By Frank Blechman
Because I work in political campaigns and have been doing so since 1960, I am often asked, after an election, “What do these results mean?” I am then supposed to make some prediction for the future based on incomplete information about yesterday. So here goes. . . .
All I can say for sure about the Virginia 2019 election results is that if the 2020 presidential election were held today (instead of next year), Donald Trump would not do very well in Northern Virginia. To be fair, he did not do well here in 2016, either, and candidates such as Barbara Comstock who were too closely associated with him (despite her attempts to distance herself from him) did not do well in 2018 either. Too many Northern Virginians have worked in or for the military and/or the federal government to be sympathetic to Trump’s utter disrespect for “the swamp.” We know that most government employees are dedicated public servants, and we know that constitutional limits on government action were put there for a reason.
When the 2020 election comes around a year from now, we have no idea what the mood or focus of the country will be. Will we be at war? Will the economy be in trouble? Will Trump have survived impeachment? Who will the Democratic candidate be? Will there be serious third-party challengers? Will there be new environmental challenges? Any of these could dramatically affect the outcome.
So, stepping back from grand pronouncements about 2020, is there anything to be said from this vantage point of 2019? Yes. I think we can say that:
- There was a “Blue Wave.” Turnout in Northern Virginia was over 40% of registered voters, compared with a normal turnout of about 30% in this cycle. We don’t yet know who made up this increase, but anecdotally, it seems that younger/newer voters—ones who voted for the first time after 2016—showed up in larger numbers than in comparable past elections.
- There was not much of a “Red Wave.” Many Republican candidates in Fairfax got about the same number of votes that comparable candidates got in the past. For example, Republican County Supervisor Pat Herrity (Springfield) got a little over 20,500 votes. He got 18,000 votes in 2015, and 22,000 in 2011. Herrity won, the only Republican to hold onto a seat in Fairfax County, but he did so by just 1%. Comparably, Delegate Tim Hugo won in 2011 with 11,500 votes, and in 2015 with 10,900 votes, but lost by 5% this year with 14,500 votes
- GOP campaign scare tactics about “them” taking over and doing terrible things did not motivate many voters. These appeals ranged from old claims that “Democrats would take away your guns,” “The Socialists are coming!”, and “Democrats will raise your taxes,” to newer arguments such as “Democrats will take away your health care choices.” Perhaps the oddest of these cries was, “Democrats will pass a ‘Green New Deal’ that will cost Virginia taxpayers billions of dollars.” If these messages were intended to motivate the hard-core base, they may have been successful, but those were few. At the same time, though, the messages moved as many or more progressive voters to oppose those preaching fear.
- GOP candidates were short on substance. This is not to say that Democrats were “right” on the issues. Although Democratic positions on health care, education, and public safety (especially guns) polled well, I don’t think we can say they did well because of their positions on issues. Republicans who ran as “moderates” were unconvincing, and those who ran as screaming reactionaries didn’t do well either. Few wanted to get into extended debates about substantive matters.
- This was a referendum on Trump. Although not on the ballot, the President certainly was on voters’ minds. Democratic candidates benefitted and Republic candidates suffered.
Media pundits have been quick to say that the GOP in Virginia will be “toast” for a decade, or perhaps a generation. Others caution that the Dems should not go too far left. Are suburban women and young voters now reliable members of a progressive wave or are they movable building blocks for the future? I believe that we do not, and cannot, know now.
If Democrats fall back into partisan foolishness, they will discover what a “rebound election” looks like sooner than they think.
So, to the real question: Does it matter? Clearly, yes. A Democratically controlled General Assembly will move progressive measure for workers, families, and the environment. Newly elected members and leaders will bring new energy to the old challenges, such as funding for education, health care, and transportation. Redistricting in 2021 will produce more fair, transparent districts than in 2011. Virginia might even see a change in election finance laws.
If the Democrats deliver change on these long-stalled issues, I believe the prospects for the future are bright. If Democrats fall back into partisan foolishness, they will discover what a “rebound election” looks like sooner than they think.