On Nov. 7, elections in Virginia and across the United States saw victories for transgender, minority, and underdog candidates of many stripes. Reuters reports that candidates making their first bids for office launched the Democratic party up to 16-seat gain in the Virginia House of Delegates. While some districts came too close to call at press time, that’s its largest gain in at least a century. Of those, 11 were women, including one by Danica Roem, the nation’s first transgender state legislator. The Democratic party’s mood Tuesday night could only be called jubilant, but what do the results really mean? Let’s take a look.
No one expected this
Last week, The New York Times analyzed the potential election results. Quentin Kidd, the director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University expected Democrats to pick up four to six seats. “If it went to 10, I’d say it sends a loud message across the country about the energy within the grass-roots Democratic base and the lack of energy in the Trump base.” Kidd’s prediction — and that of many others — turned out to be way underestimating the energy of Democratic voters.
Democrats also saw wins in the race for New Jersey governor and in Maine, where voters backed a measure to expand Medicaid coverage under former President Barack Obama’s health care law. The Democratic mayors of New York and Boston, both vocally anti-Trump, also won re-election easily.
Analysts called the wins ‘nothing short of a tidal wave’
“You can’t really look at tonight’s results and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the current favorites to pick up the U.S. House in 2018,” Dave Wasserman, who analyzes U.S. House and statehouse races for the Cook Political Report, said on Twitter. Virginia’s election, he added, was nothing short of a “tidal wave.”
NPR says Virginia Democrat Ralph Northam won by 9 points. That’s the widest victory for a Democrat in the governor’s race since Gerald Baliles won by 11 points in 1985, when the state was very different. This year, however, changing demographics cannot be blamed for the historic switch. Demographics in Virginia have hardly changed at all since last year’s race.
Some Democrats see hope for the country in Virginia wins
According to Politico, many saw Virginia and mayoral wins from New Hampshire to Florida as hope for next year. Some turned that hope into action. After Northam’s win, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chairman of House Democrats’ campaign wing, started calling potential Democratic House candidates, hoping to convince them to run.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re watching CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC: There’s good news for Democrats, [and] this is a nightmare scenario for Republican incumbents, especially in Virginia,” Luján said. He pointed to Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock as an example of an incumbent Republican whose path to victory suddenly looks much tougher. “The House is absolutely in play; everything is absolutely moving in our direction,” Luján said.
Are Americans really fed up with Trump-style politics?
“Americans — not just Democrats — are getting fed up with a mean-spirited, divisive, denigrating kind of politics — one that isn’t focused on a prosperity agenda but is actually, even more so, doubling down on the politics of the elite, the wealthiest in our country,” Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told Politico. “This has been a very dark year. But the north star is rising.”
NPR reports almost six in 10 Virginia voters said they disapproved of the job Trump was doing, according to exit polls. Twice as many people said they went to the polls to reject him as to support him. “I do believe that this is a referendum on this administration,” Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor of the Virginia Beach area told The New York Times. He blamed Trump’s “divisive rhetoric” for the sweeping losses statewide.
Virginia Legislature: A tale of two candidates
Roem, for her part, demonstrated a radical departure from Trump-style rhetoric. Two-decade incumbent Republican Bob Marshall ran a dirty, personal campaign that backfired in a big way. He had pushed to pass a transgender “bathroom bill.” That bill called for people to use the restroom corresponding with the gender on their birth certificate. During the race, Marshall refused to debate Roem, ran personal attack ads against her, and referred to her by male pronouns. He also called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe,” according to The Washington Post.
But when asked about her opponent both during and after the race, Roem demonstrated the poise and kindness Americans showed they want in a candidate. “I don’t attack my constituents,” she said, of Marshall. “Bob is my constituent now.” What a departure from Trump’s “lock her up.”
Some read victories as a rallying cry. Others do not.
“The door is certainly open for us,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, citing Trump’s dismal approval ratings. “That opens the door. That means we get fresh recruits, and they get the retirements.”
Incumbent Republicans had a different read on the situation. “It doesn’t change my reading of the current moment, it just emphasizes my reading of the current moment, which is we have a promise to keep and we’ve got to get on with keeping our promise,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at an event hosted by the Washington Examiner.
The president, shockingly, is not pleased
Trump, surprising absolutely no one, immediately threw losing Virginia governor Ed Gillespie under the bus. In days leading up to the election, Trump tweeted, “The state of Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible. If you vote Ed Gillespie tomorrow, it will come roaring back!”
It took only the threat of losing to turn Trump’s loyalties. “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump tweeted Tuesday night. “Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”
He had even fewer good things to say about Northam. “Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia. He’s weak on crime, weak on our GREAT VETS, Anti-Second Amendment and has been horrible on Virginia economy,” Trump said in a pair of tweets that morning.
Trumpism actually boosted voter turnout
In areas where Trump had stirred controversy, voter turnout spiked, NPR says. While Democratic voters appeared motivated statewide — Virginia saw a 16% increase in turnout from the 2013 governor’s race — Charlottesville soared even higher. The site of white nationalist protests this summer that resulted in a woman’s death saw a 31% increase in turnout. Northam won more votes in Charlottesville this year than the total number of votes cast in 2013 in the city.
As one analyst noted, if Democrats do take back the Virginia state Legislature, that’s huge. If they do that and hold it in 2019, it gives them the ability to redraw congressional districts in 2021. Currently, several races are going to a recount, including one in which the Republican candidate is up by just 12 votes. Other individual legislative races are separated by 68, 86, 124, 326, and 394 votes.
This year’s election shows that, for all those who are agnostic or apathetic about politics, voting matters, especially at the locally. Historically, voters turn out in much higher numbers in presidential elections. Elections can enact real, measurable change. The only way to do that is at the ballot box.
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