By Hastings Wyman –
Democrat Ralph Northam won an unexpected landslide victory – 54% to 45% – over Republican Ed Gillespie in last Tuesday’s gubernatorial election in Virginia. In addition, Northam’s running mates, Justin Fairfax for lieutenant governor and incumbent Mark Herring for attorney general, also won, each by 53% to 47%. And Democrats won major gains in the House of Delegates that could end the GOP’s control of that body.
The details of those victories contain valuable lessons for both parties, but are especially worrisome for Republicans. Virginia’s outgoing governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, has already said his state’s results should be replicated across the nation. Among the details:
First, the suburbs are moving toward the Democrats in a big way. Northam’s margin in Northern Virginia increased sharply over McAuliffe’s margin in the 2013 gubernatorial race. McAuliffe came out of Northern Virginia with a margin of 127,430 votes; Northam’s margin was more than twice that, 271,411 votes. Four years ago McAuliffe carried suburban Loudoun County by four points; this year, Northam carried it by 20 points.
Moreover, turnout was up sharply in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Fairfax County saw a 23% increase in turnout over 2013, Alexandria and Arlington County increased 26% and Loudoun County by 31%. In rural areas, friendly to Gillespie, turnout was either down or level. Turnout was also up sharply in university areas. The turnout in precincts around Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University more than doubled over the 2013 governor’s race.
Although Northern Virginia’s suburbs aren’t typical, given their proximity to Washington, the suburbs of Atlanta, Charlotte, Tampa and Tallahassee, etc., etc., aren’t that different; most have lots of non-Southern newcomers. (Cary, North Carolina, a suburb of the Research Triangle, is short for Calling All Retired Yankees.)
Oddly, as Karl Rove pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, Gillespie won more votes than any Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia history, but was still held to 45%. That’s because the turnout was substantially higher than in previous elections, especially in Democratic areas.
Republican candidates trying to win votes both in the socially liberal suburbs and from Trump’s conservative base are likely to have a hard time straddling that fence. The GOP’s hard-right wing has shown no indication that it is willing to compromise on its socially conservative positions, which more moderate voters soundly rejected in Virginia. Moreover, Northam may have stayed close to Democratic policy on most issues, but his manner and his campaign were moderate in tone, not likely to scare off moderate voters.
Second, women, especially young women, turned out heavily for Northam, spurred on in part by Gillespie’s anti-abortion stance and the aura of sexist behavior that surrounds President Trump, as well as more sympathy for government safety net programs. Exit polls showed that Northam won 61% of female voters to 39% for Gillespie, outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 56%. Unmarried women went for Northam by an overwhelming 77% to 22%, 16 points higher than Clinton’s showing last year. Moreover, eight of the eleven Democrats who replaced Republican men in the House of Delegates were women. The charges that Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore had inappropriate sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 – though strongly denied by Moore – have, at least for the time being, reinforced the GOP’s bad image with women voters.
Overall, the number of women in Virginia’s House of Delegates increased from 17 to 30, to nearly a third of the 100-member body. Socially conservative measures, on abortion for instance, are not likely to receive as much attention as they have in the past.
For the GOP to win back the support of women voters would likely involve some softening of its anti-abortion stance, something social conservatives are likely to strongly resist.
Virginia voters also threw off some of the biases that prevented some minorities from being successful in the past, to the benefit of Democrats. Of the Democratic women who won seats in the House of Delegates, one was black, two were Hispanic, one Vietnamese, one from the Philippines, and another is transgender. Danica Roem, a transgender making her first try for public office, defeated 13-term Delegate Robert G. Marshall (R), self-described as Virginia’s “chief homophobe,” by nine points, and became the first transgender state legislator in the nation.
Third, while Gillespie tried to keep some distance from President Trump, both last year and in this year’s primary, the hostility of Democratic voters to Trump was a major incentive to turn out and punish Trump’s party. Trump’s approval rating in Virginia is a low 35%; moreover, 49% of voters said they considered their vote a way to send a message to Trump, as well as to the Republican-controlled Congress.
In addition, Gillespie took a strong turn toward Trumpian politics when he embraced the issues of immigration and crime. Gillespie’s hard-hitting TV ads on these issues, which bordered on racism, probably turned off more moderate voters who had supported Gillespie in the past. Moreover, the ads created another link between Gillespie and Trump. This suggests that Gillespie’s hard line on these issues will not be a successful strategy for Republican candidates in most states in 2018.
Northam also won strong support – 87% to 12% – among black voters. That’s about usual for Democratic candidates, but black turnout was higher. And Northam won 67% of Latino voters to Gillespie’s 32%.
Going forward, both parties have challenges. The Democrats’ task may be easier than the GOP’s. The Democrats must unite the unabashed leftwing politics of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and the more centrist politics represented by the Clintons, and by Northam. That will not be easy, but can probably be accomplished with less damage to the party than the GOP’s challenge.
For Republicans, reading the tea leaves of a major loss is not only more painful, but the future looks far less rosy. The GOP’s unification task is not just ideological but sociological. The party must try to bring together the hard-line Trump base, which includes many working class whites, and suburbanites, with their more moderate, even liberal, views on some hot-button issues.
For now, Republican leaders and politicos believe the only way to stave off massive losses in 2018 is to pass major legislation. They have failed to replace “Obamacare,” but now are trying to pass tax reform. If – is it a big if? – tax reform passes and middleclass voters see some financial gain from the new tax code, then maybe Republicans can change the subject from divisive social issues to an economic discussion more favorable to the GOP. Maybe, maybe not. Stay tuned.