The full consequences of the Democratic Party’s victory last night in Virginia won’t become apparent for months or even years to come. By winning both houses of the state legislature, Democrats have turned the state totally blue for the first time in 26 years. They’ll have a chance to pass major new gun laws in the backyard of the Fairfax-based National Rifle Association, to more than double Virginia’s minimum wage, and to solidify their electoral gains by reversing Republican gerrymanders through redistricting two years from now.
But the more immediate significance of the results is what they portend for the Democrats’ much bigger battle ahead: They show that the electoral fire on the left sparked by Donald Trump’s stunning victory in 2016 is still burning hot three years later. In 2017, Virginia was a proving ground for Democrats as they tried to translate the energy of the so-called Resistance into electoral victory. They won three statewide elections that year and dramatically exceeded expectations in legislative races, foreshadowing the party’s national triumph in recapturing the House majority in 2018. They hope the same trend will hold true heading into 2020.
“This historic victory should send a chill down the spines of Donald Trump and every Republican,” proclaimed Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in a statement. “Democrats are competing in every election and every state, running on our values, and channelling unprecedented energy into the voting booth—that’s how we won tonight, that’s how we’ll beat Trump in one year, and that’s how Democrats will win victories at every level in 2020.”
It was a statement full of braggadocio, to be sure, but in Virginia, in Kentucky, and in key elections in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Democrats had the numbers to back it up. Turnout surged in big Virginia counties, just as it did in the areas around Louisville, Lexington, and south of Cincinnati, where the Democrat Andy Beshear was able to rack up the votes he needed for an apparent upset victory over the incumbent Republican governor, Matt Bevin.
There were no statewide races in Virginia this year—it’s what insiders there refer to as the “off-off-year election.” But as I wrote last month, you’d never know that from watching television. With Democrats needing to flip just two seats in each legislative chamber to secure outright majorities, national progressive groups poured millions of dollars into the state, resulting in wall-to-wall ads from Labor Day on. Turnout in these legislative races has hovered around 30 percent in recent years. The state hasn’t released full turnout information from last night, but data from the largest counties, where Democrats scored their biggest wins, indicate it was close to, and in some cases more than, 40 percent. That would represent the biggest “off-off-year” turnout in more than 20 years and rival the number of votes recorded in the statewide races in 2013 and the midterm elections a year later.
Just as in 2018, Democrats’ strength did not extend everywhere, and the overall higher turnout levels of the Trump era include rural areas where the president is inspiring his own supporters to show up for Republicans at the polls. While Democrats appear to have won the governorship in Kentucky, the GOP easily won the five other statewide races on the ballot. In Mississippi, Democrats fielded a strong gubernatorial candidate in Attorney General Jim Hood, but he could not overcome the state’s deep-red lean and lost by six points to Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, who had Trump’s backing. Turnout there did not measure up to Virginia or Kentucky. And in New Jersey, Republicans appear to have gained seats in the state legislature, including in the southern part of the state where Democrats ousted GOP House incumbents last year.
Yet Virginia was where the most was at stake for Democrats nationally. The party had renewed its efforts to flip statehouses in the aftermath of Trump’s 2016 win after years of largely ceding them to Republicans. With GOP lawmakers blocking efforts at gun control following another mass shooting in Virginia Beach over the summer, groups such as Everytown added millions of dollars in spending as they fought a proxy battle with the NRA.
Democrats had to overcome scandals that politically neutralized statewide leaders Governor Ralph Northam, who denied he was pictured in a blackface yearbook photo that emerged earlier this year, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who faced accusations of sexual assault from multiple women. Both men refused demands that they resign from virtually the entire Democratic Party in Virginia. “Obviously the Democratic Party had a rough start to the year,” the state party’s executive director, Chris Bolling, conceded in a call with reporters this morning.
By the fall, however, voters seemed to have moved on. Northam’s approval ratings rebounded, and GOP efforts to tie Democratic legislative candidates to the disgraced party leaders largely fell flat. The bigger question became whether the party could sustain the enthusiasm that had fueled its victories in 2017 and 2018. Expectations were much higher: Whereas two years ago, Democrats were happy merely to hold the governorship and make gains in the legislature, this year nothing short of outright majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates would count as a win.
The same is true for the party nationally in 2020. Democrats will have to overcome whatever fights break out in their presidential primary and keep up their energy in driving turnout in the cities and suburbs to match Trump’s strength among cultural conservatives and rural voters. If Virginia turns out to be the bellwether Democrats hope it is—and which it proved to be two years ago—then last night’s results were a very good sign for the party.