Did you feel the ground shake on Election Day?
Especially in the Virginia House of Delegates, the results couldn’t have been more surprising. Democrats won in a “wave” election, sweeping lots of new delegates into office, many in districts not previously thought to be competitive, and potentially yielding a Democratic majority, something nobody thought was possible.
AND Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Ed Gillespie for Governor by a margin not seen in a generation. So what happened?
Four years ago, I ran for the House in District 7, encompassing some of Blacksburg, some of Christiansburg, all of south Montgomery County, all of Floyd County and most of Pulaski County.
My joke goes that I ran a successful campaign, but not as successful as my opponent. At the time, Delegate Nick Rush was a one-term incumbent Republican in a heavily Republican district. I understood that my chances were slim, but wanted to give him a challenge.
Two years ago he ran unchallenged. I saw him shopping at a hardware store on the Saturday before the election. No need to campaign if you don’t have an opponent! This year he easily defeated newcomer Flo Ketner.
After my loss, I spoke with former congressman Rick Boucher. He said the political winds shift over time, and a similar wave that swept him from office in 2010 could sweep many Democrats back into competitiveness. That’s apparently what happened this year.
When I ran; if I remember correctly, there were 88 incumbents (with 12 open seats due to retirement) who faced 44 challengers and only two lost. Two years ago, there were a similar number of incumbents and none of them lost. I concluded it was extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent, largely because of the gerrymandering of the districts.
Gerrymandering, as you recall from high school government class (You loved government, didn’t you?), is packing large majorities of voters for party “A” into a small number of districts to obtain smaller majorities for party “B” in many districts, thus ensuring more wins for party “B.”
Currently, we’re operating under Republican-defined districts, to their benefit. (To be fair, in the past, Democrats did much the same thing.) Consistently, we’ve had more votes cast state-wide for Democrats and more Republican winners, evidenced by the House of Delegates that prior to this election had 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats and the federal House of Representatives that has 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats.
Nevertheless, this time, the Democrats, most of them women, astoundingly picked up at least 15 House seats, with another three too close to call, potentially shifting the entire balance. Many of these districts were considered so heavily gerrymandered to the Republicans that in prior elections, Democrats didn’t even try.
The most enticing race was in Prince William County. It pitted 13 term Republican Bob Marshall against Danica Roem, a journalist, rock musician, political newcomer, and the first openly transgender person to ever run. Marshall described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe,” who authored Virginia’s version of the “bathroom bill,” that was so pilloried in North Carolina. Roem won by almost 3000 votes! I’m not making this up; a transgender woman beat a conservative homophobic man.
Apparently culture war issues don’t win elections any more. We’re a Newer Dominion now.
How were Democrats able to overcome this structural handicap? The Monday morning quarterbacks are still busily analyzing the contests, but I think it can be mostly attributed to the retribution of women and people of color against the ascension of Donald Trump. David Toscano, the leader of House Democrats said, “The day after the Trump election, it began raining candidates in Virginia.”
Since the Republicans won complete control of the Congress and the White House, they’ve sputtered. No repeal of the Affordable Care Act. No new immigration policy. No border wall. Zero major legislation.
The tax reform bill they’re working on doesn’t even have total support from their own party. To me, what happened that Tuesday was buoyed by anti-Trump, anti-Republican sentiment and may be a model of things to come in 2018.
Beyond the partisan brinksmanship, what can we expect legislatively? I suspect we’ll join the 32 other states so far that have passed the Medicaid Expansion that will benefit hard-working people in low-wage jobs that are now uninsured, something outgoing
Governor Terry McAuliffe worked tirelessly but unsuccessfully to accomplish. With most of the new winners being women, I suspect we’ll see no more efforts to diminish rights of women to control their own bodies.
And I suspect we’ve seen the last effort to pass legislation dictating where someone must pee.
Election tallies show that the Democratic areas became more Democratic and the Republican areas became more Republican, underscoring the continuing polarization of politics. And, for better or worse, our sparsely populated area of SWVA is increasingly dominated by Northern Virginia.
It’ll be fascinating to see how these trends play out moving forward. Hold on tight!
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.