The Democrats’ vic­tory in Vir­ginia means the midterms in 2018 are go­ing to be close


ALEXAN­DRIA, Va. — A Repub­li­can friend of mine is a sub­ur­ban busi­ness­man who du­ti­fully votes in ev­ery elec­tion, al­ways straight party. His best friend is a rabbi, a re­spected mem­ber of the com­mu­nity and a pro­gres­sive lib­eral.

On Tues­day the rabbi stood in line to vote for a new gov­er­nor at 6:50 a.m. in the pour­ing rain. The Repub­li­can? He made his way to the polls even­tu­ally, five min­utes be­fore they closed.

While both Vir­gini­ans cast votes (and didn’t want their names used in this ar­ti­cle), the rabbi’s en­thu­si­asm rep­re­sents the prob­lem Repub­li­cans are fac­ing right now. Many Democrats are en­er­gized to vote against Don­ald Trump — and on the first Elec­tion Day since the pres­i­dent was in­au­gu­rated, they voted in droves.

De­spite all the polls that showed the two can­di­dates for Vir­ginia gov­er­nor were neck and neck, Ralph Northam clob­bered his Repub­li­can op­po­nent Ed Gille­spie by 300,000 votes. Northam also won 600,000 more votes than his party’s gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date in 2009.

“The Democrats fi­nally woke up. Last year we were com­pla­cent, and we didn’t have a great mo­ti­va­tor. Now we do,” said Dane Strother, a Demo­cratic strate­gist and Vir­ginian.

Strother said this is no dif­fer­ent from when highly mo­ti­vated Repub­li­cans showed up to vote against Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, bring­ing in­de­pen­dents and mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans with them.

Even though Gille­spie played down his en­dorse­ment from Trump, he lost be­cause of his as­so­ci­a­tion with the pres­i­dent. “I’d ar­gue that the Trump coali­tion didn’t fall apart, it’s still in­tact,” Strother said. But now there is a large num­ber of “mo­ti­vated peo­ple who didn’t vote for Trump” ready “to make their mark.”

Freed from the bur­den of the unin­spir­ing and con­tro­ver­sial can­di­dacy of Hil­lary Clin­ton, Democrats were fi­nally able to vote for a per­son who is low-drama and like­able. Northam is a nice, prag­matic mod­er­ate (he voted for George W. Bush not once but twice) who talks with a twang.

The newly elected gov­er­nor is the first model for a suc­cess­ful Demo­cratic can­di­date in the Trump age, and if oth­ers like him run for of­fice, Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties in congress and state leg­isla­tive bod­ies across the coun­try could be in jeop­ardy in the 2018 midterms.

All 435 con­gres­sional House seats are up for re­elec­tion next year and Democrats need just 24 seats to win back the ma­jor­ity.

“Fear is a much greater mo­ti­va­tor than love,” said Strother, adding that Trump stokes fear among Democrats.

The ef­fect was seen across the coun­try as Democrats per­formed well in Wash­ing­ton state, Westch­ester and Nas­sau coun­ties, and in New Jersey where Demo­crat Phil Mur­phy de­feated a Repub­li­can to take the gov­er­nor’s seat.

In Vir­ginia, the Democrats won for a few rea­sons, but none of them were to do with the na­tional party ap­pa­ra­tus. Not only did Northam beat Repub­li­can Gille­spie, he tri­umphed over for­mer Vir­ginia con­gress­man Tom Per­riello, a stri­dent pro­gres­sive who en­joyed the sup­port of both Obama and lib­eral icon Bernie San­ders, in the pri­maries.

Per­riello was set to be a pro­gres­sive stan­dard bearer for the Democrats in the first big post-Trump statewide elec­tion, but his rad­i­cal plat­form flat­lined. Northam hand­ily beat Per­riello by over 10 per­cent­age points.

And while it shouldn’t be a sur­prise that a Demo­crat won the gov­er­nor’s seat in a state that leans blue, Northam’s vic­tory is no­table in that he even out­per­formed Clin­ton, win­ning 6 full per­cent­age points more than she did in 2016.

Northam’s surge came from af­flu­ent, col­lege-ed­u­cated sur­buban­ites who’d been turned off by Clin­ton and didn’t vote for pres­i­dent but are now show­ing their pres­ence at the polls.

This same con­stituency also proved their mus­cle on Tues­day in down-bal­lot races in sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia coun­ties, many of which flipped for the Democrats. Af­flu­ent sub­ur­ban vot­ers are the nugget of gold — a spe­cial con­tin­gent that leads to the ma­jor­ity in the House for either party. And there are lessons for Repub­li­cans and Democrats who want to cap­ture it.

Lo­cal Democrats need to pick can­di­dates who fit their district or state, not ones dic­tated by the na­tional arm of the party. Is­sues should be lo­cal, and any temp­ta­tion to na­tion­al­ize a race should be deemed too di­vi­sive and avoided at all costs.

The les­son for Repub­li­cans? Trump’s ap­proval rat­ing of 35 per­cent is a prob­lem, yes, but what’s worse is that his party has achieved noth­ing so far. GOP mem­bers of the House need to ac­cept that gov­ern­ing is hard. It re­quires com­pro­mise, tak­ing hits and tak­ing a stand. Do­ing all three might not make vot­ers love you, but it sure will make them re­spect you. Re­spect wins votes. Peo­ple fall out of love all of the time.

With the econ­omy roar­ing, there is a way for Repub­li­cans to win back sub­ur­ban vot­ers — through their pock­et­books. But they have to notch up some leg­isla­tive achieve­ments to prove they are re­spon­si­ble for the growth cli­mate. Be­cause, for now, in the ab­sence of any pol­icy wins, there’s only Trump and his tweets.

For a lot of key sub­ur­ban vot­ers, that’s a turnoff.

Pres­i­dent Obama orig­i­nally backed a more pro­gres­sive Demo­crat for the Vir­ginia gov­er­nor’s race, but win­ner Ralph Northam is the type of mod­er­ate vot­ers pre­fer.

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