Is Virginia Now a Blue State?
Nine years ago this month, Democrat Tim Kaine stood in front of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the state capitol in Richmond and declared: "Old Virginny is dead!"
The then-governor was referring to the election of Barack Obama, who carried the commonwealth on his way to becoming the nation’s first black president. Obama also was the first Democrat to win Virginia in over four decades, and his party hasn't lost a presidential election there since. But it was Tuesday night's election in the Old Dominion -- where Democrats won the governor's mansion for a consecutive time and gained a near-record 15 seats in the House of Delegates — that has politicos wondering whether Old Virginny can now officially be considered a blue state.
Virginia is now more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and won't be considered a tossup in the next presidential election, says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Does it start as a New Jersey or a Maryland? No," he says, "but it's to the left of center now and moving more so to that direction."
Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie on Tuesday by nine percentage points, outperforming Hillary Clinton's five-point victory last year, and garnered a record number of votes for a gubernatorial candidate. Northam swept key populous and diversifying counties in Northern Virginia by 20 to 30 points, and saw increased turnout in Norfolk and Richmond, as well as more rural areas in the west. He carried Virginia Beach by about six points. Virginians also elected Justin Fairfax lieutenant governor, the second African-American to win statewide office in Virginia. Danica Roem became the first transgender woman elected to the House of Delegates, defeating a 26-year GOP incumbent.
Though Gillespie received the highest vote total for a GOP gubernatorial candidate, narrowly won independents, and overperformed Donald Trump in rural Virginia, many Republicans see the writing on the wall.
"Until proven otherwise, I think it is a blue state," says Tucker Martin, a Richmond-based Republican strategist who advised Gillespie. "It's hard to argue with the results at the ballot box."
That's not to say Virginia is a lost cause for Republicans in the future, Martin says, noting that anti-Trump sentiment makes it difficult for party members to make their cases in the commonwealth." I just think as of right now, you have to call us blue."
In assessing the Virginia race and the GOP loss of a governor's seat in New Jersey, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel described the states as Democratic to begin with. "We lost two governors’ races last night that Democrats typically win," she told Fox News. "These were in blue states. Virginia is getting bluer and bluer."
McDaniel also noted that Northam ran an ad pledging to work with Trump when it would benefit Virginia, and she argued his openness helped move the needle for the Democrat.
But other Republicans disagree with her conclusion. "Last night was a referendum" on the president, Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor told CNN. "I don't think there's any way that you can look at it in a different way, to be honest with you, and be intellectually consistent."
Taylor's candid assessment reflects a bit of history. Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship by 17 points in 2009, one year after Obama carried the state. But Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and a supporter of Trump, is also voicing concern for Republicans like him in districts that could be vulnerable to Democratic takeover — in Virginia and elsewhere. Taylor's district, which encompasses Virginia Beach and the suburbs of Norfolk and Newport News, went for Trump in 2016. But significant parts of it voted for Northam on Tuesday. Before his election to Congress, Taylor held the 85th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. On Tuesday night, a Democrat won it by 394 votes.
"Democrats showed up last night. There's no question about it," Taylor told CNN. Another Republican who likely watched Tuesday’s returns closely is Rep, Barbara Comstock, whose district covers parts of Northern Virginia that Northam swept. Voters there backed Clinton last year while also voting for Comstock, but her seat is among the top targets for Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that for this reason, Republicans like Comstock and Taylor should be nervous. "Tell the seven Republicans [from Virginia] that it's a blue state, because if it becomes a blue state for them, the House Republican leadership has got real trouble," he told reporters.
Tuesday’s turnout reflected more of a presidential year electorate than that of an off-year election. Exit polls found Democrats with an 11-point advantage in voters. Republicans and Democrats alike say the president was a significant factor, and exit polls found 57 percent of voters disapproved of Trump. Surveys also found that 34 percent of voters said they cast their ballot for governor to oppose Trump, while just 17 percent said it reflected support of the president.
"It's Trump. It's really simple," Martin says of high Democratic turnout. "There can't be a clearer message sent by the state’s electorate that they're not fond of this president and his administration."
Democrats in Virginia say that whatever the commonwealth's political leaning, Tuesday's vote sent a message to Republicans in suburban and more diverse areas where the president is unpopular.
"I don't know if this is a blue state, but it definitely portends wins next year," said Democratic operative Don Mark, who ran Obama's operation in Virginia and advised Tom Perriello's gubernatorial primary campaign against Northam. "Virginia is the quintessential snapshot of the country's mood."
While the Virginia governor outcome has had mixed results in the past as a predictor, Democrats say the vote this year was informative for their efforts to drive turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, where party voters typically turn out in lower numbers than in presidential years.
"The anti-Trump energy can be [seen] in higher turnout," says Mark. Northam "didn't light the world on fire, and he turned those voters out."
While Northam was considered by some to be a more moderate candidate for his party — he voted for George W. Bush, is from the Eastern Shore, and is a former Army reservist — Democrats and Republicans in the state argue that he ran a progressive campaign. Though he defeated Perriello by 12 points in the primary, the contest moved him further left.
Indeed, party operatives on both sides have remarked how Democrats win in Virginia now compared to their predecessors. Kaine won the governorship in 2005 after touting his opposition to gay marriage, among other issues. During Mark Warner's successful 2001 run for governor, a popular local bluegrass band wrote ballads in support of his campaign.
Warner easily won his election to the U.S. Senate in 2008, and he happened to share the same surname, but no relation, as his Republican predecessor. Two years later, however Republicans defeated three Democratic U.S. House incumbents in the state, including Perriello. In 2014, Warner won re-election by just one percentage point against Gillespie, results that gave Republicans hope their candidate could pull through in the governor's race this year.
Kaine, who won his Senate seat in 2012 by five points, outperforming Obama that year by two points, is up for re-election next year. He was on the ticket as vice president last year, when he and Clinton won his home state. Republican Corey Stewart, who ran on a pro-Trump platform and came within a point of defeating Gillespie in his party's primary this year, has launched a challenge to Kaine. The Democratic incumbent is heartened by Tuesday's results, but isn't ready to color Virginia dark blue.
"There are two Republican houses. The congressional delegation is 7-4, Republicans. This is not a state that is just traditionally leaning way over on the blue side. We were the reddest state in the country in 2001 and the Republicans have blown it; we've done some things well and there has been some demographic changes that have helped us," Kaine told reporters Wednesday. "But, yeah, go ahead and dismiss the lesson from last night. Just pretend like there's nothing there to pay attention to. If they do that, we're going to have some really good elections coming up across the nation."