Democratic Blowout in Virginia No Guarantee of Success in 2018

The landslide Democratic victory in Virginia on Tuesday has sparked a great deal of commentary that it presages a progressive wave in next year’s congressional midterms, but the history is decidedly mixed.

Sometimes, victories in Virginia have preceded midterm wave elections. Other times they have not.

In a dozen Virginia gubernatorial elections dating to 1969, the party that won the race picked up seats in House of Representatives the following year seven times and lost seats five times. Big wins nationally followed Republican gubernatorial victories in 1993 and 2009, when the GOP picked up 52 and 63 seats, respectively.

On the other hand, Republican Mills Godwin's win in the Virginia governor's race in 1973 did not prevent his party from losing 48 House seats the following year. As recently as 2013, Democrats won the governor's mansion in Virginia yet went on to lose 13 House seats.

Eric Ostermeier, a University of Minnesota political science researcher and founder of Smart Politics, noted that a lot can happen before the midterms and that Virginia has been trending leftward for some time.

Virginia Harbinger?
Wins in Virginia don't always lead to congressional success
YearVa. Gov.House*
1969Rep.Rep. -12
1973Rep.Rep. -48
1977Rep.Rep. +15
1981Dem.Rep. -26
1985Dem.Rep. -5
1989Dem.Rep. -8
1993Rep.Rep. +52
1997Rep.Rep. -5
2001Dem.Rep. +8
2005Dem.Rep. -30
2009Rep.Rep. +63
2013Dem.Rep. +13
2017Dem.?
*Republican gains/losses in House races the following year

"We have a full year of unknown political events yet to come," he told LifeZette. "It's not necessarily because of anything we've seen in Virginia, which has been a light blue state for a decade now."

Indeed, Virginia has not voted Republican in a presidential race since 2004 and last won a statewide contest in 2009. In addition to Democrat Ralph Northam's election as governor, the Democrats won statewide races for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

But Jesse Richman, a political science professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia, noted that Democrats won at least 13 state legislative seats with a chance to win more after recounts.

"The really telling and problematic thing for Republicans isn't what happened in the gubernatorial race … it's what happened in the House of Delegates races," he said.

But Richman cautioned against extrapolating the outcome to the rest of the country. Republicans were defending 17 House seats that 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, he said.

"Democrats were facing a target-rich environment … Not all parts of the country are going to provide the same opportunities."

"Democrats were facing a target-rich environment … Not all parts of the country are going to provide the same opportunities," he said.

Daniel Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond, said the number of Republican incumbents who lost re-election in state House races was unprecedented. But he echoed Richman's point that those contests played out on Democratic terrain.

Palazzolo said Republicans managed to hold on to seats for years because of the power of incumbency. Often, he said, Democrats did not even challenge incumbents — or offered token candidates — even in Democratic-leaning districts.

He said that is why state Rep. Bob Marshall, a Republican first elected in 1991, managed to hold on to his seat representing Prince William and Loudon counties long after they started trending Democrat. Palazzolo said Marshall, who sponsored a transgender bathroom bill, was not a good fit for the district.

This year attracted a large number of well-funded Democrats, including a transgender woman named Danica Roem — who defeated Marshall on Tuesday.

The Democrats managed to raise a substantial amount of money, more than their incumbent opponents in many cases. Palazzolo attributed that more to grass-roots energy than to any particular recruiting success by the party. Many were first-time candidates with no political experience, he said.

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"Most of these candidates are not what we would call high-quality challengers," he said.

To the extent the Virginia results impact the congressional midterms, Palazzolo said, it is that Democrats will be encouraged to run in places where they are competitive — and even districts where the odds are longer.

"It gives the Democrats momentum," he said. "So you're going to see people give it a shot … It is now going to inspire not just Democrats to get in; now it's going to inspire experienced Democrats, quality Democrats."

Last Modified: November 8, 2017, 9:30 pm

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