One of the reasons why your average voter has a tendency to hate politicians is that we often do our best to bring out the silver lining in even the darkest of storm clouds. We will find the one or two good outcomes in a sea of bad ones and focus on those rather than on the big picture. That’s a human tendency, especially when anybody’s job is on the line.
On the other hand, I’ve always been of the opinion that the truth is better than spin, and that as adults we should be willing to accept the bad with the good, because an unwillingness to confront things that didn’t go so well is an inherent obstacle to fixing those things the next time around. Given that we’ve got a presidential cycle just around the corner, we need to look objectively at what happened last night in Virginia and have a long conversation about what it actually means. So let’s throw away the posturing and be honest.
By any objective measurement, the GOP had a bad night The only news story that most of America saw last night – the one that was blasted out by Politico, CNN and the non-Virginia news outlets – was that we held the State Senate, which threw a wrench into Governor McAuliffe’s long-term legislative plans. Medicaid expansion is dead, as are his misguided attempts at turning guns into a political issue in a staunchly pro-gun Commonwealth. Yes, that’s a great outcome and it protects the GOP in Virginia from immediate damage. We all owe Powhatan County a big thank you, so if you know someone from Powhatan, give them an attaboy.
But what did the wins in the State Senate mean? We maintained the status quo. That’s it. In every seat that was held by the GOP, we won. In every seat held by the Democrats, we lost. A few of those State Senate seats were open seat races (whether through retirement or the primarying of an incumbent Republican), but they were also in heavily partisan areas, where the non-incumbent party had only a slight chance to pull off an upset (for example, the 8th, 11th, 12th, 29th, and 36th).
The two most competitive challenger races – at least by media standards – were the Nancy Dye/John Edwards battle in the 21st District, and the Frank Wagner/Gary McCollum battle in the 7th District. Neither of the challengers came close to unseating the incumbent, with both Edwards and Wagner winning by approximately 8 points.
Maintaining the status quo in the Senate was a must win, and we won it. But we gained no ground, and the millions poured into the Commonwealth by outside groups didn’t have an overall impact on the final outcome. In the two races they targeted, they went 1-1. The only people really pleased with that outcome should be the TV stations in Richmond and Northern Virginia.
On the House of Delegates side, we lost ground overall. In one of the very few competitive open seat races, former Delegate Mark Dudenhefer came back and won reelection in the 2nd District by a very slim 128 vote margin, which is almost within recount territory. This was the sole GOP pick-up of a Democratic-held seat. In two other open seat races in Northern Virginia in the House of Delegates, Republicans lost – the 86th and the 87th – both of those seats having been Republican held seats in Democratic territory. Speaker Howell goes into the next General Assembly session down one Republican, which he is unlikely to be very concerned about. Northern Virginia, however, should be concerned – our power in the House just dropped considerably. We lost control of the House Transportation Committee and we lost two Republican seats that are now in Democratic hands, and thus marginalized. And losing GOP incumbents in Northern Virginia before a presidential election is a bad thing – we lose the network, the lists, the activist contact with an incumbent. All those things matter. And now they’re gone.
On the local level, the constant in-fighting and back-biting among different sectors of the Republican Party tore up areas that had previously been considered Republican strongholds. The most obvious example is Loudoun County. Loudoun‘s acidic GOP in-fighting allowed the Democrats to take control of the Chairmanship of the Board of Supervisors, with Democrat Phyllis Randall winning a four way race with a measly 37% of the vote. While Loudoun activists were out playing games in Fairfax and Prince William, they also lost Eugene DelGaudio’s supervisor district, too. So an all Republican Board of Supervisors in Loudoun is now led by a Democrat, many of the GOP candidates squeaked by on very close final totals, and they lost Sterling and Leesburg. The Leesburg race was equally surprising, as the Republican candidate in that seat outraised his Democratic opponent 5 to 1 (the Democrat raised a whopping $6,600) yet lost by over 1300 votes.
In Fairfax, the GOP had a mixed night as well. We expanded our county-wide results, electing an At-Large School Board candidate for the first time in recent memory, reelecting our Clerk of Court and winning a Soil and Water Conservation District slot. The win on the School Board off-set one GOP incumbent losing, and with a GOP win in an open seat School Board race in my home Sully District, we added a Republican seat on the School Board. That means going into 2016 we will only be outnumbered 9-3 on the School Board, rather than 10-2. Despite the feeling that this was a Republican year on the ground in Fairfax, all of our challenger candidates for Board of Supervisors lost and the open seat race in my home Sully District was a GOP loss, flipping that seat to the Democrats. There are a lot of things that I could say about the Sully race, but you’ll have to buy me a bourbon to hear them.
The biggest loser of the night – by far – was the Republican Party of Virginia. Don’t get me wrong – everybody in the Republican leadership was in unnecessary back-slapping mode this morning – but RPV’s statement stuck out to me more than the others. RPV sent out a self-congratulatory email that was long on self-praise but short on facts. It was, if anything, an obvious attempt (and clearly pre-election results written) at turd polishing by Chairman John Whitbeck, going into this reelection campaign next year. Despite the fact that we maintained the status quo and our messaging didn’t really work (the I-66 $17 toll issue was a clear bust as far as campaign messaging went), that didn’t stop RPV from crowing that “[a]fter years of struggling with infighting, the Party is once again united behind the common goal of electing Republicans at every level of government.” Apparently the Chairman missed the results in his home county. As for this gem, “[t]his election is a clear repudiation of Governor McAuliffe and his out-of-state supporters like Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton,” that’s a hard statement to justify. Maintaining the status quo is not a repudiation. It’s essentially the voters telling you that they are ambivalent. Whatever GOP momentum we may have built up was just released last night with a resounding “meh,” especially after losing a lot of races that folks thought we would do well in. Let’s be honest – not flipping a single Senate seat Blue to Red is not momentum.
As for RPV’s vaunted “Faces of the GOP” campaign – straight out of 2007’s Corporate Public Relations playbook – it was a disaster. Of the 20 Republican races profiled, 14 of the candidates lost. That’s a win rate of an abysmal 30%. Of the 6 who won, all of them were running in heavily Republican areas, and one was running unopposed. Of the 9 minority candidates highlighted, 2 won (1 was unopposed) and 7 lost. Of 9 the women candidates highlighted, 3 won and 6 lost (one of the women was also a minority candidate). Of the four rural candidates highlighted, 1 won and 3 lost.
If anything, what this should tell Republicans and RPV is that it is time for us to stop trying to play identity politics with the Democrats. The juvenile belief, apparently held by some at RPV and in the party, that we can nominate minority candidates and those candidates will win minority votes simply by virtue of their ethnicity is simply not true, and it’s insulting to the voters. We win by choosing the best candidates with the best messages for each district – not by pandering to race or national origin, or by trying to win “historic” races. When we do that, voters rightly repudiate us for treating them like idiots.
Last night must be viewed by every Republican in Virginia as a wake up call. The idea that we can win “base,” low-turnout off-year elections just by turning out Republicans should have died with a long gasping breath last night. In-fighting costs us multiple seats, and wherever we nominated a candidate that didn’t reflect their district, we lost. Even in places where we nominated the best people for the job, we lost. These things happen, especially when we’re running in districts where Republicans are outnumbered or facing incumbents. We lost two critical seats in Northern Virginia that will make next year’s presidential race harder to run. And, most important, we saw obvious examples in Loudoun that the constant in-fighting between sections of the GOP has real world implications – and those implications are bad.
Bottom line – we had a bad night and we have a lot of work to do. The 2016 campaign season starts today.