Here’s Why Democrats Won Big in Virginia

Here’s Why Democrats Won Big in Virginia

Here’s Why Democrats Won Big in Virginia

Twice as many Democrats contested GOP state House seats as in 2013—and they helped push other candidates to victory.


One year after Hillary Clinton’s demoralizing Electoral College loss to Donald Trump, women have something to cheer: A stunning wave of first-time female candidates won races for the Virginia House of Delegates Tuesday night—and helped propel their all-male slate of statewide candidates to a decisive victory. As of Wednesday morning, the state Democratic Party said it had picked up 16 seats, tying the GOP 50-50—and 12 of the winners were women. (There may still be a few recounts.)

Democrats will debate the meaning of the unexpectedly large nine-point win by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam for a while, since the polling average on election eve had him up by barely three points. National Democrats also worried Northam had run an unusually dull, centrist, light-on-issues campaign (but, honestly, what do we know?). Given the election results, and the number of new candidates elected, it’s possible Virginia saw something new: a reverse-coattails effect, where the surge of candidates running for the state House, most of them women, helped propel Northam and his ticket to victory.

Though all of Virginia’s statewide elected officials are Democrats, the party has lagged in the state House: Republicans control 66 seats in the House of Delegates, Democrats only 34. But this year Democrats ran 54 challengers against GOP incumbents, up from only 21 in 2015. Of the 54, 31 were women—and 26 of those women were first-time candidates. An astonishing number of those first-time candidates defeated incumbent Republicans Tuesday night.

I’ve covered these Virginia House elections since mid-summer. When I called around in the last couple of weeks to get predictions from Virginia Democratic veterans, the most optimistic said the party would gain eight House of Delegate seats. Several folks said 4-to-5. Nobody but nobody said 16. And nobody, even back in the early days of hype, suggested they might flip the state House.

“Turnout was way up where we ran candidates,” said former Virginia congressman Tom Periello, the progressive who lost the Democratic primary to Ralph Northam and immediately endorsed his former rival, and joined Win Virginia, a progressive PAC pushing state House candidates. “And particularly where we ran a diverse slate.”

There’s nowhere that the slate wasn’t diverse, given the presence of Justin Fairfax, elected the state’s second black lieutenant governor. In the House of Delegates, the victors ranged from transwoman Danica Roem (who beat “bathroom bill” sponsor Bob Marshall), to former television newsman Chris Hurst (whose girlfriend Alison Parker was shot live on Roanoke local TV and who evicted incumbent Joseph Yost in Blacksburg).

Most of the women I wrote about last summer won their races. Progressive Jennifer Carroll Foy, one of the first black female graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, became the only public defender in the House of Delegates. Hala Ayala, a single mother who became a Department of Homeland Security cyber-security specialist, and Elizabeth Guzman, an AFSCME member, social worker, and Latino immigrant, became the first two Latinas in the House of Delegates. Kathy Tran, who came here at 7 months old, became the first Vietnamese refugee. Cheryl Turpin, who ran in a special election earlier this year and lost, defeated her GOP opponent in Virginia Beach.

Another Virginia Beach challenger, Kelly Fowler, won as well. When I interviewed her last July she was struggling, a little demoralized, but she got some help from outside groups and kept on going.

“Women power, that is what we’re seeing tonight,” said a jubilant Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a year after perhaps the worst night in history for Democratic women. Emily’s List endorsed 16 candidates in state House races—and 13 of them won; one other race is still too close to call.

We will be debating the impact of “reverse coattails” for a while. But what looks certain is this: GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie’s decision to turn his back on his moderate Republican legacy and run as a race-baiting Trump Republican was a disaster. First, Gillespie issued a flurry of policy papers that made him seem like a GOP Hillary Clinton. When he still trailed in the polls, he ran scurrilous ads alleging that Northam favored sanctuary cities (to the chagrin of some progressive groups, Northam does not) and one that tied him to outgoing Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe’s effort to return the vote to felons (which Gillespie had earlier said he himself supported). The New Jersey native also made himself the candidate of Confederate monuments—proving they’re actually about hate, or at least political division, and not heritage.

Exiled former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who has returned to his white-nationalist site Breitbart, hailed Gillespie last week for running on “Trumpism without Trump.” That, apparently, was a bust, at least in Virginia. And apparently with Breitbart. After Gillespie lost, Breitbart threw him under the bus as an “establishment Republican.”

Virginia also saw a lot of new groups emerge, founded in the wake of the 2016 disaster, raring to work on state-level races. Their leaders were ecstatic Tuesday nights. “Our candidates in Virginia won because they ran smart campaigns that put voter-contact front and center and focused on local issues above all else,” said Amanda Litman, founder of Run for Something, a new Clinton-affiliated group that supported 10 Virginia state House candidates, six of whom won. “This is history,” declared Catherine Vaughan of Flippable, which went five for five in their House of Delegates endorsements.

“Virginia was never a 66-34 state,” Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez told MSNBC, about the rapidly changing Virginia House of Delegates composition, after the race was called for Northam. We may not know whether Democrats took the state House for a while, given the recounts. But Perez spoke the truth: Virginia certainly isn’t a 66-34 state. Let’s hope other purple-state voters claim their power the way Virginia voters did in this off-off-year election. That’s all that can change the accelerating downhill direction of our country.

Updated 11/8/2017: This article has been updated with a more recent count of how Emily’s List candidates fared.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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