Guest post by Thomas Bowman of the Competitive Commonwealth Fund
Fewer than 30% of registered Virginia voters participated in the 2015 election, compared to 72% of registered voters participating in the 2016 election. Those numbers have held for the last 25 years. If everybody who voted Dem in 2016 also voted in 2015 or 2017, there would be 17 more Democratic districts that are instead represented by Republicans who won by comfortable margins.
For those of you keeping score, there are currently 34 Democratic House seats out of 100. Another 17 would give the Democratic Party a 51-49 majority, even with the legislature gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
In 2015, Democrats only challenged 23 of the 66 Republican seats. Since incumbents win more than 90% of the time, that doesn’t give the Democratic party a good statistical probability of winning enough seats to take the majority back if we only challenge 23 seats.
As of this writing, there are only 21 incumbent Republicans without challengers. That is huge. As they say in gambling, you can’t win if you don’t play.
There is tremendous energy coming from both establishment and progressive Democratic organizations in the wake of Trump’s election, and experience suggests it’s difficult to sustain that intense activity indefinitely. Campaigns are dynamic and things can change rapidly before the November 2017 election. That’s 225 days from now—not that I’m counting or anything.
Whether these Democratic organizations can maintain this level of activism through the 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 elections and beyond remains to be seen. What we know right now are some of the biggest reasons Virginia’s 2017 elections matter.
What happens in Virginia’s off-year cycle is often a sign of what will happen nationally in the next midterm election. After going blue in ’08 for the first presidential election in a generation, Virginia’s pendulum swung hard to the right in 2009, foreshadowing the national Democratic bloodbath that was coming in 2010. Is the pendulum swinging back our way in 2018?
One hint will be Virginia’s 2017 election. Do Republicans suffer a similar crushing defeat? Can we break the Republican gerrymander? Do Democrats sustain their enthusiasm and engagement or does everything fizzle out? Or maybe, do the Republicans win? The outcome in Virginia could foreshadow what happens in 2018, where Democrats nationally have leagues of ground to cover to start winning seats back.
After last week’s demise of #Trumpcare, the ACA is here to stay. There are 19 states that still haven’t expanded their Medicaid coverage, of which Virginia is one.
The Democratic Party in Virginia has advocated for Medicaid expansion since 2012. However, the GOP-dominated legislature refuses to give the bill a fair hearing. If Democrats can take enough seats to become a factor in the House again, be it getting to 51 or at least to a point where the GOP can see which way the wind is blowing, we could finally extend affordable healthcare to all Virginians.
Medicaid expansion would extend access to affordable healthcare to another 460,000 Virginians, create about 30,000 more jobs statewide, and recover $2.1 billion of state taxpayer money every biennium. No more cutting into bone, no more underfunded education programs, no more shoestring budgets.
We can do a lot with $2.1 billion, and most of that cash would flood rural Virginia with economic investment.
3) Everything is a numbers game—the margin of victory matters.
I already mentioned how the Democratic Party has got to find a way to break the GOP’s gerrymander of the state. Maybe you live in one of those gerrymandered districts that tilt heavily toward Republicans. Perhaps your representatives have a lock on their seats and will almost certainly be re-elected. It happens over 90% of the time.
You’ve still got to vote in your election because even if the GOP legislative candidate will crush the Democratic one, you can make a dent in their margin-of-victory. You prevent the GOP from claiming a “mandate” and encourage them to adopt moderate policies.
There is also more than just the legislature on the ballot. Often, there are constitutional amendments, local candidates and statewide candidates. There may not be enough Democratic voters in your gerrymandered House district to flip it blue, but you might be able to flip the local elected officials or kill an ultra conservative constitutional amendment, like rural Virginians did in 2016 when 23 Republican districts voted against an anti-labor amendment by 55% or more.
Additionally, with our statewide Democrats squeaking through with 1% or less of the vote, your single vote can still have a big impact across the state.
2) Cooperation vs. Opposition to Donald Trump and the Republican Agenda
Take a look at this map:
If you’re a Democrat, it should scare you senseless.
Why? Because Republicans control 32 of 50 state legislatures and split another six. There are 25 of 50 governments controlled entirely by Republicans and only 6 state governments controlled by Democrats. Republicans and Democrats split 14 state governments, one of which is Virginia.
Do you know what happens when Republicans control just one more state legislature?
They meet the 2/3s threshold to call a Constitutional Convention and force their conservative agenda on us through the US Constitution.
Say goodbye to marriage equality; say goodbye to women’s healthcare equality; say goodbye to our social safety net and goodbye to countless other liberal reforms accomplished since the New Deal.
This is what keeps me up at night, and it should keep you up too.
If you are like me and want to implement nonpartisan redistricting, or some similar redistricting reform, then Virginia is our first opportunity to make that happen.
The Supreme Court remanded Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections to the lower court, and ruled that 11 of our General Assembly districts might be gerrymandered due to racial packing. Spoiler alert: they are.
We have to wait for the lower court to take another crack at the case, but if it rules those districts are gerrymandered, nearly a dozen districts will get new lines. Those new lines will radiate out and could affect dozens of other legislative districts as well.
If this happens, it will give Democrats in the General Assembly three opportunities for significant gains before we draw new lines in 2020.
That will blow up in our face if we don’t have a Democratic Governor. Republicans will probably draw these lines and they won’t be favorable to Democrats—forget about nonpartisan redistricting. The only thing standing in the way of four GOP Gerrymanders in 30 years can be a Democratic Governor elected in 2017 to veto every single GOP plan, forcing the court to draw the lines.
Nonpartisan redistricting will not solve every problem and it will probably create new ones. However, it will solve nearly every issue causing gridlock today.