The Real Lesson From the Virginia Governor's Race
Democrat Ralph Northam has become Virginia’s new governor by a decisive margin, prompting headlines such as “Democrats Learn How to Win.”
On its surface, it looks like the race was a Washington insider’s dream: a rebuke of Republican politics and a resurgence of the Democratic Party. But the county-by-county totals tell a more nuanced story.
In Nelson County, just a 15-minute drive west of Charlottesville, Republican Ed Gillespie won by just four votes. Nelson County is one of 209 counties in the country that voted Obama-Obama-Trump in the last three presidential elections. If we dig deeper into the places that are wildly swinging between both political parties, a picture starts to emerge.
What do nearly 80 percent of these “pivot counties,” the Obama-Obama-Trump counties, have in common? The answer is that more businesses have died there than have been born. Despite a net increase in entrepreneurial activity across the country since the end of the Great Recession, according to the bipartisan Economic Innovation Group, the majority of pivot counties have seen a decline during that period. This includes all five pivot counties in Virginia.
In the 2017 gubernatorial election, these counties were all nearly a dead heat. Incredibly, three of them were decided by fewer than 10 votes. The feeling in these counties reflects the changing political winds in the nation: Americans are grasping for political solutions that will foster economic growth and financial security in their communities.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump had different messages, but both offered specific policy prescriptions (whether you think they were right or wrong) for how they could help families find economic security. In 2008, Obama won the Iowa caucuses -- in a state that was 92 percent non-Hispanic white -- because he had tangible ideas for how small farms could take on the big agriculture companies that were crushing them. In 2012, Obama won re-election in part because he convinced the majority of Americans that the Wall Street capitalism of his opponent wasn’t working for them. In 2016, Donald Trump won in part because he vowed to “rip up bad trade deals” and “bring back jobs.” Whether you agree or disagree with either candidate, they had a clear message.
Ed Gillespie didn’t run that kind of campaign. His ads were dominated by Confederate statues and kneeling for the National Anthem. Ralph Northam ran a campaign many Democrats derided as boring and lackluster, but as a pediatrician, he talked nonstop about health care and the economy. It turned out to be part of the difference: 40 percent of Virginia voters said that health care was their biggest issue, according to exit polls, and 77 percent of them went for Northam.
Thus, the story from Tuesday in Virginia should not be that Democrats are taking back control, or even that these results are a repudiation of Donald Trump. The Democrats’ lesson from losing should not be that “The resistance is working,” just as the Republicans’ lesson, if they had won, should not be “we should be more like Trump.” If we only look at the totals, we completely miss the much more complex debate happening across the country.
The voters and counties that are flipping between parties want a vision of how their communities can be more dynamic and forward-looking. Obama and Trump provided those visions in different ways. The candidates who in 2018 and 2020 embrace the fact that voters want their communities to be dynamic and forward-looking are going to carry Obama-Obama-Trump counties—and most likely win election as a result.
Many current and aspiring elected officials are doing this already, in a few ways. First, economic policies that favor investing in the majority of the country versus a few very large businesses, tend to matter more. Nearly 80 percent of startup investment goes to entrepreneurs in three states: Massachusetts, New York, and California. It didn’t help Gillespie that his career had involved helping large companies like Enron and big banks that remain unpopular in the current populist environment.
A second energizing issue is advocacy and support for small and medium businesses versus big businesses. Let’s return to Nelson County, Virginia, which has seen a decline in entrepreneurial activity, with the exception of a fast-growing category: breweries and wineries. On a micro level, these businesses give counties identity: Blue Mountain Brewery in Nelson County makes Full Nelson, my favorite beer in the world. And on a macro level, they’re a growing category for rural areas: breweries and wineries in America now employ more people than the coal industry. Candidates like Tom Perriello, who lost to Northam in the primary but became a key surrogate who helped the nominee win rural votes, have earned the trust of overlooked communities through their advocacy for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
The fight we have today in America is not only left versus right, or Democrat versus Republican. It’s also big versus small, and national hegemony versus community consensus. The political party that best learns this lesson will be successful, and may play a role in making places across the country that are searching for economic success and community identity great again.