Toward the latter stages of the 2017 gubernatorial election in Virginia, you wouldn’t have been thought a fool if you had observed that Democratic candidate Ralph Northam—an early favorite in the race against veteran GOP factotum-turned-rabid Trumpist Ed Gillespie—had decided that he wanted the contest to be much tighter than it needed to be, and started shooting at his own goal.
After initially targeting President Donald Trump as a “narcissistic maniac,” Northam raised eyebrows with an advertisement in which he announced he’d happily work with Trump if the president was “helping Virginia”—a move made after Northam got spooked by a single focus group that wanted a more positive message. Earlier, a Northam campaign decision to leave the Democrats’ African American lieutenant governor candidate Justin Fairfax off of a raft of campaign mailers at the behest of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) (Fairfax opposed a pipeline that LIUNA wanted), sparked an internecine war among Virginia Democratic groups, and left African American voters seething. As the hour of the election drew nigh, Northam once again went off-message by pledging to back a stunt bill that would have banned Virginia from establishing sanctuary cities.
It’s safe to say that Ralph Northam was one of the most skittish candidates to run for statewide office in Virginia in recent memory. He won anyway.
He won, in fact, going away. Northam’s nine-point win was the biggest win for a Democratic gubernatorial contender since Gerald Baliles defeated Wyatt Durrette in 1985, a blow-out that even the most starry-eyed Democratic Party tout could not have imagined. Northam would have won on Tuesday night even if Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. had arranged for Northern Virginia to be handed back to the District of Columbia—as he fantasized about on Twitter. Ralph Northam may have been mouse-like in his demeanor, but in the end, he was the mouse that roared.
Or perhaps the better way of putting it is that the people of Virginia, ultimately, lent him their voice, because the full, reverberant shockwave that swept through the Old Dominion on election night was not limited to Northam’s rout. In addition to getting the entire top of the Democratic ticket elected, Democrats have nearly wiped out the GOP’s thirty-two seat advantage in the House of Delegates, with a spate of coming recounts potentially determining a blue flip in that body. Democratic women ran, and Democratic women won, ousting nine incumbents along the way.
On Tuesday night, Virginia voters notched an important victory over blather.
One of these victors, Danica Roem, became Virginia’s first openly transgender state lawmaker. She displaced Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall, who advanced Virginia’s anti-transgender “bathroom bill.” The poetic justice of Roem’s win extended to a several key Democratic wins on Tuesday. Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala became the first Latinas elected to the House of Delegates—a stern rebuke to Gillespie’s unending torrent of anti-immigrant rhetoric and shameful Trumpist TV spots alleging that a Governor Northam would gleefully unleash untold new mayhem from the Salvadoran MS-13 gang. Chris Hurst, who was inspired to run for office on a platform aimed at remedying America’s gun violence epidemic after his journalist girlfriend was murdered on live television, defeated an NRA darling. And Lee Carter, a Marine veteran who ran as a Democratic Socialist, defeated the state House’s GOP whip by a whopping nine-point margin.
In short, a slew of discrete victories—won in different places and for distinct reasons—have amounted to wholesale change in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But the unified themes of Tuesday night’s election in Virginia can’t be measured solely in terms of available votes in the House of Delegates, or an overall change in the political tides. On Tuesday night, Virginia voters notched an important victory over blather.
After all, the way the media had set the stage for Tuesday night’s tilt made it look like everyone should be prepared for a long day’s journey into despondency, with the perpetually back-on-his-bullshit Chris Cillizza leading the way with an Election Day piece that all-but predicted a Democratic Party failure. Still, it’s hard to fault Cillizza. If anything, the hyperactive shiny-ball chaser was trailing in the wake of a larger media narrative that included a solid week of supposition that Donna Brazile’s infinitely publicized tell-all account of the inner wranglings of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election was sure to depress Democratic turnout and cost Northam the election. And all of that was preceded by the verdict of the pundit class that held that the Virginians who had stood athwart the incursion of white supremacists in Charlottesville were equally guilty of divisiveness and political violence as Richard Spencer’s hopeful neo-Nazi genocidaires.
Virginians, to their shining credit, tuned out all of that noise, and refused to be demoralized. Moreover, they refused to succumb to the false choices that have become a media-inflated theme in the Democratic Party’s post-Trump autopsy. The notion that Democrats had to make an either-or choice between advancing the civil rights of marginalized Americans and the economic remedies that could help the working class held no sway in Virginia. Neither did the notion that a choice needed to be made between Hillary Clinton-style incrementalism and Bernie Sanders-style boldness.
On Tuesday night, wherever a potential avatar of a responsible form of politics arose to challenge the sucking vacuum of Trumpism, Virginians voted for said avatar. Whether they could claim an inch, or a yard, or a mile, they claimed it. Wherever it was possible to make something—anything—a little bit better, they seized the opportunity. There was no quibbling over what item on the menu might be more digestible or more pure in its creation—Virginia voters just carted off the whole buffet.
There was no quibbling over what item on the menu might be more digestible or more pure in its creation—Virginia voters just carted off the whole buffet.
There’s an important, unmistakable message in all this that ambitious liberal-left organizers would do well to heed. Cable news is not real life. Your Twitter mentions are not the election. And the election is not the sum total of our politics. An election is only this: the chance to make a choice between a few imperfect humans, based on whether they are going to leave the door ajar for you or lock you out. More than anything else, Tuesday night’s election in Virginia suggested that voters are, perhaps, prepared to make a more sustained investment in their political lives—one that doesn’t end after all the votes are cast.
Perhaps the most hopeful thing that happened in America on Tuesday night happened at the start of Ralph Northam’s victory speech, when a group of protesters who hadn’t forgotten about his mealy-mouthed support for that anti-sanctuary city bill briefly crashed the party and let their disapproving voice be heard. There’s no doubt that this will be spun as Northam’s unsteady beginning, or some other black mark on an otherwise impressive victory. In reality, though—non-punditized, un-Twitterfied reality—the encounter demonstrated that a new generation of Democratic voters were ready to do more than cast a vote and hope for the best, but rather, come walking through that door left ajar. (And when I say “new generation” I’m not speaking figuratively: Northam carried the age 18-29 vote by a whopping 39 point margin, more than double Hillary Clinton’s margin among Commonwealth voters in that demographic last year.)
Time will tell whether Virginians can capitalize on the potential for change they created on Tuesday night, or if the fervor felt in the Commonwealth might spread outside its borders. But the other lesson for organizers on the left is this: the only person at Tuesday’s victory celebration who’s constrained by term limits is Ralph Northam.