By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic election victories in Virginia and New Jersey showed Republicans losing more ground in suburban areas, where President Donald Trump's unpopularity could cost them dearly in next year's congressional races.
The results from Tuesday, particularly in Virginia, suggest that Trump's strategy of playing to a loyal but limited base has not enabled him to broaden support for his presidency or his party.
Democrats were delighted, believing that control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and perhaps even the Senate, now both controlled by Republicans, might be up for grabs in next year's elections.
Some Republicans shared that view after their party's candidates did poorly among independent, college-educated, women, and minority voters in suburban areas.
“Unless we get our act together, we are going to lose heavily,” Republican Senator John McCain said on Wednesday.
Democrats would need to pick up 24 seats next year to retake control of the House. Should that happen, Trump’s policy agenda would be effectively dead and the administration would come under greater scrutiny.
The win by Democrat Phil Murphy in New Jersey's governor's race came as no surprise because of the unpopularity of outgoing Republican Governor Chris Christie. But Ralph Northam’s 9-point victory over Republican Ed Gillespie for governor in swing-state Virginia was larger than expected.
Trump quickly tried to distance himself from Gillespie's poor showing, saying on Twitter that the Republican candidate "worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."
Still, Trump's leadership record appeared to motivate Democrats to vote in record numbers in Virginia, with exit polls showing that many came out simply to express their displeasure with the president.
“Trump is turning off more voters than he’s bringing in,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist in Washington. “His base is strong, but it isn’t growing."
During his first year in office, Trump has consistently played to a base of passionate supporters, many of them older white men who live in rural areas declining in population, and has shown little inclination to reach out to the majority of voters who disapprove of him.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based in Virginia, said the party was on a risky track. "Republicans have traded fast-growing upscale suburban counties for slow-growing or declining rural areas. That is not a formula for long-term success.”
There also may be signs of slippage in Trump's political base.
In Virginia, Gillespie campaigned hard on immigration and crime - two hot issues with the president's supporters - but did worse than expected in some rural and suburban areas that Trump easily won last year.
In rural Dickenson County, considered to be the heart of Trump country in Virginia, Gillespie’s margin over Northam was almost 7 percentage points less than Trump’s margin of victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton last year.
Trump won the city of Virginia Beach in 2016 by 3 points, but Gillespie lost to Northam there by 5, a swing of eight points.
'SUBURBS OUT IN FULL FORCE'
More critically, Gillespie was blown out by Northam in northern Virginia’s populous suburbs, where Trump also struggled in the presidential race.
“The suburbs came out in full force,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. “They appear to be very motivated to try and deliver a message to Trump.”
In growing Loudoun County, outside of Washington, Democrat Barack Obama barely edged out Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. On Tuesday, Northam buried Gillespie there by almost 20 points.
“I’m worried,” Ari Fleischer, a former White House spokesman for Republican President George W. Bush, told Fox News on Wednesday. “Democrats came out in huge numbers yesterday in the races and if they have that kind of enthusiasm going into 2018, it’s going to be very tough sailing for Republicans.”
Gillespie, a longtime Washington insider and lobbyist, tried to keep his distance from Trump personally even as he adopted some of his more combative campaign rhetoric.
It was a strategy that failed and Mackowiak said the result reflected Trump's historically low approval rating. “I don’t think the White House was worried about that before, but now I think they have to be."
The five-day Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll has Trump hovering around 35 percent approval nationally, with close to 60 percent of respondents disapproving of his performance in office.
A person familiar with Trump’s political operation dismissed the election results on Tuesday as having anything to do with the president, noting that both New Jersey and Virginia were won by Clinton in 2016.
Andrew Surabian, an adviser to the pro-Trump political group Great America Alliance, said Gillespie lost because he was exactly the kind of establishment Republican that Trump voters have rejected.
“Ed Gillespie’s campaign went down in flames because he failed to fully embrace the president or his agenda,” Surabian said, "and without a coherent message and an authentic messenger, Republican candidates will not be successful moving forward.”
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Ginger Gibson, Jeff Mason and John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney)