Progressives haven’t had much good news since the apocalypse of November 8, 2016. So Election Day 2017 felt fantastic. Democrats took all of Virginia’s statewide races (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), and captured the governorship in New Jersey as well. They gained at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates (a few races are still being recounted), almost yanking control from the GOP despite the state’s outrageously gerrymandered districts. Republicans currently control the Statehouse 66–34, so even a 51–49 split would be an unexpected victory.
At least 11 of those Virginia pick-up seats will be held by women; five are women of color, and one, Danica Roem, will be the first openly transgender person to serve in any state legislature. In another first, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Marine Corps veteran Lee Carter, beat the Republican majority whip, despite being given little chance by state Democratic party leaders. The new House roster includes the first Latinas, Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman (the latter is also the first AFSCME member to hold a seat), and the first public defender, Jennifer Carroll Foy, who was also among the first women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute. That’s what I call diversity—on every level.
And it wasn’t just in Virginia. We’ll see a female African-American mayor in Charlotte, North Carolina (Vi Lyles), and a Sikh mayor in Hoboken, New Jersey (Ravi Bhalla). Also in New Jersey, a black woman, Ashley Bennett, ran against her local county freeholder—after the man had posted a Facebook meme asking if the participants in the Women’s March would be home in time to make dinner—and defeated said Neanderthal. The list goes on and on.
It felt great, but we can’t lie on the couch savoring the moment for very long. The 2018 midterms are coming up in less than a year, and Democrats have a shot at gaining control of the US House and Senate, as well as making inroads in statehouses, after losing roughly 1,000 state-legislative seats under President Obama. We’ll be teasing out the lessons for a while, but here’s a start:
§ We saw a rejoinder to the false binary that has afflicted Democratic Party debates for more than a year: the choice between what’s stupidly called “identity politics” and a class-based populist appeal. The winners last Tuesday tell us that we need—and can have—both. Roem, a trans woman, campaigned on fixing her district’s hideous traffic problems. Foy, a black woman, went out of her way to cultivate voters in Stafford County, the more rural, Republican, white working-class part of her district. She only lost there by only 500 votes; Democrats who ran for that seat in the past had been slaughtered. We also saw a diverse slate of candidates pushing populist issues. Virginia Governor-elect Ralph Northam ran on a $15-an-hour minimum wage, free community college, and expanding Medicaid. Foy held tight to her promise to give in-state tuition to undocumented college students, even after getting slammed by her opponent for doing so. Why are we acting like we have to choose between these paths?
§ The Democratic tsunami prevailed thanks in large part to the dozens of groups that have emerged in the last few years focused on local organizing. They range from the relatively small northern Virginia group We of Action, to Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution, to Run for Something, which was founded by former Clinton staffer Amanda Litman and grassroots organizer Ross Morales Rocketto to encourage millennials to enter politics. I heard many good things from candidates everywhere about new organizations like Flippable, Indivisible, Swing Left, and Sister District, as well as established groups like Emily’s List and Emerge Virginia. “I give credit to the outside groups and my volunteers—period,” said Virginia Delegate-elect Kelly Fowler, who was on the verge of dropping out when I profiled her in early August but got a crucial boost from the “pop-up” groups. There is much more to be learned from each of these new efforts, but something good happened in Virginia, and these groups need to be supported.
§ Did official Democratic Party groups perform better than usual this time? Some observers say yes, but I’m not sure yet. The much-maligned Democratic National Committee sent scores of organizers to Virginia, an unusual effort on its part. But one important post-mortem will involve examining whether official party groups were able to help the unexpectedly large number of candidates who turned out to run. The number of Democrats challenging GOP incumbents this year jumped from 21 to 54. The party expected to win five to eight seats; instead, it won 15. As Virginia House minority leader David Toscano confessed to me last August, the sheer number of new candidates “is stretching our resources, and it’s stretching our thinking about how to support so many candidates. We wish we had unlimited resources.”
That’s understandable, but will state Democratic parties be up to the challenge in 2018? If it looks like they’re not, we should funnel our money to those outside groups who have a proven track record of doing more with less. We’ll see next year—not just in a few states but in all 50.