Virginia Elections 2017: With Wins Like This, Who Needs Losses?

Gregory Ranzini '18
News Editor

By all indications, Democrats are pretty excited about their performance in last week’s Virginia elections.  Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam will trade up to Governor.  Polls leading up to the election suggesting that his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie might be able to pull out a win by appealing to neo-Confederates turned out to be incorrect.  In the Thirteenth District, journalist and metal guitarist Danica Roem won election as America’s first openly transgender state legislator, defeating Bob Marshall, the self-proclaimed “chief homophobe” of Virginia who authored our state’s version of the “bathroom bill.”  Democrats made up a great deal of lost ground in the House of Delegates, as a whole turning fifteen red seats blue.  Good news, certainly, but far from adequate.  Current projections have the GOP clinging to a 51-49 seat majority.  This, in a year more-or-less defined by Republican political scandals, and coming on the heels of a presidential election in which the Democratic candidate won Virginia by better than five percent, is nothing short of an embarrassment.

Failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie next to a screen capture from his campaign television ad. Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Steve Helber/AP; screen capture from ad, Getty Images.

Failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie next to a screen capture from his campaign television ad. Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Steve Helber/AP; screen capture from ad, Getty Images.

Granted, much of this discrepancy can of course be attributed to voter suppression brought about by Virginia’s new voter ID law, and much of the rest is owed to gerrymandering.  As chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie (yes, that Ed Gillespie) implemented a program called REDMAP, which sought to make the GOP’s 2010 election victories permanent by shamelessly drawing unrepresentative districts.  It was a runaway success and a big part of why Republicans can expect a House of Delegates majority despite garnering barely 4/5 as as many total votes as Democrats in last Tuesday’s election.  Indeed, they’re downright gleeful about it.  The project’s website—yes, it has a website—describes the effort thusly:

The rationale was straightforward:  Controlling the redistricting process in these states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district boundaries would be drawn.  Drawing new district lines in states with the most redistricting activity presented the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.

REDMAP’s effect on the 2012 election is plain when analyzing the results: Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates than their Republican opponents, but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington; Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress.  Nationwide, Republicans won 54 percent of the U.S. House seats, along with 58 of 99 state legislative chambers, while winning only 8 of 33 U.S. Senate races and carrying only 47.8 percent of the national presidential vote.

With the 2020 Census fast approaching, the Republicans have already gone to work shoring up their firewall against fair elections.  One of their lower-profile recent efforts has been hobbling the Census Bureau, which the GAO recently placed on its “High Risk List,” citing pernicious underfunding, inadequate IT systems, and untested procedural changes.  Republicans have moved to cut back on human enumerators in favor of online responses, with the apparent overall objective of suppressing the count in low-income and minority neighborhoods and skewing representation.  Democrats, for their part, seem to just be counting on the voters rescuing them in time to avoid another lost decade, which makes it that much more galling that the Democratic Party of Virginia made such a pathetic showing last week.

At press time, four Delegate races had a margin of less than one half of one percent: the 94th District (by 13 votes), the 28th District (by 84 votes), the 40th District (by 115 votes), and the 27th District (by 125 votes).  Republicans led or had been declared the winners in all of them.  In all, eleven races had been decided by a margin of less than five percent—the widest, the 100th District, by a mere 1004 votes.  In a further ten races, the Democratic Party failed to field a candidate at all.  These are not wave election numbers: these are missed opportunities.  Voter suppression and gerrymandering played their roles, but it is hard to deny that even the slightest improvement in voter enthusiasm—fewer than a hundred additional votes spread across the right districts—could have given the Dems the statehouse.  

So, what did the Democratic Party of Virginia try this time to avoid a repeat of 2016’s drubbing?  Same-old, same-old: not content to let the populist (and popular) former Representative Tom Perriello go uncontested in the primary, Governor McAuliffe, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Dominion Energy, and the entire Virginia Democratic House and Senate Caucuses threw their weight behind Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.  Sure, Perriello had already received the endorsements of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Khizr Khan, but what did they know?  Everyone knows that Bernie Sanders isn’t a real Democrat, after all—not like Ralph Northam, whose votes for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 we’re apparently supposed to forgive because he “didn’t pay much attention to politics” at the time.

And so on.  Point being, less than a year after an election cycle in which the Democratic establishment’s compulsive habit of putting its thumb on the scale nearly tore the party apart, their solution for rebuilding trust in the leadership was to do it all over again, but this time with a milquetoast ex-Republican as nominee.  That it (mostly) worked is a testament less to Northam’s nonexistent political instincts than it is to Virginia voters being well and truly fed up.  Not that Northam still didn’t do his utmost to throw the election.

Faced with a blitz of racist Gillespie TV and radio ads, Northam couldn’t muster the guts to stand up for minority Virginians.  Instead, he rushed to co-opt the Right’s policies, pledging to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” and report undocumented immigrants to ICE.  Rather than pledge to raise Virginia’s minimum wage from the federal floor, the best Northam could offer Virginian workers were limp, vacuous buzzwords like “job training,” “apprenticeships,” and “STEAM.”  Again and again, Northam opted to play within the constraints imposed upon him by his opponent, as if daring to dream just a little bit bigger would somehow make him a less sober and realistic candidate than a professional lobbyist pretending to be a good old boy.  Had Northam been even an iota more sincere, he should have had no difficulty rolling over Gillespie, a carpetbagger from New Jersey whose strategy consisted of wrapping himself in the Stars and Bars and dog-whistling about “Southern Heritage.”  Northam could with minimal effort have brought another half-dozen seats along on his coat-tails.  Instead, we’re going into the all-important 2019 House of Delegates elections with a Republican majority, and the Democratic Party is too busy patting each other on the back to realize how close they came to losing everything.