On Tuesday night, the Democratic Party proved it’s not quite dust and ashes. It took governor’s mansions in Virginia and New Jersey. It flipped two state legislature seats in Georgia and 14 in Virginia. Maine voted for Medicaid expansion by referendum. A slew of local candidates backed by Our Revolution and Democratic Socialists of America won city council seats in Knoxville, Tennessee; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Somerville, Massachusetts. A lefty outsider, Larry Krasner, won the district attorney’s race in Philadelphia.
In total, 19 candidates backed by Our Revolution won seats; so did 15 members of Democratic Socialists of America. (There is overlap between the two groups.) The results aren’t just good news for the party, which had been demoralized, or for voters, who desperately need an alternative to Donald Trump’s Republican Party. It’s good news for the left, which needed to prove that it is a viable political force. There should no longer be any doubt that this is the case.
Heading into the election, the party looked to be a shambles. Donna Brazile’s ongoing book tour had devolved into another round of the primary song that never ends. Ralph Northam, Virginia’s new Democratic governor, had flipped his position on sanctuary cities right before the election (he opposed them now, he announced), and his unclear stance on two unpopular pipelines worried some rural voters. Mired in Trump-induced identity crisis, the party seemed stuck on a fundamental question: What does it mean to be a Democrat? Tuesday provided answers, if the party cares to listen.
It can be the party of Lee Carter, a socialist veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who unseated the majority whip of the Virginia House. It can be the party of Danica Roem, a trans woman who defeated one of the most openly transphobic and homophobic members of the Virginia Republican Party. It can also be the party of Chris Hurst, who flipped a delegate seat in southwest Virginia as an openly pro–gun control candidate, and of Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman, Latinas who won delegate races in an election cycle shaped by conservative race-baiting and xenophobia. These candidates and more exploded the narrow definitions of electability that have long governed Democratic politics. And they showed the key to victory is to show up everywhere and run.
Democrats contested 54 Republican delegate seats in Virginia this year and won 15, giving them a shot of controlling the chamber. In contrast, they only flipped one seat in 2015. Even without that majority, they’ve placed an important check on Republican dominance and built up voter enthusiasm; The Washington Post reports that voter turnout on Tuesday “was the highest in 20 years for a gubernatorial race.” Correlation is not causation, but it’s reasonable to suspect some relationship between the party’s decision to contest more races and increased voter turnout.
Tuesday’s victories certainly can’t be explained as a simple function of Northam’s perceived centrism. Justin Fairfax, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, ran to Northam’s left and won. Northam himself is to the left of previous Democratic gubernatorial candidates. And outside Virginia, openly left-wing candidates won a number of races. It appears that voters respond to having choices. But for those choices to flourish across the country, the Democratic Party must invest time and money. More than anything, that will determine the party’s future in Virginia and everywhere else.
“We certainly had a lot of support in ’13 and ’15, but the level of the support now is astronomically larger,” Trent Armitage, the executive director of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, told The Washington Post. That support didn’t just come from the party itself. An array of groups spent large sums to get out the vote. Tuesday’s results were an early victory for Run for Something, Flippable, and Let America Vote, three groups that had highlighted potential swing districts, recruited candidates, and organized volunteers for the resulting races. Democratic Socialists of America had its own canvassers on the ground, supporting Carter and city council races in Charlottesville.
A similar grassroots upswell powered Medicaid expansion to a referendum victory in Maine. Medicaid expansion only made it to the ballot because of a swift, savvy organizing campaign: Faced with a Republican governor who had vetoed the policy five times, activists collected enough signatures to put the proposal to a popular vote. Organizers affiliated with the Democratic Party and some smaller non-profit groups helped carry the proposal to victory. That’s a significant achievement for this poor, mostly rural state.
But Tuesday’s results also lay bare some of the missed opportunities of recent election cycles. Virginia’s campaigns mostly benefited from the efforts of groups started after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. If the Democratic Party had kept Obama for America alive, if it had maintained and expanded its grassroots armies for years, it wouldn’t have been in such dire shape. It might even enjoy a clear Virginia House majority right now. If Democrats want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, it must expand its outreach efforts to include more difficult regions.
The seats the party needs in the House of Delegates could have come from the state’s coal country, which was once a Democratic stronghold. Instead, voters there turned out for Republican Ed Gillespie in high numbers. A party official in southwest Virginia lamented a lack of financial investment and poor candidate recruitment. “I have 25 precincts and I can’t cover 10 of them. All the work my committee did this year was by a small group of about eight to twelve people,” he said. “Other committees in the coalfields don’t even have that.”
“There is such a feeling among potential candidates that the state won’t invest in them and that they will be written off from the start that it keeps us from being able to recruit better quality candidates to start with,” he complained.
There have been some improvements. During this election cycle, Working America, the organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, put organizers on the ground in Bedford, Campbell, Henry, Montgomery, and Pittsylvania counties and in the cities of Salem, Danville, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Radford, and Roanoke. They now intend to expand deeper into coal country. “As we shift to using activists and members to build support for legislation, we will look for hot spots in the region (like Wise County),” Matt Morrison, Working America’s co-executive director, told the New Republic.
“Messaging-wise, if we could just keep it on economics that would go along way,” said the frustrated party official. “Why on earth did we not have ads running in southwest Virginia about Northam’s plan to expand the University of Virginia at Wise? Or the coalfields expressway? Why on earth was there not a single picture of Northam in a coal mine or pushing his endorsement from the United Mineworkers of America?”
In exit polling, Virginia voters identified health care as their top issue. If a consistent theme can be identified in Tuesday night’s national results, besides a general aversion to Trump, it’s this: Progressive policies appeal, and so do progressive candidates. When Democrats spend the money to canvass for both, they can win.
The Democratic Party now owes a number of victories to leftist activists. The electoral possibilities of welcoming those activists into its vaunted big tent are too compelling for it to ignore. And doing so hardly means the party is sacrificing its support for women and for racial minorities, an argument that has always been a strawman. Tuesday’s results prove what leftists have long insisted: There is no real divide separating progressive populism from identity politics. A party that embraces one should embrace the other. Only then will it truly be the party of the people.