Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Dems Get An Early Christmas Present
Ok, I was wrong. Ed Gillespie didn't win Tuesday. In fact, he got his ass handed to him. When the final votes were tallied, Ralph Northam won Virginia. In fact, he won it going away. Apparently, Trumpism without Trump isn't a winning ticket after all.
Combined with the well anticipated pickup in New Jersey by Phil Murphy, this was a good day for Democrats. They retained control of a valuable governor's mansion in a crucial swing state that Hillary Clinton won last year and flipped another in an albeit VERY blue state. That's a net gain of one.
So how did it happen? And where do Democrats go from here?
First, it cannot be overstated enough that while Virginia is technically a swing state, it has been trending blue over the last few elections. Bob McDonnell in '09 was the last Republican to win in the state, and that had more to do with the fact that a Democrat - Barack Obama - was in the White House than McDonnell's talent as a politician or executive. Both its senators and current governor are Democrats. And while the majority of the state is geographically red, the largest population centers are clearly in blue counties. It's more a mid-Atlantic state than a southern one. In fact, it almost resembles a mini New York.
Secondly, this election reminded me a lot of the one that took place four years ago when Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli. There you had two candidates who left a lot to be desired and, in the end, the one with less baggage won. Indeed, Northam's margin of victory was greater than McAuliffe's. Gillespie tried to pawn himself off as Trump lite, when in fact he was nothing more than a former Washington lobbyist who once worked for George Bush. His disgusting ads notwithstanding, the Republican base was simply unimpressed with him and the election results showed it. As to whether there was a Trump effect or not, the exit polling from Virginia was most revealing. Immigration, a core issue for Trump during the campaign, was least important among voters. Number one was healthcare.
Third, turnout was uncharacteristically high for an off year election, especially in the suburbs, where Northam performed much better than Clinton last November. This is very good news if you're a Democrat. Typically, Republicans wipe the floor with Democrats in midterms. If they can somehow replicate this turnout next year, their prospects of retaking the House look pretty good.
Lastly, the real story Tuesday wasn't the gubernatorial election, but the Virginia House of Delegates, where going into the election, Democrats needed to pick up 17 seats to gain a majority. As things stand now, they've picked up 15 of those seats with 3 races still too close to call. Even if they fall short, the gains they've made will be enough to send a strong message and to give Northam a chance at governing.
So where do Democrats go from here? Well that depends on two things: One, whether they can finally put 2016 behind them and move on; and two, whether they can formulate a winning strategy that will give them a chance at regaining their majority in 2018 and winning back the White House in 2020. The jury is still out on the former; but so far as the latter is concerned, Ralph Northam may have provided them with something of a road map.
As I mentioned earlier, Northam was hardly your idea of Mr. Excitement. In fact, he was Al Gore, only more boring, if that's even possible. But on the issues, as well as on ideology, Northam not only survived a primary challenge from his left, not to mention a snub from grumpy old Bernie Sanders, he managed to reclaim the center from Republicans. And that's important, because of the 23 Democratic senators up for reelection next year, five are in deep red states Trump carried. I can assure you the liberal wing of the Party isn't very popular in North Dakota or Montana.
One of the two great myths about the 2016 election is that Hillary lost because of her policy positions. Actually she lost because of her flaws. Had she not had so many of them, she more than likely would've beaten Trump. Ralph Northam is NO liberal; in fact he's what we used to call a centrist, before it became a four-letter word among Democrats. Well, center-left politics, as it turned out, was just what the doctor ordered. In fact, if you look at the election results in the suburbs of Philly, especially in Delaware County where Democrats outperformed Republicans for the first time in over a century, it proved to be the perfect tonic.
The other great myth was that Trump won because he was a conservative. The fact is he was an anti-establishment populist who ran against both parties and won. The answer to his brand of populism isn't a hard-left approach, but a more reasoned, disciplined, rational approach. Northam may have been as interesting as watching paint dry, but he made a lot of sense to people who have grown weary of the identity politics that so many Democrats have been employing over the last few elections. If the Party wants to win back Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2020, it would behoove it to appeal to voters who aren't black or Hispanic by letting them know they have nothing to fear by voting D. Not every white male who voted for Trump is a racist.
The way to beat Trump is not to continue to belittle his voters, as so many Democrats seem intent on doing, but by giving some of them a better vision for the future. The opposite of fear isn't more fear; it's hope. If Democrats want to be known as a big tent party, they need to make room under that tent for everyone, even those people who don't necessarily fit the mold.
Throughout the campaign, Northam resisted the urge to make this election about Trump, much to the chagrin of many Democrats. As it turns out, he was right. By sticking to the issues that mattered most to voters, he avoided the same trap that every one of Trump's Republican primary opponents and Hillary fell into. Trump's big advantage is to drag every one down to his level. Northam was having none of that, and if Democrats know what's good for them, they would do well to follow his lead.
But for now, Democrats should bask in the glow of this victory. They finally have some wind in their sails. What they do with it is, of course, up to them. There's a lot more work that has to be done to ensure that this marvelous moment doesn't become yet another in a long series of what ifs.