On Nov. 8, 2016, I would have called you crazy had you told me that just a year later, the United States would elect its first openly transgender woman to serve in a state house. Perhaps I would have called you even crazier if you told me that voters would elect America’s first Sikh mayor on that very same day.
In the face of the implicit ratification of nativism, xenophobia, and reactionism that characterized the election of President Donald Trump, it was difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel. His very election seemed a rejection of progress and a discomfort with justice. Imagining a world that championed these principles was difficult in the aftermath of such a surprising defeat.
And yet, this week, progressives have reason to celebrate. Democrats swept close races in Virginia, New Jersey, and Charlotte. A coalition of organizers motivated to act against the Trump administration established grassroots campaigns that overtook Republicans across the country. More importantly, a coalition of voters adamantly responded to their efforts, showing a clear revolt against Trumpist policies.
If Democrats want to ride this wave into the 2018 midterms, it’s worth looking into what worked. What did the Northam campaign do that Clinton didn’t? Who showed out in 2017 and stayed home in 2016? Looking at Virginia as a microcosm for the country gives us insight into the strategies, changes, and candidates that worked and those that didn’t. The results from exit polls and political analysis are clear: Democrats in purple states need to run local candidates that inspire and excite their progressive base.
After all, turnout was up a full five percentage points from the last gubernatorial election, signifying an increase in enthusiasm. 47 percent of registered voters made it to the polls, and a surge in Black voters—who make up 20 percent of the Virginia electorate—embodied the Democratic Party’s ability to garner enthusiasm for the election and against Trump. The biggest name in the state was the gubernatorial seat, attracting attention from across the country and largely seen as a referendum on the Trump presidency. In this race, 61 percent of women voted for Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate, showing a five point increase from the support shown in the same state for the Clinton campaign in 2016. Perhaps even more astounding, the middle-income bracket, comprised of families with a combined earned income between $50,000 and $100,000 voted overwhelmingly for Governor-elect Northam, at a rate of 57 percent. This proportion represents a huge growth from 2016, when Candidate Clinton won only 47 percent of the same bracket. Finally, and most essentially, Democrats maintained their appeal to non-white Americans in the Virginia gubernatorial race, with Northam winning 80 percent of the vote and garnering support from an astounding 91 percent of Black women.
What do all of these polling points mean? First, people are fed up with Trump. The significant number of former Trump-voters—especially those in the middle class—who switched to vote for the Democrat in 2017 show us that people do not see the current administration as a viable advocate for their economic and political concerns. This transition is indicative of the President’s historically low approval ratings and failure to deliver on campaign promises like health care reform and debt elimination. In a sense, these voters represent a Democratic effort to widen the tent in response to the Trump presidency: voters who previously may not have been attracted to the Democratic party found a warm embrace in the Democratic ticket in Virginia. These centrists are key to the upcoming midterm elections, and Democrats must be sure to appeal to them by offering a stark and uplifting contrast to the rhetoric and policies spewed from the White House.
However, attracting new voters was not the only successful strategy employed in Virginia; rather, Democrats got strong turnout from their base by running new and often underrepresented candidates for local positions. The need to recruit new public servants for local and state positions is vital to the success of progressive movements across the country—especially in heavily contested states like North Carolina. The party won a whopping 15 new seats in the House of Delegates by running 54 new politicians to challenge GOP incumbents. And these Democratic candidates were recruited carefully: the majority of them were women. In a time when only 24.9 percent of elected officials in state legislatures are female, running women like Danica Roem and Elizabeth Guzman—one of the first Latinas elected to the House of Delegates—empowers progressive women to show up to the polls and to pull their loved ones with them. One thing is clear: if Democrats want to win big in 2018, it’s not enough just to play the anti-Trump card. Virginia shows us that spurring action from local leaders, especially when those leaders represent women and minorities, galvanizes support from the base on the left. If Republicans want to take aim at identities across the board, Democrats should be ready to meet their blows with bold new politicians who will rally support and take pride in their individual identities.
In the days following the election of President Donald Trump, I was pessimistic about the possibilities for Democratic victories in the coming months. At the time, I would have thought it impossible to march left for progressive values and simultaneously pull the center with you. After all, it seemed as if the center had just proved its unequivocal support for a deeply reactionary President. Yet, Virginia proves that appealing to both camps is not just possible. Instead, it proves it is imperative to pave the way forward.