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Former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis On State's Election


Here to talk more about last night's results is former Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Davis. Welcome to the program once again.

TOM DAVIS: It's great to be back.

SIEGEL: You've said for some time that Republicans should be seeking out the support of Latinos and immigrants, and you're quoted in The Washington Post as saying after last night's returns were in, that as for your confidence in what you'd said, "I'm in a much better place tonight" - meaning what?

DAVIS: Look. I've been preaching to the party for years you need to be an open, welcoming party. You can't be sitting out there denigrating people, calling them deplorable, whatever it is. And we saw this, the immigrant vote in Northern Virginia, if you will, turn heavily against the Republicans - a very heavy turnout and turnout over a dozen Republicans - incumbent office holders statewide for the House of Delegates. That's just no way to put together a winning coalition.

And the irony in this is that a lot of immigrants share Republican values on a lot of issues. They tend to be more religious than the average person. They're very entrepreneurial. But they just push the mute button when Republicans come on because they're viewed as hostile to immigrants.

SIEGEL: Isn't part of the reason that they're viewed as hostile is first that the policy on immigration itself is not as generous as that of the Democrats? And also, many immigrant voters are in fact middle- and low-income voters, and they would favor things like expanding Medicaid or a higher minimum wage. Those are hardcore GOP positions.

DAVIS: Well, yes and no. Most immigrants tend to be pretty entrepreneurial. They don't really come to this country for a handout. They come here for a hand up, for the opportunity they get here that they don't get somewhere else. So I haven't found, for the most part, these upward-mobile immigrants really working on the welfare side, voting that value. Many of these Asians in particular in Northern Virginia - the Vietnamese, the Koreans - were voting heavily Republican until about a decade ago when the rhetoric on immigration started to change.

SIEGEL: Is the rhetoric - in your view, is that a Trump problem, or is that a deeper, more pervasive Republican problem?

DAVIS: Oh, I think it's been a problem pre-Trump. Trump basically understood its resonance with parts of the Republican electorate and kind of spiked the football on that. And that was his signature issue because he recognized there were a lot of people who were anxious about their place in society and where they belonged and that immigration was a great way to go after them.

SIEGEL: If Donald Trump's leadership, though, is a significant part of the problem right now, what should we make of the fact that hardly any serving Republicans in Congress, apart from those who've announced their retirements - and not that many of them - have called out Donald Trump either for his policies or for his style of presenting them?

DAVIS: Well, that's easy. Over 80 percent of these members - the only race that matters is the primary election. And Donald Trump still has very high favor among Republican voters. So if Republicans are the only electorate you face - these are seats, by the way, who are - the November election is nothing more than a constitutional formality. And as a result of that, why are you going to criticize Trump when your voter base is very supportive of him? It's these members in these swing districts, the ones that make a difference whether you're in the majority or the minority, where this is hurting. And those are the seats most likely to fall.

SIEGEL: Are you worried about the Republicans being able to retain a majority in the House of Representatives next year?

DAVIS: Well, I think if history is any guide, the House will be up for grabs. What we've seen is historically, in 35 of 38 elections since the Civil War, the president's party has lost seats in the House. To understand this further, note that the last three times, you've had one party control the presidency, the House and the Senate. Their losses have been greatly exaggerated in the mid-term election. They've been swept out of the House.

Given that historical precedent alone, whether it's Donald Trump or whoever is in the White House, you face problems. I wouldn't call Virginia a bellwether of what's happening, but it's a warning shot across the bow that Republicans have to get their act together. In their favor is the fact that the way the districts are drawn, it's to the Republicans' advantage. So Democrats have to significantly over-perform to take back the House. Having said that, in a hostile environment like we saw last night, that would be entirely possible.

SIEGEL: If you live in Northern Virginia as I do, I saw endless commercials in this last governor's race. And the message of the Republican candidate's commercials, Ed Gillespie's, reminded me of the Trump inaugural speech about carnage in America. It was about a stagnant economy. We have unemployment of 3.7 percent in Virginia. It was about - people are being terrorized by Central-American drug gangs. There was a pessimism that didn't seem to connect with what life in a rather prosperous, nice part of the country is like. Is the party in danger of this kind of thinking?

DAVIS: Well, even the slogan Make America Great Again didn't resonate in these areas because these were upward-mobile areas. People are coming to these areas. This is where the jobs are. And for many people, particularly first-generation Americans, minorities, they said, what do you mean make America great again? It's never been this great before.

What he was trying to do I think is thread the needle between trying to let the Trump people know 'cause he had almost lost to a Trump person in the primary, that, hey, I'm with you on these issues without going too far and alienating the base on the other side. And he ended up getting hit from both sides.

SIEGEL: Tom Davis, former Republican congressman from Virginia, thanks for talking with us once again.

DAVIS: My pleasure. Thanks.

SIEGEL: Elsewhere on today's program - what the chair of the Democratic National Committee says about last night's election results. And we'll have more analysis about this moment in politics tomorrow morning as well. That and more as you begin your day with Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITSUA SONG, "NEW TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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