By Thomas Bowman
If all politics is local, most locals cared about national politics on Election Day 2017. According to Politico, half of Virginia voters cited Trump was a reason for their vote. This backlash led to the most significant gains for Democrats since 1999.
Despite the national climate, Democrats did not run on their obvious opposition to Donald Trump – they didn’t have to. Trump was the elephant in the room for which Republicans constantly had to answer, while Democrats were free to run on the issues that matter: affordable healthcare; better jobs that pay well; and improving our education system.
By summer 2017, Democrats had polling data that showed preserving and extending access to affordable healthcare would be the number one issue going into the election. That issue polled well in every region and nearly every legislative district.
Moreover, the disastrous 2016 elections unleashed a wave of Democratic candidates who were eager to help their communities overcome everyday, nonpartisan challenges like traffic congestion and improving the local economy. The Competitive Commonwealth Fund partnered with the House Democratic Caucus and other new pop-up organizations to recruit and provide seed money to candidates running for office against entrenched Republicans so that voters would have a choice on Election Day.
This successful joint recruiting effort led to 88 Democratic candidates – the most in decades – and allowed Democrats to play offense for the first time in nearly 20 years, moving the electoral battlefront deep into Republican territory.
The Competitive Commonwealth Fund targeted districts where Republicans regularly won with 60 percent of the vote or better. Several of these candidates crossed the 40 percent threshold. Two candidates, Sheila Bynum-Coleman and Larry Barnett ,nearly won, with Barnett getting close enough for a state-funded recount.
Our effort probed for and found weakness in the Republican block. These previously low probability, “bottom-tier” races will be top-tier races moving forward.
This effort also proved that seeding even unlikely Democratic candidates across the state boosts Democratic performance overall and increases the likelihood for Democrats to win in other, more favorable districts. The deluge of Democratic candidates effectively paralyzed the GOP caucus leadership when they were making spending decisions. Many safe Republicans with Democratic challengers did not fund their caucus, and instead spent their money on their own races. That dynamic left the Republican caucus underfunded and unsure of where to spend the money that it had.
Ralph Northam ended up winning 58 of 100 House legislative districts, including one House district that did not have a Democratic House candidate. That was a missed opportunity for Democrats that may have cost us winning an outright majority in 2017.
Moving forward, Democrats have pickup opportunities in the eight “Northam” districts still held by Republicans in addition to whatever opportunities demographic changes and redistricting bring in the future.
One of the 2017 election’s “biggest losers” was not even on the ballot this year: Republican Barbara Comstock (VA-10), who saw her district go for Northam by 13 percent. She faces a primary challenge from right-winger Shak Hill followed by a likely loss in the 2018 general election. Alternately, she may decide to run for Senate against wildly popular Tim Kaine, but she would need to get past a wide field of Republican lambs-to-the-slaughter that are more conservative than her.
It doesn’t help Comstock that her blind adherence to antiquated anti-labor positions kneecapped the Silver Line in her district, leading to cost overruns, project delays and made life miserable for Republican and Democratic commuters alike.
The Second Congressional District, represented by Republican Scott Taylor also broke for Northam, and Rep. Dave Brat’s district (VA-07) just barely held on for the Republicans. These three will be top targets in 2018 for Democrats and will prove decisive in Democrats taking back the majority in House of Representatives.
After 2016, we know the importance of not taking any election for granted. Senator Kaine will run an energetic senate race and work hard to carry any local offices also on the ballot across the finish line with him.
Moving forward, the Competitive Commonwealth Fund will expand its efforts to recruit and fund candidates for local and municipal office like County and City Supervisors, and constitutional offices like Clerk of Court, Treasurers and Commissioners of Revenue, and Sheriffs across Virginia.
Our 2018 effort will build on the gains we made in 2017 to create a bench of viable candidates for office in Virginia, giving local party organizations a much-needed shot in the arm and activating often elusive Democratic voters.
Record recruitment, record Democratic enthusiasm and general Republican antipathy were technical factors that let Democrats capitalize on a winning message and a deeply unpopular Republican president. We expect the Republicans to stay on the defensive throughout the remainder of the Trump presidency and we will continue our effort to turn Virginia blue.
Thomas Bowman is co-founder of the Competitive Commonwealth Fund.