Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam's victory, decisive as it may have been, was not the Democrats' most significant victory last Tuesday. Far more impressive is the fact that they managed to put the state House of Delegates into contention, and may still have flipped it, pending a few recounts.
The chamber had been in Republican hands since the 1999 election, and there have been no less than 60 Republican delegates at any time since 2012. Going into this election, the balance of power in the chamber was 66 to 34 in favor of Republicans. And given that the district lines had been drawn by Republicans to solidify that majority, the chamber seemed impenetrable for Democrats, even in the best sort of Democratic year.
Yet as matters stand at the moment, Democrats have been declared the winners in 49 of the 100 seats, and Republicans in just 48. Republicans lead in the three remaining races, and may yet hold on to their majority by the skin of their teeth. But their margins in those three races are so tiny that the outcome will hang on provisional ballot counts this week and near-certain recounts the next.
For perspective, the Republican leads in these three races are 106 votes, 84 votes, and 10 votes as of today. If one of the three flips to Democrats, we'd end up with a tied chamber and some kind of power-sharing agreement. If two or all three flip, then Democrats control the state House.
What can we learn from this? First, it's a reminder that gerrymandering, as an issue, is overrated. No map is truly safe — and this is not the first time in recent years that this lesson has been brought to bear. If your party has lost the faith of the voters, then nothing can save you, even if your party did create the current legislative map.
Republicans learned this the hard way in many states in 2006 and 2008. Democrats had learned it before that, in 1994, and in some states they learned it again in the elections of 2010, 2012 (Arkansas, just redistricted by Democrats), and even 2014 (West Virginia).
Second, the obvious: Virginia, like Colorado, a handful of other states, is definitely turning Blue as suspected, even as the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and some other areas of the country turn Red. A big legislative pickup like this one signifies that the Democrats' gains are not the result of a charismatic candidate or anything (no one has ever accused Northam of being that), but a genuine increase in popular support for their party and at least something in their agenda.
Republicans in the Old Dominion need to rethink Gillespie's strategy of running hard on Trumpist cultural issues in states that rejected Trump in the first place. There doesn't appear to be a path to victory through the rural and Appalachian parts of Virginia any more. The more affluent and educated northern counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William (places that used to vote more Republican when rural Virginia was more Democratic) increasingly hold the balance of power.
Over the next two weeks, keep an eye out for the final results in these three legislative races. Democrats have a long way to go, but they have at least begun the process of slowly clawing their way back to power in state governments.