Sainati: Virginia’s election is promising for Democrats, but shouldn’t be overemphasized

Leo Sainati, Columnist

Virginia’s gubernatorial election earlier this month received widespread media attention for voters’ apparent “rejection of Trumpism.” These narratives treated Virginia like a contentious swing state, and Republican candidate Ed Gillespie like a champion of President Donald Trump’s ideals. It’s time to bust several myths.

Growing up in the great Commonwealth, I constantly saw Virginia discussed alongside Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and other historically contentious states during elections. Since the 2000 national election, Virginia has made a gradual transition from red to blue. No doubt Virginia used to be a swing state, but calling it one now is misguided.

Virginia hasn’t elected a conservative governor since 2009 or a Republican senator since 2002, nor has it gone red in a presidential election since 2004. When I worked with the Virginia Democratic Party on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, one of our slogans was literally “Keep Virginia Blue.” The Nov. 7 election was surely a victory for the Democrats in Virginia, but to call it a sweeping rejection of Trumpism overlooks the reality that Virginia is just a blue state staying blue.

Yes, Ralph Northam’s win over Gillespie was a victory over Gillespie’s xenophobic rhetoric, and it showed encouraging signs. Democratic turnout largely increased over previous years, and Northam beat Gillespie by nine points, compared to Clinton’s five-point victory over Trump in the state. Additionally, Northam did exceptionally well in key demographics — he won the college-educated voters by more than 20 points and voters in the largely affluent suburbia around Washington, D.C. by nearly 40 points.

It can be appealing to view Gillespie’s bid as an extension of Trump’s campaign, but Gillespie was ill-suited for Trump’s rhetoric. A former establishment politician, Gillespie emphasized his stances on issues of immigration and Civil War monuments to court Trump’s demographic. In this sense, a rejection of Gillespie is not a rejection of Trumpism — the two were never truly intertwined in the first place.

We need to avoid creating these false narratives. Northam’s victory was not an establishment victory over populism, but one establishment’s victory over another. It also wasn’t particularly surprising. Labeling Virginia a swing state puts undue emphasis on its political clout and can result in misleading perceptions.

While takeaways from Virginia’s election have revolved around what it means in the context of Trump, Democrats should focus on a different lesson from this election: the power of support in general elections from primary opponents. Former Democratic candidate Tom Perriello endorsed Northam after losing the primary and helped him campaign. Unity among all Democrats, especially in today’s polarized climate, can carry candidates to victory.

And to more accurately assess the response to Trumpism moving forward, it’s important to focus on election results in states Trump won, rather than those that have long been blue. In the coming 2018 midterms, the lessons learned from Virginia must be carefully applied. Leadership turnover would be promising for liberals, but the “rejecting Trumpism” label should be applied sparingly, to races that truly reflects voters’ response. While it may be appealing to find all Democratic victories as pushback against Trump’s rhetoric, in reality, the Republican Party is much more expansive than his populism and has often distanced itself from him. Much like in Virginia, not every Democratic victory necessarily implies a refutation of Trump.

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.