperformed Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance by about four percentage points, while Gillespie appears to have almost exactly matched Trump's performance in the commonwealth. More ominously, Democrats swept a huge number of GOP state legislators out of their seats in Virginia — possibly enough to overturn the GOP's majority, which was considered to be virtually impregnable.

At the end of the day, however, the Democrats' larger-than-expected wins are neither as easy to brush aside as Republican strategists would have you believe, nor as significant for the 2018 elections as Democrats have claimed.

Here are the lessons campaign managers and consultants on both sides of the aisle should take away from last night's Democratic sweep.

The polls were wrong, and that's bad news for the Republicans

Republicans have made a virtual sport out of dismissing polls since Donald Trump's surprise 2016 victory. This is both fair and unfair. Nationally, the polls actually did very well. The RealClearPolitics national average predicted a 3-point popular vote win for Clinton. She actually won by 2 points, which is as close to dead on as you can expect a national poll to get.

Statewide, however, the polls failed miserably, which is part of the reason so few observers saw Trump's victory coming. Statewide polling is always a bit of a guess as to what a state's electorate will look like in a given election, and in 2016 pollsters systematically underestimated Trump voter turnout.

Republicans leaned heavily on this experience to bolster hope for a Gillespie victory. The polls consistently showed Northam holding a slim lead right up until Election Day, and Gillespie voters had every reason to hope that the pollsters were once again underestimating them. Instead, it turns out that pollsters were systematically undercounting Democratic support. Out of the 12 polls taken in the final week of the campaign, 11 of them accurately predicted Gillespie's level of support within the margin of error. However, 10 of the 12 underestimated Northam's support, and did so outside the margin of error.  What this indicates is an enthusiasm gap that could spell trouble for the GOP in the 2018 elections, if it persists nationwide.

The GOP must address the health care crisis or face a washout

One side effect of an economy that appears persistently bullish is that immigration has dropped down voters' priority lists. Exit polling by multiple media organizations showed that concern about health care was far and away the biggest issue for Virginia voters (corruption was huge in New Jersey, but since Chris Christie won't be on the ballot anywhere in 2018, that can't be generalized nationally).

Among health care voters, Northam won by a huge margin. In fact, exit polls showed Northam consistently winning only two groups: 1) those for whom health care was their top issue, and 2) those for whom voting against Donald Trump was their main reason for voting.

The problem is that there were more than enough of these voters to carry Northam to a relatively easy victory, and that represents a problem.

The people who hate Trump and will do anything to vote against him are not going away. But as 2016 showed, there are simply not enough of those people to cause serious damage to the GOP. However, if Republicans are not able to do something to arrest the health care premium death spiral and provide real relief to swing voters, then they will have handed the Democrats an actual issue that might well allow the Democrats to sweep them out of power, at least in the House.

There's still plenty of time for the GOP to turn things around

Recent history suggests that the New Jersey/Virginia elections are a reasonably accurate bellwether for the following year's congressional elections. In 2009, Bob McDonnell cruised to an easy victory in Virginia and Chris Christie won in deep blue New Jersey. In 2010, Republicans followed that up by whitewashing the Democrats, gaining six Senate seats and an astounding 63 House seats. In 2013, Christie won re-election, but McDonnell's scandal-plagued administration led Democrat Terry McAuliffe to a narrow win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Republicans faced a very friendly Senate calendar and picked up nine seats, but gained a more modest 13 House seats.

The Senate calendar is so stacked toward the Republicans that even a major Democratic wave might not be enough to flip control of the upper chamber. The only two seats Republicans are defending in reasonably competitive states are in Arizona and Nevada. Unless a Republican incumbent suffers a major post-primary scandal in some other state, it seems likely that they will hold the Senate almost no matter what. However, generic congressional ballot polling, combined with other ominous signs (like early resignations of swing-district House members) indicate that the Republican majority in the House is very much in peril. If Democrats nationwide replicate Northam's showing (around four points better than Hillary), the GOP could easily lose more than 30 seats, and any hope of passing any legislation at all will likely go out the window until 2020.

The good news, however, is that a year is nearly an eternity in politics and a whole lot can happen in the next 12 months. If the economy remains strong, the Republicans will at least have a talking point to combat concerns about health care. Major Democratic candidates in key races could be caught in scandal. Festering crises in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere might break out in war. Any number of major events or national crises could occur that might affect the electorate in unpredictable ways. It is far too early to predict doom and gloom for Republicans in 2018.

However, it would certainly behoove Republicans to take matters into their own hands to the greatest extent possible, beginning with successful passage of a tax reform bill this year and including (at least) meaningful health care reform next year. Otherwise, last night's elections might well be a preview of things to come.

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