This post was originally published November 8, 2017 at Carolina Political Review.
Landslide. Wave. Tsunami.
All of those phrases colored various interpretations of what happened in Virginia yesterday, but all convey the same sense: Democrats are back, in a big way. Make no mistake, Virginia, on a state-wide level, is and has been trending blue. The important results are not necessarily the state popular vote, but the down-ballot effects that can only be attributed to a flailing perception of the GOP.
Democrats roared back in the suburbs, where backlash to Trump and GOP unpopularity seemed to flip moderate voters toward the Democrats. Where Virginia Dems would have chalked up ten seats in the House of Delegates as a victory, current recounts could lead to over sixteen (and a slim majority). This is more indicative of the wave here, and the one that may be to come.
In gerrymandered districts, Democratic challengers unseated multiple “safe” seats held by Republicans. In one, amazingly, a transgender candidate ousted a twenty-year incumbent who authored Virginia’s attempt at HB2. This cannot be an aberrance.
The game is turnout. It sounds too simple to be worth saying, but it’s fundamentally true. Democrats win when they vote. It’s not that hard, but enthusiasm matters a lot. Whether or not you think she would have been a great president, Hillary Clinton did not excite voters. More than her own flaws, she represented the status quo and a third term of a Democrat in the White House. Change is a powerful force, and Donald Trump harnessed it.
Donald Trump is the status quo now, though. So are Republicans inexorably tied to him that will stand for reelection in 2018. Regardless of how hard they try, it is nearly impossible to divorce yourself from the nominal head of the party. Ask Democrats who lost in a route back in 2010.
The vulnerable Republicans in districts that Clinton won, of which there are but one fewer than is needed to flip the House, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you run against Trump, you lose out in the primary, where older, conservative voters tend to vote more heavily. If you cannot distance yourself from him, you have a target on your back in the general. How can you circle that square? You retire.
And plenty have. Just last night, another prominent Republican representative from Texas announced he was going to retire after his term ended. Trumpistas might applaud their exit, but a friend is better than a foe, in Congress. Just as many progressives want to primary, say, a Joe Manchin in West Virginia, they should consider this: would you prefer a conservative Democrat who votes with your party 80% of the time, or a conservative Republican who votes with your party 10% of the time? It isn’t a hard choice.
If Republicans follow that mindset, popularized by former Senator and then think tank head Jim DeMint, that they would rather have 30 steadfast conservatives than 60 moderates, it does not bode well. In the same vein, Democrats should (and likely will) run candidates more bespoke for the districts in which they live. What the party needs is less cookie-cutter, national policies and more deference to local needs, at least in running elections. Tip O’Neill was right: “All politics is local.”
As for what this portends for both Democrats and Republicans next year during midterms, the question is still turnout. In Virginia, college graduates made up about 3/5 of the electorate, and another 3/5 of that group went for the Democrat. For voters with “some college education,” of which 29% of the electorate consisted, the vote split almost evenly. For “high school or less,” 3/5 went for the Republican. Overall, exit polls show that the turnout for the lower end of educational attainment dropped 4% while higher-educated turnout rose 4%. While not huge, recall that group pushed Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania toward Trump. If they do not remain, neither will he.
These numbers align closely with previous analyses of the 2016 election; mainly, education is a big predictor of how you vote, more so now than before. Whereas the “high school or less” cohort went for Trump nationwide in 2016, they also made up almost 1/5 of the electorate. If that group stays home in 2018, as minority group participation rises like it did in Virginia, go ahead and wax your surfboards, because the wave is coming.
Some college or less: 45% of electorate; College grad or more: 54% of electorate
Some college or less: 41% of electorate; College grad or more: 58% of electorate
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.