Democratic leaders called their nationwide victories, particularly in Virginia, a referendum on President Trump. But how much of what happened can be duplicated on a national level and isn’t unique to Virginia?
Democrat Ralph Northam’s win over Republican Ed Gillespie for the governor's office drew national attention and was first seen as the true test of whether Trumpism could prevail one year later and with no substantial policy successes for the president. But as results rolled in Tuesday night, it wasn’t Northam’s win that left both Republicans and Democrats speechless — it was the wave of Democratic candidates ousting long-held Republican seats in Virginia's statehouse.
The 16 pickups in Virginia’s House of Delegates had national Democrats abuzz on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took a victory lap with Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, telling reporters in the press gallery that it smells like a wave is coming.
Yet it’s early to call what happened in Virginia, on an off-year, a wave. Democrats are divided about what kind of candidates to nominate, leading to contentious primaries. The losers of those primaries won't always fall in line easily as progressive candidate Tom Perriello did after losing his primary in Virginia.
Perriello campaigned across the state not only for Northam, but down-ballot Democrats. Many of the candidates were sparked to run by their antipathy toward Trump, not because they were recruited by the party. And many volunteers came in from out of state — something that can’t be relied on during an election year when Democrats are competing in multiple races in nearly every state.
“One of the reasons why I think Virginia Democrats were so successful was we had all wings of our party working together,” Warner said. “There was a lot of navel-gazing here in D.C., but we had a strong candidate in Ralph Northam. And we had Tom Perriello working tirelessly for the ticket.”
“What message last night sent: Unity is our greatest strength as a party and Donald Trump’s worst nightmare,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said on a call with reporters Wednesday morning.
But for all the talk of unity by Perez and other Democratic leaders, the fact is Democrats aren’t united — not yet. The disagreements Democrats had before Election Day still stand and it remains to be seen if they’ll be fixed. The party remains split over whether its centrist, mainstream candidates that appeal to Trump voters are the answer or its progressive liberals who excite the base are.
Virginia’s primary between Northam and Perriello will look tame compared to the primaries that are ramping up across the country. Pressed on their divisions, leaders are quick to deflect and point the finger at splits among Republicans or dismiss reports that their national operation is in shambles, saying that 2016 is in the past.
“It was surreal last week to have national attention focused on different wings of the national party and trying to relitigate the 2016 primary,” Kaine said, referring to a book by former interim party chairwoman Donna Brazile that pushed Democrats' vicious primary back into the spotlight.
Schumer waved off questions about competing factions and potential fights that await in 2018, but he aptly stuck to his side of the chamber — making no mention of the increasing primaries among Democratic candidates for the House.
“You look at our Senate races, there’s unity,” Schumer said. “We have hardly any primaries, [Republicans] have primaries all across the lot.”
In Virginia, both sides are emboldened by the results. Both wings see it as proof that their strategy is the answer.
“From socialists to George W. Bush-voting Dems, turns out Trump isn’t as liked as he thinks,” DNC member Nomiki Konst said as results were came in Tuesday night. “But [it] also means that centrist Dems are going to double down on trying to keep control.”
Pressed on how they’d convince party leaders that Northam’s victory doesn’t mean conventional Democrats should be fielded over progressive firebrands, Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founders admitted that was the entire reason they held a conference call.
“Democrats nationally need to learn by following the example of these candidates,” said Stephanie Taylor, a co-founder of PCCC.
Perriello argued that the credit for Democrats’ gains goes to the “idea of getting really great candidates to run.”
“[Tuesday night] was not an election win, it was an inflection point for a movement,” Perriello said. “And PCCC and bold progressives had a great deal to do with that.”