Writing this analysis was a real pleasure, since I started writing it about Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s resounding victory in Virginia, and was interrupted by Doug Jones’ closer, but still resounding, victory in the Senate special election in Alabama against right-wing firebrand Roy Moore.
Much has been said about African American voters’ turnout in the Heart of Dixie, and the key role it played in Jones’ victory; much has also been said about Jones’ relative success in typically Republican-voting areas, like the Birmingham suburbs. Both statements are right, and I think that this is the way it should be. I have always disliked the idea that elections are won either by turning out your side’s base, or by reaching out to people who aren’t in that base. I believe that most successful campaigns do some combination of both, and Jones certainly did that.
The Washington pundits never got tired of saying that Jones didn’t mention his connection to the national Democrats, but that doesn’t mean that Jones avoided reaching out to traditional party constituencies. He campaigned in northwest Alabama, an area relatively friendly to unions; while Moore still won that corner of the state, he significantly underperformed compared with other recent Republicans. The state chapter of the NAACP, meanwhile, performed an epic get-out-the-vote operation on the ground, and its members disproved forever the tired idea that nonwhite voters don’t participate in off-year elections.
At the same time, however, Jones made inroads into what one might expect to be his opponent’s core constituency, winning 18% of white Evangelical Protestants, which doesn’t sound like much until you compare it with the 10% that Barack Obama won in the more typical year of 2012. I am convinced that Jones’ willingness to talk openly about his religious background (his family have been members of the same Methodist church in their suburban Birmingham neighborhood for 30 years) helped him win over voters he wouldn’t have won otherwise, and that helped make the difference in a close race. That he tied his faith directly to his progressive views matters as well. (It’s a shame that the exit polls only included white Evangelicals, as if they were the only bloc of religious voters; it would be worthwhile to know the voting patterns of mainline Protestants and people of other races and faiths, especially given Jones’ status as a mainline Protestant himself.)
Speaking of Evangelical voters, much has rightly been made of the large majority of whites in that category who found themselves able to vote for a man banned from a mall after trolling it for teenagers. Less talked-about is that Jones actually won several majority-white, rural counties, including Talladega County east of Birmingham and Pickens, on the opposite side of the state. Of course, not so long ago in historical terms, plenty of rural whites in Alabama voted for Democrats; I have to wonder if there wasn’t a bit of a return to this form in these results.
The more you look at it, the more impressive Jones’ achievement was (and saying that doesn’t diminish the fact that it wasn’t just his achievement). Jones will have a challenging re-election in 2020 even if that year is favorable to Democrats, especially if the Republicans pick someone without Roy Moore’s baggage, but I think it is unwise to count him out.
Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia over GOP operative Ed Gillespie was less of a surprise, given the more competitive nature of his state. What was surprising is its accompaniment by a whole state’s worth of Democratic successes, including nearly wresting control of the state House of Delegates from the Republicans and the win by Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, the first African American candidate to win statewide since Doug Wilder in 1989. Like Jones, Northam ran a campaign that was centrist in tone but genuinely liberal in views, making it hard to argue that such a message can’t win. On the other hand, I think Northam relied more on his base than Jones did (granting that said base is larger in his state). He expanded only slightly on Hillary Clinton’s totals in Republican areas like southwestern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, but turned out the vote massively in northern Virginia and urban areas like Hampton Roads.
This is not to say that Northam didn’t reach into his opponent’s territory at all. Virginia Beach, the Commonwealth’s largest city, normally votes Republican but not by much, making it decisive in statewide elections. Northam actually carried it, perhaps reflecting his military background, which matched many residents of that city. Similarly, Chesterfield County, an affluent suburb outside of Richmond and historically a staunchly Republican and conservative municipality, actually went Democratic by a small amount. Nelson County, a rural and majority-white county near Charlottesville which Trump carried last year, still went for Gillespie, but by all of four votes.
Compared with Jones, Northam talked about his faith relatively little (although he didn’t hide it, either); he emphasized his background in the military, as a doctor, and as a resident of the Eastern Shore much more. Fairfax actually talked about his beliefs more often–and won a much closer election.
Elsewhere in the country, Democrats also did well. A special election in Washington State gave them complete control of the government there (the governor’s mansion and the two state houses). In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Phil Murphy came out on top over GOP Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. This was a widely expected victory given the unpopularity of the incumbent, Chris Christie, but Murphy’s vote total was still lopsidedly high. Bill de Blasio, the outspoken liberal mayor of New York City, also coasted to re-election, as many predicted.
More interesting was a referendum vote in Maine that required the state government to accept the Medicaid funding that Trumpist Governor Paul LePage previously refused to take; it won in most of the state, including both urban and rural areas. Referenda such as this one remind us that contrary to what they often say in Washington, there is popular support for liberal change in much of America, and it is remarkable how often voters take the opportunity to express this support when issues are voted on directly.
Lastly, it is impossible to look at these results honestly and not see in them a massive repudiation of Donald Trump. In Virginia, twice the number of voters, a full 34%, voted to express opposition to Trump as those who voted to support him (17%). In New Jersey, the percentages were even more lopsided; 11% wanted to express support for Trump, but more than double that, 28%, cast their vote in opposition to him.
Granted, in the Alabama race, Trump was not as much of a factor; in fact, more voters said their vote for Moore was an expression of support for Trump (27%) than said that their vote for Jones was to express opposition to him (19%). Still, the fact that Trump’s preferred candidate lost a year after the president won the state by over 20 percentage points cannot be dismissed. (The exit polls I used in my research can be found here and here.)
More importantly, Gillespie, Guadagno, and Moore all ran Trump-style, fear-based campaigns, and all of them were repudiated by the electorate. Seeing this happen gives me something I haven’t had enough of in the past year: hope for the future.