Tough night for Trump and GOP sends a message for 2018

Northam projected to win Virginia race
Northam projected to win Virginia race

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Story highlights

  • Alice Stewart says the Democrats showed in Virginia and New Jersey that they are more motivated to vote than is the GOP base
  • It's a very troubling sign for Republicans who have few legislative achievements in the era of Trump, Stewart writes

Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)How do you run in the era of Trump? As a Democrat, evidently.  

The first two gubernatorial elections since President Donald Trump took office went in favor of Democratic candidates in Virginia and New Jersey. The lesson to be learned is that this is not about the personalities; it's about the base. Clearly, the Democratic base is more motivated.
Alice Stewart
In Virginia, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam beat former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Two blue states, serving up a black eye to the GOP in this off year election.
    The Virginia and New Jersey races are a shot in the arm for beleaguered Democrats still reeling from the 2016 presidential loss.
    As for the GOP, this double defeat is another wake-up call for Republicans in the House and Senate to work together on meaningful tax reform. Democratic momentum in the absence of GOP legislative accomplishments is not a good way to kick off a midterm election year.
    Going into Election Day, the Real Clear Politics average showed Northam with a 3.3 percentage-point advantage over Gillespie in Virginia.
    Democrats realized this was not a margin to take for granted, especially with the late-breaking momentum behind Gillespie.
    Campaigning for Northam, Former President Barack Obama said to Democrats, "sometimes ... you all get a little sleepy. You get a little complacent." He urged Democratic voters not to sleep through the election.
    Despite the results, Gillespie did run a smart campaign. In a state where Donald Trump is not popular, Gillespie kept the President at arm's length. He did not bring President Trump into Virginia to campaign and did not seek his support. He did, however, work to rally Trump supporters by focusing on issues that are important to them: immigration and protecting Confederate statues.
    President Trump kept his distance but did send out two 11th hour tweets of support, saying: "The state of Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible." He criticized Northam, saying he "will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia." 
    As soon as the dust settled and the race was called for Northam, President Trump didn't waste any time before criticizing Gillespie, tweeting that he "worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."
    In essence, he was sending the message that "Trumpism without Trump will not work."
    This was a hard-fought loss. The Republican National Committee did spend nearly $5 million dollars on helping to elect Gillespie, putting 100 staffers on the ground, and making nearly 3 million door knocks, RNC officials tell me.
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    Democratic leaders in Virginia tell me their get out the vote effort was also strong. They knocked on more than a million doors, made more than a million calls and sent out more than a million-and-a-half texts.
    It helped that Virginia is a blue state, led by current Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is term-limited out. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the Old Dominion by five points. Former President Obama won Virginia in 2008 and 2012.   
    Northam, a pediatrician and former Army reservist, connected with Democrats with his low-key demeanor and ability to moderate some positions.
    The New Jersey gubernatorial race has been a different story for some time. Phil Murphy long maintained a double-digit lead over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in a race seen as a referendum on sitting Gov. Chris Christie. Real Clear Politics showed Murphy with a 14.4 percentage point lead going into Election Day. The former Goldman Sachs executive and former US ambassador to Germany soundly defeated Guadagno.