From Chincoteague to the Cumberland Gap, Virginians went to the polls Tuesday to elect a new General Assembly — but the message those voters delivered should reverberate across the country.
In putting Democrats in control of both chambers for the first time in more than two decades, Virginians didn’t simply change parties in Richmond. They sent a clear signal that they’d like to change who sits in the White House, as well.
The essential numbers: Before Donald Trump became president, Republicans held a two-thirds majority in the House that seemed virtually impregnable. In just two election cycles in the Trump era, that commanding majority has been obliterated. The state Senate has always been closer, but now it’s flipped from red to blue, as well. This is a reversal of historic proportions that not even the most optimistic Democrats could have foreseen just four years ago. There’s really only one explanation: Voter revulsion against Trump, at least in the suburbs that control the state’s politics.
Yes, Virginia’s changing demographics — again, a largely suburban phenomenon, particularly in Northern Virginia — play a big part in these election results. But keep in mind that Virginia’s demographics didn’t change suddenly. What changed suddenly is that voters who previously didn’t bother to vote in off-year elections have now turned out — and the reason they turned out had less to do with what’s happening in Richmond and more to do with what’s happening in Washington. Virginia’s elections have now been nationalized. Districts that were previously content to elect Republicans in low turnout years have now emphatically sent Democrats to Richmond.
Virginians have been wont to proclaim a “New Dominion” every so often — then-Gov. Gerald Baliles did so back in 1985 when he led to victory a ticket that included Douglas Wilder (the first African American to win a statewide election) and Mary Sue Terry (the first woman to do so). That election brought symbolic changes; this one brings structural ones. This is definitely a New Dominion.
The last session in which Democrats controlled both chambers in Richmond was 1995; the last session in which they controlled the entire state government was 1993. These are a very different kind of Democrat — more liberal, more suburban, and more Northern Virginian. Our part of the state, long used to feeling estranged from power in Richmond, will now feel even more alienated. In the ’90s, there were still many Democrats representing Southside and Southwest Virginia in Richmond. Now the majority party has few representatives outside the urban crescent — with none in Southside and none west of the New River. Rural Virginia has long been a supplicant in Richmond — the state pays most of our school budgets, for instance — but we haven’t always acted like it. For a long time we had speakers of the House and House majority leaders from rural Virginia. And even when we didn’t have those, we still mostly had legislators who were part of the majority party. All that changes now. Rural Virginia has thought it was on the outside looking in before; now we’re really on the outside looking in.
A lot of state policies will certainly change as a result of Tuesday’s vote. All those gun bills that Republican legislators routinely killed in committee will now likely pass and get signed into law by a Democratic governor. The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution may actually get ratified, setting up a court battle over whether the deadline passed years ago. Virginia will be heard from on the national stage. It’s being heard from now, long before these newly-elected legislators take their seats. Tuesday’s election results send a clear message, but it’s one that may well be misunderstood nationally.
Yes, Trump is unpopular, particularly in suburbs — and those suburbs are realigning. Once suburbs were Republican strongholds; now they’re often voting Democratic. That’s where the Democratic gains came from. This has significance nationally as we head into the 2020 presidential election — it’s suburbs turning blue that puts previously Republican states such as Arizona, Georgia and potentially even Texas in play. However, Democrats would be well-advised not to read too much into the Virginia results.
In some ways, the Democratic takeover of the General Assembly is a shock, but not that much of one — Virginia has been trending that way for more than a decade now. Democrats have won the state three times in presidential elections. They haven’t lost a statewide election since 2009. They’ve won congressional districts once thought out of their reach, as those suburbs we talked about have realigned. With Tuesday’s election, the General Assembly simply catches up to those electoral changes. This does not necessarily mean that Democrats are destined to defeat Trump in November 2020. Yes, Virginia may show that suburbs are realigning, but other states may have a different demographic mix — winning more votes in the suburbs may not be enough. Furthermore, realignments are Newtonian affairs — for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. Rural areas have realigned, too. The coalfields were once Democratic bastions; now they’re overwhelmingly Republican. Are there even more votes that Trump will be able to squeeze out of rural areas in 2020? We don’t know, and Virginia on Tuesday didn’t tell us much because there were so few contested seats in rural Virginia.
And then there’s this: Trump right now is unpopular, but he’s unpopular in a vacuum. Come next November, he’ll be judged against a Democratic nominee and it’s entirely possible Democrats will nominate someone who is equally unpopular, just in different ways. Six polls released this week by the New York Times — the same New York Times that Trump likes to call “fake” — should worry Democrats. It looked at match-ups in six key swing states, and found that Trump could well sweep all six — again. Trump slightly trailed Joe Biden in four of them, but within the margin of error. Meanwhile, he only trailed Elizabeth Warren in one. Democrats may want to pay more attention to that than the Virginia results.
If Democrats look only at Virginia and conclude that they can win next year no matter what, that might be the worst thing to happen to them.