Why Virginia Is a Warning for Republicans Nationwide

 In U.S.

In 1994, the governor of California, Pete Wilson, a Republican, was
facing a difficult reëlection campaign, until he embraced a statewide
referendum that proposed banning undocumented immigrants from using many
state services. The initiative passed by a large margin—eighteen
points—and Wilson was easily reëlected, with fifty-five per cent of the
vote. California Republicans believed that they had found the electoral
equivalent of a magic bullet. Instead, 1994 turned out to be the beginning of the end for the G.O.P.
in the state.

Proposition 187, as the ballot measure was known, is often considered
the most important event in modern California politics. It galvanized
Latinos, who had been trending toward the Republican Party, and many
non-Hispanic whites, to form a fiercely pro-Democratic political force.
In the twenty-three years since Wilson’s triumph, Republicans have lost
nearly every statewide race. (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two successful
campaigns for governor are the notable exceptions.) The G.O.P. barely
exists in the state now. It holds no statewide offices and hasn’t sent a
U.S. senator to Washington since 1992. Republicans make up just a
quarter of California’s large House delegation and less than a third of
the elected officials in the statehouse. The last Republican
Presidential candidate to win the state was George H. W. Bush, in 1988.
Several other factors helped turn California deeply blue, but Prop
187 is now widely seen as an enormous mistake by the G.O.P.

Tuesday’s election results, especially in Virginia, offered the first
evidence of a potential backlash against the racial politics of
Trumpism, a result akin to what happened in California. Virginia has
been trending away from the Republican Party for a while now. Democrats
have won three straight Presidential elections there and hold both
Senate seats, but the G.O.P. has remained competitive. The last three
Democrats to win statewide elections received less than fifty per cent
of the vote. In 2013, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, outspent Ken Cuccinelli, his very conservative Republican
opponent, by two to one, and won by less than three points.* On Tuesday,
Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate, won the governorship by a
stunning nine points (fifty-four per cent to forty-five per cent).

“This is the Prop 187 effect,” Tom Perriello, a former congressman from
Virginia who challenged Northam from the left in the Democratic primary
but campaigned hard for him in the general election, told me.
“California Republicans got one good election and lost the state
forever. Trump is the Prop 187 of America.”

One election isn’t enough to know whether Trumpism has truly backfired
on the G.O.P. in the same way that Prop 187 did in California. The
process happened in stages in the Golden State. Republicans initially
received a surge of support from white voters who embraced the
anti-immigration policies. That was followed by an intense political
mobilization of Latinos. As Republicans pushed forward with more
anti-immigration proposals that, over time, became defined as
discriminatory, white voters, especially those who were younger and more
educated, fled the party. As one academic treatment of the process
noted, “If the racial nature of a campaign message is made explicit, it
will harm the messenger since blatantly racial appeals violate norms of
racial equality. Few people want to be racist and the vast majority of
people will not support a party if they believe it is playing the race
card.”

The best evidence for a modern Prop 187 effect came from northern
Virginia, the increasingly diverse area outside of Washington, D.C. On
Tuesday, a region that has been a hotbed of anti-Trump activism
delivered a massive Democratic backlash vote against the President,
powered by a coalition of college-educated whites and racial and
religious minorities. “Latino, Asian, and Muslim communities were all
activated,” Perriello said. The impact could be seen down the ballot as
well. In northern Virginia, six older white Republicans in the House of
Delegates were swept out of office by a group of candidates that
included a transgender woman, two Latinas, an African-American woman,
and an Asian immigrant. These victors were part of a wave that, pending
recounts, may hand the Virginia House to Democrats. The one white male
candidate among the new Democratic winners in the region is a
self-described Democratic Socialist (and, as some observers, commenting
on the rainbow-like quality of the Democratic candidates, have wryly
noted, a redhead).

In what will be a critical race in next year’s midterm elections, Alison
Friedman, a single mother and first-time candidate, is one of the
leading Democratic contenders to face the Virginia Representative Barbara
Comstock, who will be perhaps the most vulnerable House Republican in
the country. Friedman spent months campaigning and canvassing for many
of the House of Delegates candidates who won on Tuesday. She told me
that the sense of fear about Trump’s policies among minority communities
was ever-present. Recently, she was knocking on doors with Wendy
Gooditis, a candidate for the House of Delegates who went on to unseat a
Republican incumbent.

“As we were knocking on doors on Monday, she talked about this
ninety-year-old neighbor of hers wearing a Star of David,” Friedman
said. “Her entire extended family died in the Holocaust, and she was
just so scared. Over the course of the campaign, Wendy has gone back to
check on that woman every two weeks.” That kind of fear, and other
factors, drove high Democratic turnout on Tuesday in Virginia.

Perriello, like many Democrats, went into Election Night unsure of the
results. He said that he was prepared for anything from a narrow Northam
loss to a ten-point victory. He and many Democrats were terrified that
the last of month of campaigning on
racially tinged issues by the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, would succeed. In the wake of the rally in
Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis and Klansmen marched to defend
Confederate monuments, Gillespie condemned the racists but called for
keeping the monuments up. In a state with a historically low rate of
violent crime, he ran ads that prominently featured Hispanic gang
members. He sent out a mailer with a picture of a football player
kneeling, an allusion to the N.F.L. players who are protesting police
brutality against African-Americans. “You’d never take a knee,” it said,
“So take a stand on Election Day. Vote Ed Gillespie for Governor.”
Instead, Virginia voters took a stand against Trump and the many
Republicans who have been tainted by their association with him.

“To have won the way we did, with the candidates we did,” Perriello said, when five days earlier, “we thought the most racist campaign we’ve ever seen,” might win, “was just amazing.” He noted that on Election Night
the sense of relief was especially notable among the new activists Trump has energized on the left. “You could tell the difference between
regular Democrats and the more movement people by the nature of their
hugs,” he said. The new activists embraced one another “like, ‘holy shit, humanity may
have just been saved.’ ”

*An earlier version of this post mischaracterized McAuliffe’s pre-gubernatorial career.

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