After this month’s elections, Gov. Ralph Northam held a public cabinet meeting to celebrate the Democratic triumph and talk about some of the things his administration would like the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly to accomplish.
When a reporter referred to Virginia as “a pretty purple state,” the governor corrected him. “This is a blue state,” Northam said. “Virginia’s blue. I want everybody to know that.” Is he right? Is Virginia really blue?
The top three state officials in Richmond are all Democrat. The two U.S. senators are Democrats. Virginia’s gone Democratic for three presidential elections in a row. In fact, the party hasn’t lost a statewide election of any sort in 11 years. Seven of the 11 members of the U.S. House are Democratic. And now, after this month’s historic elections, both chambers of the General Assembly will be in Democratic hands.
That sounds like a pretty blue state, right? And the bad news for Republicans: It will get worse. The General Assembly we just elected will be the one in charge of the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census. Maybe the new General Assembly will pass and send to voters a proposed constitutional amendment to set up a bipartisan redistricting commission. Or maybe not. Maybe Democrats will be so intoxicated by their new power that they decide a little Democratic gerrymandering is the perfect remedy for several decades of Republican gerrymandering.
Whether they do or not, though, some things are certain: Northern Virginia will gain seats and Southside and Southwest Virginia will lose them. Population growth in the former — and population losses in the latter — dictates that. So regardless of what the Democrats do, demography alone will take seats away from the red part of the state and add them to the blue part. Come the House elections of 2021 or the combined House and Senate elections of 2023, Virginia could become even bluer than it is now.
So, back to the original question: Is Virginia really blue? The answer seems pretty obvious except for one thing. Massachusetts. Or maybe another two or three more things: Maryland and Vermont.
All those are pretty blue states, too — far bluer than Virginia. In 2016, Hillary Clinton took 49.7% of the vote in Virginia, but she won 60% in Massachusetts, 60% in Maryland and just under 57% in Vermont. So why are we equivocating about those three being blue states? Because all three right now have Republican governors — pretty popular ones, too.
Surveys by the Morning Consult polling group ranked all 50 governors in order of popularity. The three most popular governors in the country were the Republican governors of Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont. Their popularity was in stratospheric levels, too. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts had an approval rating of 73%; Larry Hogan in Maryland had 60% and Phil Scott in Vermont had 64% — which certainly explains why all three didn’t just get elected in Democratic states; they got re-elected as well, and by landslide margins.
The point here is even the bluest of states sometimes elect Republican governors. In fact, Massachusetts has spent 20 of the last 28 years governed by Republican governors. Some pretty red states also occasionally elect Democratic governors, too. The most popular Democratic governor in the country is Tom Wolfe in the swing state of Pennsylvania, but the second most popular is Steve Bullock in otherwise red Montana. There also are Democratic governors in Kansas, Louisiana and, as a result of November’s elections, one about to take office in Kentucky. Gubernatorial elections don’t always mirror other results. Gubernatorial races are certainly partisan but there’s more room for candidates of the “out” party to make the case that they’ll run the state better.
If Virginia Democrats think the state is now so blue that it will never again elect a Republican governor, that might be a fatal misreading of the political landscape — and history. A Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia certainly starts these days with an inherent advantage, but a Democratic victory is not inevitable. That raises the question of what it would take to elect a Republican governor in modern-day Virginia. Part of the answer there is a weak Democratic candidate, but even weak candidates sometimes win — if the opposition is even weaker. So we ask again: What would it take?
It’s instructive here to look at why Republicans have been losing in Virginia. For the past decades, voters have been routinely sending 66 or 67 Republicans to the House of Delegates. In just two election cycles, that veto-proof majority has been obliterated, and reduced to 45. What happened? Well, Donald Trump happened. Trump is simply political poison to many suburban voters — and it’s in the suburbs that Virginia elections are won. It’s hard to see Republicans winning in Virginia so long as Trump is president. Without even trying, he has effectively nationalized Virginia’s elections — inspiring bigger turnouts that have benefited Democrats. In most House/state Senate election years, turnout in Virginia has been about 30%. This year, it jumped to 40%. It sure wasn’t Northam who was exciting Virginians to go to the polls.
The question is: What happens once Trump passes from the scene? Will suburban voters be more amenable to voting for Republicans again? Or will they have permanently realigned? The prospect of the latter should worry Republicans. What type of Republican would it take to win back enough of the Northern Virginia suburbs to win a statewide election in Virginia? Certainly not one who ran like Corey Stewart did in last year’s U.S. Senate race — spouting anti-immigration rhetoric and campaigning as if it were 1968, not 2018.
The answer likely lies in the examples of Baker, Hogan and Scott in Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont. They are definitely right of center, but not that far right. Baker, Hogan and Scott aren’t the types of Republican you see on cable networks cheerleading Trump. They simply aren’t the types of Republicans who define the party these days — although given their electoral success, perhaps they should. Will the rural Republicans who now constitute so much of the party’s base allow the party to do the things it takes to win back the suburbs? That’s the second most fascinating questions in Virginia politics right now. The first, of course, is what Democrats do with the power that formerly Republican-voting districts have given them.