A tsunami like the one Democrats will need to take back Congress next year hit last night. In Virginia Ralph Northam won his race for governor by nine points, the largest victory margin in 32 years. Democrats also won the Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor seats. In the biggest signal of victory, they captured at least fourteen Republican held seats in the House of Delegates and control of the body will be determined by recounts.
In a case of karmic justice, a transgender woman, Danica Roem, defeated the 25 year incumbent Republican who sponsored Virginia’s failed version of the bathroom bill. When asked her opinion of her opponent, Rep. Bob Marshall, Roem said, “I don’t attack my constituents. Bob’s my constituent now.” That’s what healing and class looks like.
The wave wasn’t just in Virginia, though. In New Jersey, Democrats took back the governorship after eight years of Chris Christie. In special elections in Georgia, Democrats won two senate seats that Trump won to break the veto-proof majority. In Maine, voters overturned the Governor’s veto to expand Medicaid, despite Republican attempts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. In Fayetteville, Democrat Mitch Colvin unseated two-term incumbent Republican Mayor Nat Robertson. In Charlotte, Vi Lyles becomes the city’s first African-American female mayor after defeating her Republican challenger by a whopping sixteen points. To put that in perspective, it’s the largest pick up of Democratic seats in 118 years.
The biggest loser, though, was Donald Trump. He poisoned the political environment for Republicans with his toxic rhetoric and divisive politics. According to exit polls in Virginia, 87% of voters who disapprove of Trump voted for Democrat Ralph Northam. Clearly, Republicans can’t run from the president.
On issues, too, Republicans were losers. The top issue in Virginia was healthcare, indicating voters are holding Republicans, not Democrats, responsible for the success or failure of Obamacare. Combined with the results in Maine, voters are sending the GOP a message to fix the Affordable Care Act, not to scrap it.
The other losers were the pundits and polls who predicted close elections across the country. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, none of the commentators predicted a Northam victory and several polls showed Republican Ed Gillespie surging for the past week or two. Polls in Charlotte predicted a nail-biter in the mayor’s race. Republicans on social media were giddy, urging voters to go to the polls while Democrats were prematurely casting blame for blowing the election.
Democrats can take away several lessons. First, trust the fundamentals more than the pundits. They all pointed to a big night for Democrats. Trump approval ratings are in the dump. More people believe the country is heading in the wrong direction than in the right one. The first election following a presidential election almost always favors the party out of power. Voters still want change. Those indicators were more accurate than most of the speculation by political commentators and twitter experts.
Second, in purple states, stick with the moderate. In Virginia this year and in North Carolina last, Democrats voted for centrist candidates who focused more on good government than ideological divisions. Despite Trump’s victory, more voters are looking for stability and opportunity than radical change right now.
For me, Virginia has always been a bellwether. What happens in their off-year elections tends to predict what will happen in our midterms. In 1993, the GOP rout in Virginia predicted the 1994 wave that gave the GOP control of the North Carolina House for first time in the 20th century. Likewise, Democrats’ success in 2005 hinted at the Democratic wave in 2006. A lot can change between now and next year, but last night was a clear warning sign to Republicans and a message that Democratic divisions are probably overblown. Democrats are clearly more motivated than Republicans. Their organizational programs like Swing Left are working and Virginia and New Jersey provided a training ground.