Understanding Virginia's new blue wave: Here are the lessons for 2020
"Republicans shape their destiny. … Democrats don't.”
— political scientist Rachel Bitecofer
Last week, Virginia voters made history in multiple ways. Not only did they give Democrats unified control of state government for the first time since 1993, but in doing so, along with recent federal elections, they returned Virginia to the ranks of solid blue states for the first time since 1948. And if that’s not a long enough time-span, they also elected Ghazala Hashmi, the first female Muslim state senator in the legislature that passed America’ first religious freedom statute in 1786.
“This is the third straight message that we sent to the president,” said Chris Bolling, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party. “It’s three consecutive times that voters in Virginia are firmly rejecting the president and his policies, and we will continue doing so in 2020, and we’ll make this his last year in office,” he told Salon “That's what I think the larger national takeaway from what happened in Virginia is.”
All that may be true, but it was a rare example of a top party spokesperson significantly understating the historical significance of an election victory.
In 2017, a major Democratic victory in Virginia — called months in advance by political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, based on her "negative partisanship" model — was a key harbinger of the 2018 midterm blue wave. But this election was arguably even more historic, though you’d never know it from the national media, because it just doesn’t fit their dominant narratives.
Most notably, on the day before the Virginia election, a New York Times poll touted the twin narratives that Donald Trump has a good chance of re-election by winning a handful of swing states, despite his massive national unpopularity, and that Joe Biden was slightly more likely to be able to beat him than other leading Democrats. These status-quo narratives were immediately cast into doubt by a Data for Progress poll finding that Elizabeth Warren was marginally stronger than Biden in every state (with Bernie Sanders roughly equivalent to Biden), and a Cook-Kaiser Foundation poll later in the week, finding a 59 percent disapproval rating for Trump in four crucial states (Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), which is strikingly similar to the national average.
This cacophony of contrasting poll results stands in sharp contrast to the unambiguous message out of Virginia, beginning with the 40% turnout in this off-off-year election, compared to just 28% in 2015. Mainstream media narratives have been dominated by focusing on a small slice of potentially persuadable voters (as in the Times poll story), the Virginia election was a dramatic reality check about the far larger population of disaffected voters, many of whom Democrats managed to turn out, but many more of whom still remain unengaged.
The Times story gave short shrift to that portion of the electorate, claiming that non-voters represent a “false hope” for Democrats, even while admitting that “Of course, Democrats — or Republicans and the president — could benefit from higher turnout if it drew disproportionately from their pool of voters,” which, of course, is precisely the point.
The Virginia results were further reinforced by an election-eve Data For Progress poll that projected a three-seat gain in the state Senate gain, and showed that a range of progressive policies were more popular than Democratic candidates. Two health-related policies were particularly popular: Support for free insulin and enabling Medicare drug price negotiations registered 79% and 73% support, respectively, with little variation across district lines.
That was only the latest of several polls in recent years showing strong support for progressive policies crossing party lines, but it deserves special notice because of what might have been — an even stronger election night for Democrats had they built their campaigns around a popular problem-solving agenda, an approach advocated by Bitecofer. She argues that the Virginia campaign should have been based on promising a special session, kicking off with a background check bill, a massive expansion of voting rights and a statewide minimum wage hike — all broadly popular proposals, but especially in the African-American community, where lagging turnout cost Democrats three potential Senate seats.
But before we consider what more might have been — or could be in the future — we need to acknowledge just how much has been accomplished. Democrats won a 21-19 majority in the State Senate (a gain of two seats) and a 55-45 margin in the House of Delegates (a gain of six) — a stunning reversal from the supermajorities of 66-67 seats Republicans held from 2011 to 2017. Not only did the election solidify Virginia as a blue state, it foreshadowed a direction for other Southern states to follow in the decade ahead.
The Democratic Party is the biggest institutional player, but an infusion of new organizations played vital roles as well. “It was a little rocky” dealing with chaotic infusion of outside attention in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 elections, said Bolling, but they’ve been able to build relationships and worked as a team this year.
Swing Left helped grassroots activists and donors play a crucial role, successfully defending six House seats won in 2017, and helping to flip six of the nine GOP House seats it targeted, as well as two of five Senate seats. All but two races were decided by single digits, but the largest margin, 17.4% was won by Shelly Simonds, who first ran and lost in 2015, and whose 2017 race infamously ended in a tie, decided by a random drawing won by her Republican opponent. Simonds' final campaign mailer this year had a photo of that bowl with the caption, "Do you think this bowl is smarter than you? No? Then don't let it decide an election." Unlike some other Democrats, she made the stakes vividly clear — and her resounding win should be a harbinger of what’s to come in 2020.
Tori Taylor, Swing Left’s head of "political and organizing," called Simmonds’ victory “a testament to the resilience of these candidates in Virginia and the importance of continuing to do the hard work year after year, even if you don't get it the first time.”
“We saw a lot of candidates ran for a second or third time, and turn in some incredible performances,” Bolling added.
“This was really a victory that was years in the making from progressive organizations at the local, state and national level, really investing in and organizing in this state for years,” Taylor told Salon. “We knocked on 88,000 doors, made 39,000 phone calls, wrote 229,000 letters to voters in Virginia in some of these really key areas, and raised nearly $1 million directly for the candidates, to make sure that they have the resources to win.”
Making those actions count as much as possible is key to Swing Left’s approach. “We’re really excited that 89% of the grassroots donations that we were able to funnel into Virginia went to Democrats whose races were decided by single digits,” Taylor said. “When you can be strategic, and data-driven, and make sure that you’re building a sophisticated program to equip the grassroots army that Swing Left has been able to build, we can really see incredible results.”
Catherine Vaughan, Swing Left’s chief strategy officer, said the “big question" in 2019 was, "Can we get a huge community of people that was focused single-mindedly on the [national midterms] last year to switch their strategy a little going into 2019 and focus on these state races? I think the results speak for themselves.”
Swing Left’s core logic involves leveraging a national audience in support of dedicated in-district volunteers, which takes on heightened intensity in the much smaller state house races, as Swing Left political analyst Ryan Quinn explained. “I think one of the big lessons here is really understanding how we can best take the strength of a national audience and focus it on these races where races might be decided by just a handful of votes.”
There will be more adaptation ahead in 2020, with Swing Left’s “Super State” strategy, focused on states with crucial presidential, U.S. Senate and state legislative contests that will play a vital role in redistricting for the coming decade. “Each of these cycles has allowed us to focus on one specific building block of the strategy, and then in 2020 we're putting them all together,” Vaughn said. “So we had a chance to focus people on congressional races, we have a chance to focus on state legislatures. Inevitably people will be focused on the presidential race no matter what. Now it's about putting them together and taking that particular approach and layering it on top of each other."
This capacity to shift focus in response to political opportunity and need is precisely the kind of operational sophistication the Democratic coalition needs. But however crucial that may be, that’s only piece in the larger puzzle, as Bitecofer sees it. There’s a broader question of political culture reflected in the ways Democrats tend to campaign, which in her judgment fails to take full advantage of just how unpopular many Republican policies are, or how popular the Democratic ones alternatives are.
“Where Democrats are inept, where their strategy is incompetent, where they’re lacking, is that they do not provide voters a stake,” Bitecofer told Salon. “If you want watch any of the ads that ran in Virginia on TV, they talked about the Republican incumbent voted four times against Medicaid expansion. It's very analytical, it's all focused on the policy, it's all brain.
“Instead, it should be emotive. It should be, 'Here's my daughter, she was dying from needing a liver transplant, it was last-minute, because these heartless Republicans were going to let her die.'”
I was reminded of an all-too-rare occasion when Democrats did run ads like that. In 2011, House Republicans, under the leadership of Speaker Paul Ryan, tried to end Medicare and replace it with a voucher system whose value was likely to dwindle over time as it lagged behind inflation. When Democrats made this argument, “fact-checkers” screamed bloody murder. And when Democrats made video ads illustrating this argument with an image of a senior citizen in a wheelchair getting tossed off a cliff, the screams of outrage could be heard on Mount Olympus.
The response was so bad that PolitiFact named it the “Lie of the Year” (with back-up from Factcheck.org and the Washington Post), presumably to even things out, since Republicans had earned the two previous ones with health care lies that actually were lies: “death panels” in 2009, and calling Obamacare a “government takeover of health care” in 2010. I wrote about this travesty at the time, as did Paul Krugman, Steve Benin, Dave Weigel and many others.
This is just one example of the way that normalizing Republican lies and applying a sloppy, superficial standard of "balance" perpetuates an asymmetrical advantage for Republicans, in which Democrats are perpetually fearful of saying anything forcefully and directly — which is to say, effectively — no matter how clear and compelling the facts might be. In turn, this defensive crouch is naturalized and internalized: Democrats come to believe that it's unhealthy to speak up clearly on matters of policy and principle.
This can be seen most clearly in the way Republicans have used the Supreme Court to nationalize elections, and have even made Trump’s personal immorality a complete non-issue for so-called “values voters."
“It's not like Republicans come out of the womb and have a natural appreciation for how important the Supreme Court is,” Bitecofer said. “It's because they're constantly treated to campaign literature and campaign media that tells him that controlling the courts is a life-and-death stakes thing. And Democrats don't do that.” Of course there’s data that can be used to make these results seem logical by supporting the premise that Democratic voters just don’t care about the Supreme Court. But as she points out, “The reason they don't care about the Court is because Democrats aren’t talking about it.
“I like to say Republicans shape their destiny. They understand that you can shape your destiny. Democrats, they don't do that.”
The point of nationalizing elections is that voters really don’t care about state or local politics, Bitecofer said. “So when you're the GOP and you want people to go vote in a state legislative election, you tell them, in a glanced-at picture, ‘Hey, this election involves Donald Trump. Go vote!’ Or, ‘If you don't vote you're going to lose all your rights.’ That’s the GOP message.
“Now imagine the difference on the other side, where you don't get that message at all,” she said. “There's no life-or-death message coming through. There's no stake.” That’s the Democrats’ problem in a nutshell.
Concern about the content of ads reflects a micro-level perspective. At the macro level, Bitecofer says, Democrats should have kicked off in the summer by announcing a coordinated campaign to retake the legislature, put an end to Republican obstruction and solve longstanding problems, particularly those facing low-turnout voters.
I would have said, "Day one of the special session after we flip the assembly, we're going to introduce a background-check bill, because that deals with the problem of regular everyday gun violence that plagues communities of color, and we're going to pass a massive voting rights expansion bill — again, aimed at communities of color — and the third thing is a statewide minimum wage hike, because our state is still at the federal floor. It's one of 15 states at the federal floor of $7.25. So it's a crisis. There's a minimum-wage crisis at stake, and you, voter, can solve this crisis by helping us win the assembly.
Tellingly, when I asked Bolling, the state party's executive director, about legislative plans under the new Democratic majority, he answered cautiously and in the passive voice. “Gun control is something you will definitely see an effort towards,” he said, promising “common sense solutions we've been talking about.” Beyond that, he said we would have to wait for the new legislature to organize itself before an agenda becomes clear. Of course I know this is how things are normally done. It’s how they’ve been done for generations. But maybe it’s time for that to change.