What progressive organizers can learn from the Democrats’ loss in Virginia
November 05, 2021
Contributors: Ned Howey and Oliver Kendall
In the wake of Democrats fairly narrow loss of the Virginia gubernatorial election and the closer-than-expected result in a similar election in New Jersey, many of the loudest voices are arguing, based on the events of this past Tuesday, that the prospects are necessarily bleak for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. But before we jump to conclusions about the future, we must first take stock of our present standing and re-evaluate our past assumptions following Biden’s 2020 win. This is especially relevant given that a key factor in the Republicans win in Virginia was built on blatant dishonesty, and it seems we as progressives have still not figured out how to win in the face of this sort of malicious tactic.
For those unaware of the specifics, the Republicans narrowly won all three major statewide races in Virginia this past Tuesday in a state that had been trending in the Democrats favor for the past decade or so. This is undeniably bad news for those of us who have been thrilled to see the substantial progress made in Virginia over the last several years of Democratic control of the state’s executive and legislature (at least one branch of which the Democrats appear also to have lost this week).
Turnout was, as it always is in off-off year elections (elections that take place in years without a Presidential or even major national legislative races), lower than the election of a year ago in which Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by a full 10 points in Virginia. That said, it was substantially higher than it has been in previous such elections - the Democratic candidate won 200,000 more votes than the previous Democrat to win Virginia’s gubernatorial election back in 2017, but was still edged out by his Republican challenger.
Before going any further, it’s worth taking note of the fairly unique history of Virginia when it comes to gubernatorial elections in these off-off-year cycles. Since the late 1970’s, which is to say in the last 12 gubernatorial elections in Virginia, there has been only one in which the party that won the White House the year before also won the governorship. Though a bit less extreme than in Virginia, a similar pattern has played out in New Jersey, where the Democrat did this week manage to hold onto his job in the end, despite a much closer result than expected there
So what does this all mean?
Bellwether or no?
The first question to contemplate in pondering the implications of Tuesday’s rather rough night for the blue team (aka the Democrats) is whether these results really have implications for the midterm elections next year. On the one hand, Virginia in particular is a fairly balanced state, with a decent mix of rural and urban, highly educated and less educated voters - also, historically, the results in Virginia have often been predictive of the midterms. On the other, Virginia is fairly unique in its proximity to D.C. and thus to national politics, and there are some things about the Democratic coalition in that state that make it, for reasons we’ll discuss in more detail below, possibly a bit distinct from the Democratic coalition overall. Short answer: it’s difficult to say whether Virginia is a perfect bellwether for the rest of the country and things to come in the midterms.
When they go low...
Whether or not Virginia necessarily is predictive of the outcomes in next year’s elections, there are certainly some key takeaways for progressives. The right are going to play dirty. In the case of this particular election, the Republicans appear to have won, to a substantial degree, on a core message that blatantly misrepresented the facts, inserting questions about race into a debate about education. This was especially absurd given that in reality critical race theory, the Republicans boogeyman in this context, is not even taught in Virginia schools. Both in the U.S. and around the world, the political right are going to play by a set of rules that the left just can’t match toe-to-toe (i.e. a combination of dog whistles and outright misrepresentation of the facts on the ground, like in the case of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro spreading the idea that a victory by his opponent would result in schools receiving “gay kits” to teach students to have gay sex).
These tactics don’t work for the left for both moral and strategic reasons. First of all, they go against our values, but secondly, our voters are fundamentally less willing to accept being lied to, and simplistic, misleading, and often fear-based messages spread much more easily under our current communication means - namely social media. As much as Democratic voters may dislike Republican politicians, they’re unlikely to vote for a Democrat whose core message is some flavor of “Republicans eat babies.” This makes it necessary, in general, for the left to win elections with a different set of tactics - here are a few reasons why we think that may not have worked this time around.
We haven’t gone deep enough
It appears that a number of voters the Democrats have come to count on in Virginia in the last few elections may have been ‘visitors’, rather than fully-bought-in ‘members’ of the coalition. These voters, heavily concentrated in the suburbs, were able to be convinced to vote Democrat in the context of their uncomfortability with Donald Trump, but were not fully convinced of the Democratic Party’s project.
This is why it appears some of the work our side has been doing in Virginia has been more transactional than transformational. While we know great organizations like New Virginia Majority have a history of serious organizing in the state, we’re not sure how much organizing efforts in general in Virginia have solidified the Democratic Party’s future there, or if it has fully penetrated key persuadable audiences like those aforementioned suburban voters the party has come to rely on in the last few cycles. This runs counter to the example in other red-to-blue flips in the last election like Arizona and Georgia, where victories were built less on an (inadvertently) temporarily winning over moderates and former Republicans uncomfortable with Donald Trump, and more on years-long efforts to recruit and organize communities of immigrants and people of color who live in those states. While we aren’t familiar enough with the specific organizing efforts in Virginia to know the full scope of work done there, we know from the interview by NVM’s Tram Nguyen on Pod Save America that there was a substantial mobilizing effort by that organization at the very least - they alone knocked on at least 500,000 doors and made at least 750,000 phone calls since this past January, which is truly impressive. But these are fundamentally transactional rather than transformational efforts (mobilizing itself without an organizing base fundamentally doesn’t serve to transform a constituency).
Finally, it appears that in this particular election, a lot of our people were just not as energized as they needed to be. There’s anecdotal evidence post 2020 of brain drain among some of the leading Democratic activists and consultants who are just burned out after years of fighting against an extremist rightwing movement in the U.S. that’s increasingly indistinguishable from fascism - we personally know a large number of folks to whom this applies. It appears to also apply to the volunteer class - while NVM did really impressive work this cycle, they appear to have been forced to rely on a substantial amount of help from activists from outside the state. It’s less than ideal when, in a state the Democrats won by 10 points as recently as a year ago, a bunch of your phone bankers are from a super-progressive city about 3,000 miles away.
Bottom line: the right has every incentive to continue to roll out the kind of malicious tactics that in our current digital age have great effect, and did again this past week in Virginia. We at Tectonica believe that the way forward for those on the left is a mix of effective tactics from communications, to mobilizing, and deeper organizing. If Democrats are to avoid a repeat of history and a drubbing in the 2022 midterm elections, they must work to organize the coalition that allowed Joe Biden to win the 2020 Presidential election, and do so in a way that brings all elements of that coalition more permanently into the Democratic Party.
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