As Democrats seek a nominee, what qualities can they sell to Virginia’s voters?

January 6, 2020 12:01 am

Marianne Williamson, Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney and Steve Bullock at the first Democratic debate in Detroit in August. (Andrew Roth/ Michigan Advance)

It’s amusing to watch talking-head pundits pigeonhole Virginia as a blue state in the run-up to this year’s presidential election.

November’s election, which gave the Democrats the keys to both the legislative machinery of Virginia government while controlling the executive branch for the first time in 26 years, only deepened the conventional wisdom that the state is unassailably Democratic.

If there’s a ring of déjà vu to it, that’s because political know-it-alls on TV were saying the same thing exactly 20 years ago, but it was about the Republicans. The 1999 election had put the GOP in control of the House of Delegates for the first time in history. The party owned the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. And by year’s end, it would extend its grip to the second of Virginia’s two U.S. Senate seats and a majority of its 11 U.S. House seats.

Overlooked was the fact that Virginia voters, particularly in the fast-growing suburbs, are first and foremost pragmatists. They pick candidates they deem most capable of addressing their most pressing concerns and reject ideologically driven agendas they deem too extreme or risky.

In the primaries just ahead, Democrats will determine what their party stands for and who best personifies it. In doing so, they face a conundrum: nominate a far-left or socialist candidate who alienates centrists and pragmatists essential for winning electoral votes in states like Virginia, or nominate a “safer,” more traditional candidate who can’t relate to the party’s young, progressive and energetic base.

News reports in the final week of 2019 cited a December survey of 625 registered Virginia voters by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research that showed only one Democrat – moderate former Vice President Joe Biden – leading President Donald Trump in a head-to-head match. The poll showed Trump would prevail over the top Democratic progressives – Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont – as well as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Similar polling in other primary states also reflects a preference for Biden, notes Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at Mary Washington University. It may be a preference that reflects the Democrats’ most powerful motivation of all: denying Trump re-election.

“When you look at polls nationally, you see a careful calculation being made by Democratic voters,” Farnsworth said. “Democrats are terrified that Trump wins a second term. They may be voting with their heads, thinking that Biden can win the election, rather than their hearts.”

Democrats have won Virginia’s 13 electoral votes since Barack Obama’s 2008 victory ended 40 years of GOP dominance in presidential races. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton, with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate, won 49.7 percent of the vote to Trump’s 44.4 percent. Libertarian Gary Johnson took 3 percent with independent, Green Party and write-in candidates sharing the rest.

Virginians didn’t wait long to voice their displeasure with the president or his party. In 2017, Democratic moderate Ralph Northam was elected to succeed fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor. In 2018, Kaine won a second Senate term as Democrats claimed seven of the 11 House seats. And last year achieved Democratic legislative control.

Party primaries and especially statewide conventions or caucuses tend to attract many ideologically driven participants. That can yield nominees too extreme to later tack toward the center and be palatable for moderate general election voters.

“People who imagine that the recent Democratic gains in Virginia have made us the East Coast version of California are engaging in a very risky strategy,” Farnsworth said. “Virginia is a centrist state where Democrats at the moment hold the upper hand, but its electoral votes are not assured for the Democrats.”

A Democratic presidential nominee advancing ideas alien (or even threatening) to Virginia’s centrist, suburban and largely pro-business electorate could be a tough sell, no matter how unpopular the incumbent. Warren’s and Sanders’ universal health care and taxation proposals could be savaged as rank socialism.

But for years, political debate has become less an ideological one between left and right but a practical one between haves and have-nots, said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic strategist who heads Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

“We, the political class, tend to misread the electorate in terms of left and center and right. That’s not the paradigm voters operate on anymore. It’s not left versus right but front versus back, people in the elite at the front of the line versus people being left behind,” Elleithee said.

It played itself out in the UK in the Brexit election and last month in the electoral show of support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It played out four years ago in Trump’s ascendancy over a large GOP field that wasted its time rightly questioning his conservative credentials.

In the end, Elleithee noted, “people were looking for someone who would level the playing field for them.”

The goal for Democrats, he said, lies not in making an ideological case as much as taking a page from the Democrats’ 2018 playbook: talk about kitchen-table issues like health care, make voters comfortable that their nominee will take care of them while making the case that Trump has not.

And while the intra-party split may seem insurmountable in January, time and the shared imperative of defeating Trump could make it all history by autumn.

A shopworn maxim in politics is that Democrats must fall in love with their candidates while Republicans simply fall in line.

Election Day is just under 11 months away, but that’s an eternity in today’s hyperspeed news cycles.

“Parties tend to come together by November. Four years ago, the never-Trumpers in the Republican Party had disappeared by Election Day. And in 2008, the Hillary (Clinton) voters may have been frustrated that she wasn’t nominated, but Obama won over almost all of those voters,” Farnsworth said.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]