The G.O.P. Should Be Scared by Virginia

Although at times over the last week it seemed that Democrats were doing their damnedest to lose the gubernatorial race, they failed miserably in that endeavor, which is to say that they succeeded emphatically at the polls. Ralph Northam will be the state’s next governor.

That’s a gigantic relief, because a Northam defeat would have prompted a Democratic meltdown — and rightly so. In statewide races, Virginia is increasingly blue: Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there by five points a year ago. And Trump’s ceaseless assault on propriety, decency and ethical, responsible government is supposedly firing up liberals as never before. Virginia on Tuesday was the place to demonstrate that.

The demonstration was impressive. Not only did Northam beat his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, by about nine points — a margin of victory larger than either Clinton’s or the two-point advantage that ushered the state’s current Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, into office four years ago — but Democrats also performed strongly in other Virginia races. So strongly, in fact, that one Democrat, Danica Roem, easily unseated a longtime Republican incumbent in the House of Delegates and will become the nation’s only openly transgender state representative. The history that she made flies squarely in the face of the bigotry and divisiveness that Trump sows.

Just when we needed a sign that his America is not all of America, Virginia came to the rescue and gave us a vivid one. And I guarantee you that the Republicans up for re-election in 2018 saw it, shuddered and will spend the next weeks and months trying to figure out just how much trouble their party is in and precisely how to repair it. Democrats are exceedingly familiar with that feeling.

After special elections in Georgia, Montana and South Carolina failed to provide them with much hope that the anti-Trump forces were welling and that Americans who’d voted for him were seized by buyer’s remorse, the returns in Virginia suggested that Trump antipathy is indeed real and that it is definitely animating.

“Virginia shows that in non-red states, Trump is a heavy load for Republican candidates to carry,” the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik told me late Tuesday night.

Does it mean that Democrats can wrest one chamber of Congress from Republican control in 2018? Impossible to say. Politically speaking, there are eons between now and then, and the Virginia governor’s race had facets all its own. But there are reasons for Republicans to be very afraid.

One is that Northam outperformed Clinton without being a particularly energetic, forceful candidate. Through Tuesday morning and afternoon, I heard from pessimistic Democrats who were already ruing the fact that he’d been the party’s nominee. Couldn’t they have found someone with more fire? Someone smoother? In the race’s final days, he flip-flopped on sanctuary cities and made other blunders that cast him as unsteady and uncertain. Didn’t matter. He prevailed, handily.

Republicans should also worry that they’ve oversold themselves on the moderate-progressive divide in the Democratic Party and how severely Democrats would be hobbled by it. In the days leading up to Tuesday, a book by Donna Brazile, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, reignited the enmity between Clinton’s backers and supporters of Bernie Sanders, and that became one of several reasons to wonder if progressives would fail to turn out for Northam, a milquetoast moderate. In the end, enough of them did, not just to guarantee his victory but to jeopardize Virginia Republicans’ 66-to-34 majority in the state’s House of Delegates. On Wednesday morning, unofficial returns showed that Democrats would pick up at least 14 seats, and they could, after recounts, even wind up with control of the House.

“If the Virginia results showed anything, it’s that ideological purity isn’t necessary to win in the Age of Trump,” Lis Smith, a Democratic operative who worked for McAuliffe, told me Tuesday night. “Northam came out as a two-time George W. Bush voter, and he failed some key liberal litmus tests. Still he won.”

 

 

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