Democrats have not lost a statewide contest in Virginia in a decade and more jeopardy could loom for the GOP next year following Tuesday’s midterm elections, which went about as well for Democrats as they could have hoped.
The lineup at the Democrats’ party in Falls Church Tuesday night illustrated its dominant political standing in the commonwealth. The jubilant crowd included three former governors, two of whom now serve in the U.S. Senate, and a third who might run for president by pointing to what’s happening in Virginia.
Newly re-elected Sen. Tim Kaine, introduced by Sen. Mark Warner, had made short work of Republican challenger Corey Stewart, allowing partiers in the Marriott ballroom to focus on the results coming in from the competitive U.S. House races. Stewart had been the subject of critical state and national media coverage over his past ties to white supremacists and his embrace of Confederate nostalgia. The GOP establishment in Washington opted not to help fund his race.
The crowd whooped with excitement as Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-10th, became one of the first Republicans in the country to fall, losing by double digits to Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton.
Two other down-ticket races were looking good for Democrats, but hadn’t been called by the time speakers took the stage to declare Virginia was once again leading the charge against the politics of President Donald Trump.
“We are rebirthing democracy in the place where it was first born,” said Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a possible gubernatorial contender in 2021.
Nationally, the midterm results showed a mixed verdict on the first two years of the Trump presidency. But after two election cycles, Virginia voters have delivered a one-sided ruling. It’s been great for Democrats. And disastrous for Republicans.
“Simply put, this Tuesday’s results were devastating,” Virginia GOP Chairman Jack Wilson, who took the post in September, said in an email Friday evening to Republicans across the state.
He added: “The sad fact is that we have been losing statewide elections in Virginia long before Trump was elected president. Our issue is a simple math problem: the Democrat voting base is larger than the Republican base in Virginia. It has been since the Obama campaign registered hundreds of thousands of new voters in 2008, and their base has turned out at a higher rate than our base.”
In 2017, Democrats won all three statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, and took 15 GOP seats in the House of Delegates, falling one seat short of a 50-50 partisan split after losing a tied race on the equivalent of a coin toss. That outcome enabled the passage of Medicaid expansion, a long-blocked priority for Democrats that Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law during his first year in his office.
On Tuesday, Democrats flipped three Republican-held U.S. House districts.
“Today, folks, Democrats — we are the action. We control it all here in Virginia,” former Gov. Terry McAuliffe — who’s considering a run for president in 2020 — told the ballroom on election night.
2019 legislative races
Now, Democrats are preparing for an all-out push in 2019 to retake the General Assembly, where Republicans have one-seat edges in the House and the Senate. All 140 seats in the legislature are up for election next fall.
The nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project estimated the vote totals in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate race as applied to each state legislative district. The estimates do not include absentee and provisional ballots.
The result shows potential peril ahead for some Republicans seeking re-election next year in the state’s large population centers. For example, Kaine received more than 60 percent of the vote in the district of state Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, which overlaps with the 7th U.S. House District where Democrat Abigail Spanberger upset Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, on Tuesday.
Sturtevant’s seat is among at least five in the state Senate that Democrats want to flip. He did not respond to a phone message this week asking for his thoughts about Tuesday’s election results.
The three congressional seats that flipped “overlap with some of the Senate districts that we are certainly looking at, and that bodes very well for us,” said state Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
“Health care was a major issue last year and it was a major issue this year, and four of those five districts where Republican senators are sitting — four of the five voted against Medicaid expansion,” Locke said. “Voters very clearly are saying that health care is a major concern for them.”
State House Republicans will have to contend with new House district lines, which a court-appointed expert will draw after a federal court ruled this summer that the House map approved in 2011 was racially gerrymandered.
House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said the map already looks “very good” for Democrats, and could get better. In the midterms, he said, Democrats picked up votes in all the places his caucus needs to target next year.
“Henrico, Chesterfield, in and around Virginia Beach, Fairfax. All of these places are going bluer,” Toscano said.
State lawmakers will again redraw district lines for themselves and for the state’s U.S. House districts after the 2020 census. If Democrats take control of the General Assembly next year, they’ll draw lines in 2021 that Northam will sign into law.
‘The party of Hogan’?
The 2019 statehouse races won’t draw the same turnout levels as 2017, when 47.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots for governor, and 2018, when turnout spiked to 59 percent statewide and reached 64 percent in the 7th District, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
But the Trump-focused national environment isn’t expected to change.
“I do happen to believe that so long as Trump is in office, then Virginia is a blue state,” said Tucker Martin, a longtime GOP strategist who worked on Republican Ed Gillespie’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign. “Once he leaves, we’ll see if we can find a way to be competitive.”
Gillespie used policy proposals to try to appeal to suburban voters, but he also felt compelled to run TV ads defending Confederate monuments and tying immigrants to violent crime in order to energize the GOP base after Stewart — running on those issues — nearly defeated him in a primary. Northam won the general election by 9 percentage points.
The tough environment doesn’t mean Republicans should “stand down,” Martin said. Instead, Martin said the party should start crafting its own political identity that can work in a purple-blue state, possibly by following the examples of popular, centrist Republican governors in Maryland and Massachusetts.
That will mean breaking with Trump when necessary, Martin said, and convincing the GOP’s base voters they’ll have to accept different kinds of Republicans in order to win.
“What you see at a rally in Missouri, it doesn’t work here,” Martin said. “So don’t expect your Virginia Republican candidates to act like that or sound like that.”
Wilson, the Virginia GOP chairman, said in his email that he thinks Republicans can win in the future, but “we as a party must change if we are to survive in Virginia.” He said he will push party leaders to focus on unity, voter registration and growing the party through outreach to nonwhite voters and to voters under the age of 40.
Rollin Reisinger, a GOP campaign consultant, said Virginia Republicans should follow the lead of popular Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. Hogan, who has appealed to suburban voters, was easily re-elected Tuesday.
“Suburban voters aren’t motivated by the fetishization of Confederate iconography,” Reisinger said. “They’re looking for practical solutions on kitchen-table issues and a government that spends their tax dollars wisely.”
The Republican Party needs to use state-run primaries to select candidates, he said, as opposed to the closed-door process in which a small number of activists choose a nominee. The GOP needs solid candidates and needs to be pragmatic in the face of an increasingly Democratic electorate in Virginia, he said.
That means developing a more mainstream platform that speaks to the needs of Virginia, not nominating divisive candidates who equate broad appeal with weakness, he said.
“The fight over the heart and soul of the party is a lot more complex than it seems,” Reisinger said. “We have to be able to compete in the suburbs. ... I think the question is, how do we get to be the party of Hogan … while turning out the rural base?”