Conservative pundits have been quick to label the recent Republican losses in Virginia as further proof that the Old Dominion is now “just another blue state.” Democrats, on the other hand, have been quick to capitalize on these losses as a repudiation of President Donald Trump and as a harbinger of a coming Democratic wave in 2018. The truth is more complicated than either side paints it to be.
Voter turnout in the statewide election in Virginia earlier this month hit a 20-year high. According to the Virginia Department of Elections, over 2.6 million votes were cast, exceeding the 2.25 million cast in 2013 and dwarfing the 1.98 million cast in 2009. Increased turnout helped Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeat former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie with 1,408,831 votes — more than any candidate for governor has received to date. Northam’s margin was also the widest of any Democratic gubernatorial nominee since 1985.
Given the size of Northam’s victory, many observers have rushed to blame the Gillespie campaign for failing to motivate the base. This rationale doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Gillespie’s vote total was greater than Ken Cuccinelli’s in 2013 and at least 10,000 votes larger than Gov. Bob McDonnell’s landslide victory in 2009. In fact, Gillespie received more votes than any Republican candidate for governor in Virginia history. Gillespie even received over 100,000 more votes than he received during his 2014 Senate race — when he came within one percent of ousting Sen. Mark Warner. While Gillespie’s gubernatorial total surpassed his 2014 performance, Gillespie failed to repeat his success in voter-rich Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, two areas essential to electing Republicans statewide.
Republicans in Virginia and across the country must take this election as a warning sign that Democrats are energized and mobilized. At the same time, a bright spot for Republicans is that the well-financed, under-the-radar campaign by Democrats to flip the House of Delegates came at a hefty price tag.
National Democrats have boasted of Danica Roem’s defeat of 26-year incumbent Bob Marshall in House District 13 to become the first openly transgender state legislator in the country. The same Democrats fail to note that Roem spent $779,282, while Marshall spent $290,302, to win the seat by only slightly more than 1,800 votes.
In House District 51, Hala Ayala unseated incumbent Rich Anderson by around 1,500 votes after spending $653,434 to Anderson’s $382,237.
In House District 72, an open seat, Democratic candidate Schuyler VanValkenburg defeated Republican Eddie Whitlock by fewer than 2,000 votes after outspending him by almost $110,000.
The cash spent to flip these districts by only thin margins should prove worrisome to Democrats heading into 2019 when they won’t have the luxury of a gubernatorial race to drive turnout and fill campaign coffers.
In the Democratic primary, Northam, facing off against former Rep. Tom Perriello, embraced the far left by advocating for a $15 minimum wage and free community college. In the general election, Northam ditched the progressive rhetoric. He did not articulate a vision for Virginia’s future outside of generically talking about cutting taxes, and presented no plan to do so. In contrast, Ed Gillespie presented a bold agenda that spanned 17 different policy proposals from overhauling the state’s ethics laws to criminal justice reform, to even a detailed plan to cut taxes across the board. Gillespie’s vision and transparency were cited as a defining factor behind the endorsement of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a majority of the state’s other newspapers.
Nevertheless, Democrats weren’t disheartened by Northam’s lackluster general election campaign. Exit polls showed that “41 percent of election day voters” identified as Democrats.
Is Virginia just another blue state? Ed Gillespie’s vote total and the narrow margins in races for the House of Delegates would beg to differ. But one thing is certain: Democrats are organized, energized and determined to send a message after a string of defeats. If Republicans are to protect and expand their congressional majorities next year they cannot ignore what happened in Virginia.
Haris Alic is a conservative activist and government affairs professional who lives in Northern Virginia.