A year ago, Donald Trump stunned the country by riding his special brand of crypto-nativism into the White House, throwing the Democratic Party into a spin cycle of bickering and second-guessing. But Tuesday’s election was different. Refreshingly different, in fact, for anyone concerned about the potential meltdown of the two-party system.
Democratic candidates notched electoral victories in state races across the country – the first hint of how the party might carve out some successes in an era of chaotic misrule in the White House and GOP dominance in the US House and Senate.
The results are significant for a number of reasons, but two trends stand out: a focus on pragmatic issues that affect broad swaths of the electorate, and the translation of so-called hashtag activism into down-ballot victories.
Run for Something, founded on Inauguration Day 2017 by former Hillary Clinton staffer Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto, a political operative, backed 72 candidates on local ballots in Tuesday’s elections. At last count, 32 of these progressive, millennial candidates won seats in local races in 14 states: school boards, state legislatures, and city councils.
One of the group’s success stories: Danica Roem became the first openly transgender state legislator in Virginia, defeating Robert G. Marshall, a 13-term incumbent who proudly styled himself as the state’s “chief homophobe” and introduced a so-called bathroom bill. Roem benefited from northeast Virginia’s influx of immigrants, millennials, and government workers. But she also ran a campaign based on old-school retail politics, focusing on local issues like traffic and relentlessly working potential voters. She knocked on doors more than 75,000 times in a district of 52,471 registered voters, according to The Washington Post.
Virginia’s race for governor was even more heartening for Democrats, and exit polls give a glimpse of a strategy that might work in other states. Democrat Ralph Shearer Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie, who fanned cultural bonfires with support for Confederate monuments and Willie Horton-style ads suggesting that criminal gangs of undocumented immigrants are running wild. But an exit poll found that voters cared most about health care, and 6 in 10 college graduates supported Northam — up from the 55 percent who supported Clinton in 2016.
Health care topped the ticket in Maine, too — a state burdened by an opioid crisis and an aging rural population. Voters brushed back their governor, Republican crackpot Paul LePage, and expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
These elections played out against a backdrop of unhelpful Democratic infighting, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren lashing out at the Clinton campaign for “rigging” the 2016 election. But that should be so last year. As these votes show, a practical focus on health care and a consistent and well-reasoned stand against racist culture-war hysteria might ultimately be part of a winning playbook for the Democrats in 2018 and beyond.