Democrats Challenged Gerrymandering in VA House of Delegates

There’s no denying the fact that yesterday’s election results were a huge win for Democrats all across the country. But most of the attention has focused on what happened in Virginia. Not only did Democrat Ralph Northam win the governor’s race against Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points after the polls had him leading by only three, Democrats won all three statewide elections in Virginia, including the ones for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

But perhaps the biggest news coming out of Virginia yesterday is what happened in the House of Delegates. Going into the election, Republicans had an enormous 66-34 advantage as a result of 2011 gerrymandering. As it stands right now, Democrats picked up a whopping 16 seats and turned that into a 50/50 tie. That could be altered a bit by recounts. But the most optimistic projections were that Democrats could pick up eight seats, with most people predicting four to five.

What happened? Of the 16 seats picked up by Democrats, 12 of the winners were women. Not only did trans woman Danica Roem defeat “bathroom bill” sponsor Bob Marshall, Joan Walsh described some of the other winners:

Progressive Jennifer Carroll Foy, one of the first black female graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, became the only public defender in the House of Delegates. Hala Ayala, a single mother who became a Department of Homeland Security cyber-security specialist, and Elizabeth Guzman, an AFSCME member, social worker and Latino immigrant, became the first two Latinas in the House of Delegates. Kathy Tran, who came here at seven months old, became the first Vietnamese refugee. Cheryl Turpin, who ran in a special election earlier this year and lost, defeated her GOP opponent in Virginia Beach.

Tom Periello, who lost the Democratic primary to Ralph Northam but proceeded to work his heart out to help his party win in Virginia said, “Turnout was way up where we ran candidates. And particularly where we ran a diverse slate.” Walsh goes so far as to suggest that this might have triggered a “reverse-coattails effect.”

Our friend Ed Kilgore has given us one of the first looks at the dynamics that contributed to Northam’s unexpectedly big win. To summarize, Gillespie hung on to Trump margins among rural voters. But…

Team Northam’s turnout operation seems to have done its job, with voting up across much of Northern Virginia… African-Americans were a steady 20 percent of the electorate, nearly as high as in last year’s presidential election. And Latino and Asian voting was notably higher.

But Northam’s margins among white and suburban voters really stand out. If exit polls are accurate, he carried 42 percent of the white vote, which is well above the percentage won in Virginia by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (35 percent), Mark Warner in 2014 (37 percent), Terry McAuliffe in 2013 (36 percent), and Barack Obama in either 2008 (39 percent) or 2012 (37 percent).

Nate Cohn agrees.

Here are a couple of graphs from those exit polls that tell the story:

Before we can extrapolate that to the 2018 midterms, a huge caveat must be noted: Virginia is unique in both its diversity as well as its concentration of college-educated voters. But these results signal that there might be other parts of the country where the best response to Trump’s racism and sexism is to run a slate of diverse candidates and focus on voter turnout in both communities of color and the suburbs.

I’ll end by noting that in the midst of all the rumblings about the DNC, Democrats went “all in” for Virginia and focused their resources not on television ads, but on organizing and mobilizing. This was truly a team effort by a party that is less divided than many people would have you believe.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.