Democrats won big in Virginia. Should Ohio Republicans be worried?

Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s surprisingly easy win in the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday sent a message to Republicans in other states, including Ohio, that those up for election next year could be in for a challenge.

One year after President Donald Trump relied on a nationalistic message of cracking down on immigration to win the presidency, Republican Ed Gillespie’s emphasis of many of those same issues ricocheted.

Not only did he lose a Virginia governor’s race that was supposed to be tight by almost 300,000 votes, but Republicans also suffered big losses in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley immediately seized on the Democrats’ big night in Virginia to make a fundraising plea for her campaign for governor in Ohio.

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“We heard it from Virginia voters last night, and I hear it at every campaign stop I make across Ohio — people are demanding an end to Republicans’ politics of division,” she wrote. “They’re demanding leaders who will stand up for all working people.”

Political experts are in almost universal agreement that there are minefields ahead for Republicans if Trump’s approval ratings remain below 40 percent and GOP candidates continue to antagonize women, African Americans and Hispanics.

“It’s not a particularly good sign and one we need to reverse by November of 2018,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant in Virginia.

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In Ohio, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Renacci and Senate Republican candidate Josh Mandel are counting on a sharp nationalistic message to carry their campaigns.

That might work in a primary, said Paul Beck, an emeritus political science professor at Ohio State University, but embracing that formula in a general election when more people vote is more risky.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper told reporters Wednesday that Mandel, Renacci and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor — who also is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination — “are walking the same plank Gillespie walked.”

“To the extent they are embracing the far right wing of the party … versus a bunch of Democrats sticking to the issues, we’re on the much stronger side of winning elections next year,” Pepper said.

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But others warn against making sweeping conclusions about one state, pointing out that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Virginia last year and the state has been trending toward the Democrats.

“At root, these are still local races,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “Certainly, it was a bad night for Republicans, but that does not mean, by definition, future nights will be bad.”

Trump allies say Gillespie was an imperfect candidate to deliver the Trump message. A former Washington lobbyist and chairman of the Republican National Committee, Gillespie was the epitome of the Washington establishment.

And some, including Trump, who fired off a tweet slamming Gillespie after his defeat, argue his campaign didn’t connect with Republicans.

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“We’ve got to have a message that is part of this ‘Washington stinks, it’s time to reform,’ in order to get Republicans excited to come out and turn out,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign last year.

“To incumbents who want to campaign like they always have, this should be a wake-up call,” Bennett said. “You’re going to have to tap into this anger if you’re going to survive.”

Trump tapped into that anger last year, but his job-approval rating has sagged in recent months. Some Republicans have grown weary of his angry tweets about any topic on his mind, and people in both parties were appalled and angry at his unwillingness earlier this year to denounce the alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville.

“Certainly Democrats have to feel good about what happened,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “What we saw in Virginia was that there was a real surge of Democrats voting, particularly in places where the president is pretty unpopular.”

Columbus Dispatch senior writer Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.)

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