by Brendan Lilly, crossposted at medium.
Yesterday was the first quantifiable measure of what’s been happening since Donald Trump was elected President. People are angry. That anger now demonstrably translates into votes. Democrats won convincingly statewide in Virginia, New Jersey and several other important races in GA, NYC, PA, MI, WA. There were 20–30+ point vote swings and increases in off-year turnout in precincts and districts across the country. Rumor is DCCC Chair Ben Ray Lujan is already designing business cards listing himself as caucus chair. (joke, btw).
Personality, Not Politics
The weakness in the Trump coalition has been exposed as not much different than a cult. Trump’s personality — immature, unfiltered, a reckless outsider with (fraudulent) authenticity and a (checkered) record of business success is, or was, the appeal. The policies themselves aren’t very thought-out or particularly appealing to more than 35%-40% of the population. Trump himself has little knowledge of most issues, at least nothing deeper than what can be contained in a one page memo or Fox News monologue. It’s not “the wall,” Muslims, repealing Obamacare, the pending tax cut proposal or any of the other half-baked Trump policy proposals. 2016’s narrow victory was Trump’s unique ability to capture his audience’s attention, somehow connect (again, fraudulently) as the empathetic billionaire, in the way that a cult leader or magician does, and energize them to act. And yes, Trump also lucked out on where the votes landed, winning MI, WI and PA by 70k total while losing the popular vote by 3 million.
Not relitigating 2016, just a baseline for what happened with Ed Gillespie in Virginia. Advertising to the Trump cult’s ideology with a scare message about MS-13 doesn’t win elections, neither does trying to ignite a culture war over statues or the ridiculous and desperate pedo ads. Gillespie should be ashamed of himself. He lacked the authenticity of a crazy renegade, and in pretending to be a Trump lieutenant, he lost his dignity in this election.
Dr. Northam, Governor Elect.
Northam won this election and did so with dignity. That scores a passing grade by any measure. Following a questionable few months and with the help of Trump, the Northam team pulled it together and did what they needed to do. They put together the largest field effort I’ve ever seen in Virginia, effectively tapping into and capturing the anti-Trump groundswell of energy, garnering national attention and money, while raising a shitload of money in the final six weeks and improving (slightly) their message delivery. They made some stupid mistakes, but nothing catastrophic, and managed to effectively steer the ship safely home.
For Gillespie, October was catastrophic. First, in what came to be a defining moment, or at least significant turning point of the campaign, President Trump weighed in via his favorite medium – Twitter. Trump picked the fight I had previously begged for Northam to start. From this point on, the campaign was no longer about issues or even the candidates on the ballot; it was a referendum on President Trump in Virginia. Gillespie, for some unknown reason, seemed to be okay with allowing the campaign to slide back into its seemingly natural path of being a referendum on a deeply unpopular president.
Gillespie dropped his fairly effective ads hitting Northam on the stupid China deal, and went full-on Trump, talking about statues, pedophilia and MS-13. The MS-13 ad wasn’t a dog whistle, as voters understood the ad exactly for what it was, a Trump mating call. And again, when Gillespie tripled down and pushed it into heavy rotation, it solidified the race to be about one thing, Donald Trump. Impossible to quantify exactly, but I am fairly confident that in the final weeks, the MS-13 ad drove twice as many eventual Northam supporters to the polls as it did Gillespie/Trumpers.
Concerns, Not Issues. Trust not Trump.
Despite what the exit polls say in terms of the issues, this race was simply not based on any specific item, and exit polls on Gillespie appeared to mirror trends on Trump. Most of the 330,000 voters Virginia Democrats welcomed to the off-year polls were not aware of, or particularly interested in, Northam’s stance on decriminalizing marijuana, pipelines, the nuanced stupidity of sanctuary cities, raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, or statues.
Though the 330k were largely naive to the details, voters liked and trusted Dr. Northam as a person and were aware that the campaign was talking about the issues important to them — jobs, healthcare, and education. Glossy chart tables of which were included in one of Northam’s better ads. To put it another way, whether or not they agreed with him, voters believed Northam shared their concerns at least to some degree. Beyond that, the details didn’t matter.
You work and watch enough political races, you start to realize there are often forces at play in deciding elections that have little to do with the campaign or how many field packets you give out, how many television points you buy, how good your voter data is or how much money you have in the campaign account. Northam finished fairly strong, but it didn’t matter much either way. Whether Northam was boring or exciting, whether he was right on the issues, the gaffes w/ LIUNA/Fairfax and sanctuary cities, whether he was on TV enough, along with several of the concerns I mentioned in my previous piece… in the final month, when the election fully transitioned into a referendum on Trump, none of that mattered.
The Resistance is Real, Time to March
This election was not about Northam or Gillespie; this was about 1.4 million Virginians sending a clear message to Donald Trump. While Northern Virginia in particular is not a fan of Trump, Clinton precincts throughout the Commonwealth showed up and voted. People were energized and motivated and turned out in a massive protest, not for Northam or against Gillespie in particular, but against Trump and all that he is and stands for.
Looking ahead to 2018, Democrats need to ensure they have candidates and resources to support challengers in every potentially competitive congressional district. In 2006, there were seats with a PVI +26 favoring Republicans that Democrats came within single digits of winning. Almost everywhere comes into play with this kind of anger and energy. Yea, tier your wagers/resources, but the DCCC needs to place a lot of bets. It’s really amazing how little partisan trends end up mattering in these waves. In 2006 we ended up winning the Congressional majority, and then won another wave in 2008.
Rather than setting up the class of 2020 up to be Freshmeat in what will hopefully be a Democratic president’s first off year, Democrats should cast a wide net, recruit good candidates and provide resources to 100+ congressional seats. Give President Harris, Booker, Warren, Biden, Ryan, Kaine, whomever, a little bit of a cushion for their first midterm. Yea, it’s a long way off, but as someone who was laid off when we lost the majority in 2010 when the 2008 class in particular got slaughtered, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to win big now. Remember the last six years of the Obama presidency, the pain of trying to deal with a dysfunctional Republican Congress? The Republican Congress turned into a top-five storyline of Obama’s presidency. Giving the next President a sustainable majority starts now. Dems need to cast a wide net, compete everywhere possible, just like with the Virginia House of Delegates. If we do, crazy (good) shit can happen.