WASHINGTON — It wasn’t just the election losses that had Republicans worried Wednesday — it was how they lost.
Facing a backlash to President Trump, Republicans absorbed bruising defeats from the suburbs of Washington to those surrounding Philadelphia and counties near New York — in some cases losing local offices the GOP has held for decades.
Metropolitan suburbs are at the heart of the 2018 midterm races that will determine control of Congress. Democrats need to flip 24 seats to take over the House, their best shot at gaining power in Washington.
The key races include five just outside Philadelphia in places that mirror the prosperous, highly educated regions that delivered resounding Democratic victories Tuesday. Losing Virginia’s marquee governor’s race was one thing, but lower-key county losses made emphatic statements that gave Republicans pause.
“People smell blood, they smell opportunity,” said David Landau, chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party. Democrats there beat Republicans in a County Council election for the first time. Leading up to the vote, they planted signs that read: “Bring Back Sanity.”
In Chester County, Democrats won four countywide row offices for the first time since 1799. In Bucks County they captured four of five row offices, winning those positions for the first time in decades.
Democrats now hope to translate that momentum into congressional races.
They have made prime targets of Bucks County’s Brian Fitzpatrick, Chester County’s Ryan Costello, and Delaware County’s Pat Meehan. In South Jersey, they hope to oust Ocean County’s Tom MacArthur and take the sprawling district held by Frank LoBiondo — who announced his retirement hours before the polls closed Tuesday, opening up perhaps Democrats’ best opportunity in the region.
At least five Democrats are running for the nomination to challenge Meehan, and national Democrats are touting one would-be challenger to Costello, veteran and executive Chrissy Houlahan, as a top recruit.
“Clearly Democrats have probably a historic intensity behind that vote [Tuesday] as being the first chance to vote against the president,” said Costello, widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the area. “I think also there were probably some Republicans and independents who felt that way, too.”
Added Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant based in Harrisburg, “What we’re seeing now is the flight of better-educated white suburbanites away from Donald Trump,”
Another Pennsylvania Republican operative surveying the wreckage said the party on Wednesday was in “panic mode.”
Many fear that the lopsided voting will spur more GOP retirements, opening up better opportunities for Democrats. Along with LoBiondo, Rep. Charlie Dent of Allentown is also leaving office, abandoning another moderate district.
While the president can help in more rural parts of Pennsylvania — where he remains popular — operatives in both parties say he is widely disliked in the southeastern part of the state. Trump lost districts represented by Costello and Meehan in 2016 and barely won on Fitzpatrick’s turf.
That trend was amplified even further Tuesday night in Virginia, as voters headed to statewide races for the first time since Trump’s stunning victory.
The result: Democrat Ralph Northam scored the largest margin of any Virginia Democrat since 1985, according to Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez. He took nearly 68 percent of the vote in suburban Fairfax County — nearly 11 points more than his Democratic predecessor won four years ago.
The results cascaded. Virginia Democrats picked up at least 14 seats in the state’s House of Delegates, their largest gain since the 1890s.
Those wins, combined with the ones outside Philadelphia, are “very much a leading signal about where things are going in suburban areas for next year, and has me even more optimistic,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat.
Historically, midterm elections almost always turn against the party in the White House. Mark Dion, a Republican consultant who has previously worked for Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), said early poll numbers look similar to when Democrats made huge gains in 2006 and 2008.
The Philadelphia region is also likely to play a major role in deciding Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race, which features a Democrat, Bob Casey, running in a state that backed Trump. The race is one of many in which Senate Democrats are defending seats in Trump states — giving the GOP hope of expanding its narrow two-vote Senate majority.
Democrats hope to tether local Republicans to Trump, but Republicans caution that there is still a year to go, and that individual candidates’ qualities can make a difference. In the Philadelphia area, several of the incumbents are well established and have well-stocked campaign funds.
Democrats, like Republicans, have internal divisions — which reared up in Virginia — and will have to try to win races in districts that have been drawn to favor the GOP.
Republicans trying to overcome the political headwinds, Dion said, need to “get home and tell their story and not be co-opted by the national trends they’re seeing.”
He and others said GOP lawmakers can make up ground by showing both independence from Trump, and progress on their agenda in Congress.
Costello said he has made it a point to be more outspoken.
“You come to the realization that if you’re not speaking your mind, people are not going to have an accurate reflection of who you are and what you’re thinking about and how you respond to things,” he said Wednesday.
Other Republicans urged lawmakers to follow through on Trump’s agenda to stabilize the party standing ahead of next year’s races.
“If House and Senate Republicans are successful in getting a tax reform bill passed and then pivot to something like an infrastructure bill, they’re going to have real momentum,” said Val DiGiorgio, Pennsylvania’s Republican chairman.
Democrats have made noise about challenging Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs for years — with little to no success.
But Tuesday’s results, Landau said, offer belief. Now that they have broken through, he said, he can go to supporters and donors with victories to tout.
“People will take you seriously,” he said.