I got to Virginia just in time for the biggest political event of the year. The governor’s race here was the closest thing we’ve seen to a referendum on Trump and Trumpism, and the results were heartening. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered Democrat, beat Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 points. Here are a few things I read in the tea leaves:
- Trumpism lost. Gillespie is an establishment swamp creature who was nearly beaten in the primary by a Trump-Bannon radical. Running scared, Gillespie changed his tune in the general, beating the drum in favor of Confederate statues and against sanctuary cities. It was supposed to fire up the base, but it probably cost him more votes than he gained.
- Trump lost. Gillespie borrowed some of Trump’s hot-buttons, but he rarely mentioned him by name and he never asked the president to campaign with him. In all but the reddest states, Trump is a liability for Republicans. (Trump, with characteristic class, bad-mouthed Gillespie in an election night tweet.)
- Trump’s issues lost. A CNN exit poll found that 37 percent of voters care most about health care; just 13 percent about immigration. Obamacare won. Democratic gains in the legislature means Virginia may expand Medicaid. Maine voters called for Medicaid expansion there as well, endorsing a referendum designed to overcome resistance from Trumpite Gov. Paul LePage. Also, Obamacare enrollment is exceeding expectations in the early going, despite Trump’s attempts to sabotage it.
- For once, the Democrats got their people to the polls in a non-presidential year. I haven’t studied all the numbers yet, but it looks like turnout was the difference. Democrats also swept down-ballot races and came close to taking control of the House of Delegates.
- Northam beat a candidate to his left in the Democratic primary, but it was a clean campaign and the party came together for the general. Northam, a pediatrician and Army vet who is moderate in politics and demeanor, kept his integrity and didn’t get down in the gutter. And he won big.
- The candidate who appealed to unity and respect – Northam – beat the candidate, Gillespie, who sowed division and resentment. Thanks, Virginia.
We always make too much of off-cycle elections because there’s nothing else to talk about. Governor elections often don’t turn on national issues or reflect national trends. But sometimes they do. In 1965, a year after Barry Goldwater and Republicans had been crushed by LBJ’s landslide, John Lindsay, a handsome, liberal Republican, was elected mayor of New York. I remember a political cartoon showing a beat-up GOP elephant getting up from the mat in Manhattan, declaring “I’m alive!”
The Democrats are alive.