How Virginia Democrats Spent Election Night – and What it Says Moving Forward

It had all the makings of a memorable party – well-planned and well-attended, the gathering at the State Theater in Falls Church, Virginia had brought together Democratic elected officials from across the state to watch the election results come in.  Before the event even opened to the public, Gov. Terry McAuliffe was doing interviews with TV stations, smiling broadly as he described the prospect of his close friend winning the presidency.

It didn’t happen, of course, and 10 days later, Democrats are still grappling with how to respond to the great victory that suddenly wasn’t.  Yet Virginia was the one battleground state of any size that Hillary Clinton did win, and the confidence that has given party officials may yet set the state part from others which are often deemed “purple.”

As the election results rolled in that night, the crowd cheered each early Clinton victory and booed each one for Trump.  Yet even the boos came with smiles, more political theater than actual hatred.  It is, after all, petty for a victor to be too harsh to their defeated opponent – something even Trump has shown signs of understanding – and almost every prognosticator had predicted a Hillary victory.  Only gadflies such as Michael Moore said any differently.

In the wave of autopsies that has followed, one theme has been constant – that Clinton, and to a large degree Democrats as a whole, had lost the white working class and states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania with it.  Combine that with lower turnout among black voters, and you get President-elect Trump.  Yet Virginia is not a rust-belt or rural state, and the sheer weight of the Northern Virginia vote will always make sure of that.  More interestingly, Virginia did not follow North Carolina into the Trump column despite black voters making up a similarly large share of the electorate (20% vs. 25%) and having been the deciding factor that previously gave the state Gov. Kaine, President Obama, and McAuliffe.

In the aftermath of the last of those elections, various pundits cited voter ID laws or Ken Cuccinelli’s flirtations with bitherism for driving black turnout, at one point saying that Obama having been born in Kenya was within “the realm of possibility.”  Yet voter ID laws remain a flashpoint across the country, including in several swing states carried by Trump, and Trump didn’t just flirt with bitherism, he virtually founded it.

So the confidence shown by Virginia Democrats on election night – best summed up by DPVA Communication Director Emily Bolton sportingly telling me that the GOP should be “terrified” by her party’s long winning streak in statewide elections – was more than just keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of defeat.  And as the picture has become clearer after the shock result that evening, that confidence may remain justified.

Every election is different, and in terms of sheer candidate quality, the match-up of Ed Gillespie against Ralph Northam does not bode well for the Democrats at all.  But if Virginia Republicans wish to celebrate a local victory as decisive as Trump’s national one, they shouldn’t focus on how the Democrats’ night ended on November 8 – with the State Theater slowly emptying and the audio subtly changed from CNN’s election broadcast to a pleasant Pandora station as Clinton’s fate became increasingly clear – we should remember how it was at approximately 10 p.m., when the DPVA jumped ahead of national news outlets in correctly calling the state for Clinton.  Gov. McAuliffe bounded on stage and lauded the result, crediting the efforts of state party officials as he took obvious pride in yet another victory.  It was the high point of the evening for Democrats, and no matter how many post-election stories are written about how and why Hillary lost nationally, it needs to remain the most instructional one for the Virginia GOP.

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