Much of the commentary on Election Day 2017 is misinformed or only half of the picture. There are 12 reasons that Virginia went Democratic on November 7, and lessons the GOP can learn from them if they want to turn future wipeouts into victories.
Historical pattern: past five presidents, Virginia goes the other way. Ever since 1988, when one party wins the White House, Virginia swings the other way. It started when Bush 41 was elected president in 1988, followed by Democrat Douglas Wilder in 1989. Then Republican George Allen (1993) followed Democrat Bill Clinton (1992). Then Democrat Mark Warner (2001) followed Republican Bush 43 (2000). Then Republican Bob McDonnell (2009) followed Democrat Barack Obama (2008). Now Democrat Northam (2017) has followed Republican Donald Trump (2016).
Each time, the out-of-power national party declared the election results a sign of national rejection of the president’s agenda. But that has not been true for five consecutive presidencies. Instead, it has been a natural swinging back of the pendulum. However, people wonder if McDonnell’s 2009 win could be the last Republican victory in Virginia, regardless of which party wins the White House. That may be true unless the Trump administration can drain the swamp in Washington to dredge out the Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capital.
Virginia is an indigo state—in reality, two states. The Old Dominion was once reliably Republican. But with the growth of the federal government, NOVA (Northern Virginia) is now populated by hundreds of thousands of big-government employees, contractors, recipients of federal and state welfare dollars, and liberal devotees who vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Most Americans want to drain the swamp, but swamp creatures rather like their ecosystem. Virginia has gone from red, to purple, to now a midpoint between purple and blue—indigo.
Although not as bad as when deep-blue Chicago jerks the entire state of Illinois to the left in statewide elections, with Democrats’ massive and growing stronghold in NOVA, a Republican must post very strong wins in the western and southern parts of the state to take the whole state. Virginia has joined Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri as a state that is in reality two states. Fortunately for the GOP, though, President Trump proved that a Republican can win some of those states.
Targeting the swamp. In addition to NOVA’s general inclination to vote Democrat, President Trump has promised to drain the swamp. Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered animal. D.C.’s swamp creatures in NOVA know that the president is targeting their environment, explaining the record turnout of Democrats in NOVA precincts, giving Northam margins turnout in those places.
Northam was not an inspiring candidate. Gillespie was a better campaigner and a smarter strategist. Democrats did not chant Northam’s name as they marched en masse to polling locations in the counties of Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William. Swamp creatures’ self-preservation instinct is what motivated them to vote.
Growth of the federal government masked Virginia Democrats’ terrible mismanagement of Virginia’s economy. Under three Democrats and one moderate Republican, the commonwealth has sunk to the bottom bracket in America for economic growth, job creation, stifling regulation, and losing young families to other states. But trillions of dollars in federal spending has included billions spilling over into Virginia, making many voters feel pretty good without realizing that their own state was making the situation worse, not better. They were living a subsidized lifestyle, so a factor that should have cost Northam votes was instead was a plus.
Felon voters. In 2015, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe violated the Virginia Constitution by granting mass amnesty to 206,000 convicted felons in the commonwealth. Felons vote overwhelmingly Democrat. The Virginia legislature challenged McAuliffe’s actions as unconstitutional. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed, saying his actions violated the Virginia Constitution. But when McAuliffe reissued 13,000 of those pardons months weeks later, implausibly claiming that he had personally considered each individual application, the Virginia Supreme Court denied the legislature’s follow-up motion to enforce the court’s decision. All those felons were added to the voter rolls, with many thousands more added since.
Gillespie ran on Bush issues, with Bush style. His campaign was taken straight from the Bush 43 playbook of moderate, soccer-mom issues with which Republicans could carry elections in 2000 and 2004, but not since then. Generic calls for economic growth and job creation through cutting taxes and regulations, improving education through teacher pay hikes, and safer neighborhoods through supporting law enforcement in feel-good tone are worthwhile issues, but do not carry the day anymore. The ads emphasized words like “compassion,” “pragmatist,” and “centrist,” and was soft on illegal aliens. That is not where the electorate is in 2017 if a Republican wants to win.
GOP voters noticed Gillespie did not embrace Trump, or Trumpism. These issues and style were a refusal to embrace President Trump and his agenda. The GOP nominee refused to campaign with the GOP president. Republican voters strongly support the president, and were turned off by the fact that Gillespie kept President Trump at arm’s-length. The Republican trailed Northam by up to 17 points in the polls.
Gillespie’s raising a couple Trump issues was too little, too late. A sophisticated and experienced political strategist (albeit running on the wrong strategy), Gillespie changed course in the final weeks of the campaign, hitting Northam hard on illegal immigration, sanctuary cities, and protecting historical monuments that Democrats were attacking. He closed the gap, with some polls showing him tied or possibly slightly ahead. But on Election Day too many voters were unpersuaded that these positions were heartfelt, or that they went far enough.
Northam adopted Trump positions. The Democrat candidate raced to the right to co-opt several Trump issues to neutralize Gillespie’s advantage there. Northam never reversed his call to tear down historical monuments and markers, but he denounced sanctuary cities, and toned down his support for amnesty for illegal aliens. That likely helped him claw back in the last few days some of the ground he had lost to Gillespie on those issues.
Republicans lost even in red states on November 7. While losses in Virginia and New Jersey were expected, there was a nationwide trend on Election Day, as Republicans lost some local races in solid GOP areas in other states. Part of this is the natural pushback against any new president, but there was much more. Namely …
Democrats are angry, but Republicans are not happy. There is currently a gross imbalance in enthusiasm. Democrats have mobilized against President Trump’s agenda, but Republican voters do not match that enthusiasm with positive energy, because Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate have failed to pass legislation enacting that agenda. The House has passed over 300 bills that are paralyzed in the 52-48 Republican-controlled Senate.
Republicans have not delivered on the Trump MAGA Agenda that Americans voted for. To his credit, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) understands this, using unprecedented tactics to block all things Trump to stifle Republican excitement. Judges are (slowly) being confirmed over Schumer’s objections, but enough moderate Republican senators have joined Schumer to kill Trump-agenda bills, keeping them from reaching the president’s desk for his signature into law. Some Republicans appear to be on a suicide mission, evidently oblivious to the severe consequences the GOP could suffer in 2018 if they fail to get things done.
Fortunately for the GOP, all is not lost.
The Left is already overreaching. Democrats are misreading the failure of establishment Republican candidates in blue states as a repudiation of President Trump’s agenda. Groups like the Latino Victory Fund promising to double down with extremist ads that people across the political spectrum denounce as despicable—showing a Gillespie supporter in a pickup truck trying to run down minority children—could chase voters by the droves into the GOP’s column.
Most Democrats’ 2018 and 2020 candidates will not resemble Northam. Although a liberal, he was challenged from the left in the primary. The Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party is ascendant, and more stridently liberal candidates can be expected over the next couple years. The perfect illustration of Democrats’ problem and direction is that Northam was shouted down during his victory speech by advocates for sanctuary cities and illegal alien amnesty. Security had to escort Northam off the stage.
Republicans might be turning the corner. Since Tuesday, several establishment Republican elected leaders have told the media that they know voters are very unhappy with their failure to pass legislation enacting the president’s agenda. Their instincts for self-preservation may overcome their non-MAGA preferences, and rally a few crucial additional votes to pass legislation.
Election Day 2017 was a lousy day for Republicans. But it was not a repudiation of President Trump or his agenda, and it is possible that enough politicians are figuring out that the MAGA agenda that carried Election Day 2016 may be the key to their success in 2018 and 2020.
Ken Klukowski is senior legal editor for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.