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The Democratic Party Is a Mess, but It's Still Winning

Tuesday's election results show party unity is overrated.
Left: Donald Trump; Right: Northam supporters celebrate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty

Before Democrats' resounding victories in elections across much of America Tuesday, they hadn't exactly been killing it in the Trump era. A CNN poll recently pegged the Democratic Party's favorable rating at 37 percent, its lowest mark in a quarter-century. Donna Brazile, the former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), just published a book alleging a shady backroom deal helped Hillary Clinton win the 2016 presidential nomination—reopening some of the bitter wounds of last year's bruising primary battle. The last nationally prominent election, a June fight over a House seat in Georgia, ended in a disappointing and demoralizing loss for Democrats. The party's standard-bearer in Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election, Ralph Northam, had a seemingly rocky end to his campaign, pissing off progressives by saying he wouldn't allow sanctuary cities and talking about working with the Trump administration. Meanwhile, he was embroiled in a controversy over an ad produced by allies that associated his opponent, Ed Gillepsie, with murderous white supremacists.


"Are Democrats blowing it in Virginia?" asked a CNN headline that was emblematic of coverage of the country's highest-profile contest.

Turns out no, they weren't blowing it, at least not enough to make a difference. All of that disarray and backbiting didn't matter—or it mattered less than larger-scale trends, which could propel Democrats to bigger wins next year even if the party continues its long tradition of internecine feuding.

Not only did Northam win handily, but Democrats won full control of the state governments in New Jersey and Washington, and took so many seats in the Virginia House that control of that previously Republican-dominated legislature may even flip, pending recounts in close races. Among those Virginia victors was Danica Roem, who defeated a self-described homophobe to become the country's first openly trans state legislator. Voters in Maine approved a Medicaid expansion over the objections of Republican governor Paul LePage, and Philadelphia elected an outspoken criminal justice reform advocate as district attorney. Off-year elections generally favor the party not in the White House, and there wasn't really anywhere for the Democrats to go but up. Still, this was an unexpected bounty, and Democrats were all but partying in the streets.

"I know folks that lost tonight who were going against candidates I'd never even heard of," Virginia Republican congressman Scott Taylor told the New York Times.


All of which is a clear sign that the "Resistance" to Donald Trump is more than just a bunch of angry people on Twitter. Still, it's not easy to graft a tidy narrative onto this off-year election cycle. Northam is hardly the type of fire-breather progressives love—for one thing, he voted twice for George W. Bush before he got into politics professionally. In fact, the challenger from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party lost badly in a primary against Northam earlier this year.

But the left can claim some wins too: Lee Carter, a Democratic Socialists of America member and Marine veteran, pulled out an upset of a Virginia House of Delegates Republican leader. What's more, Carter did that even after the state Democratic Party largely withdrew its support due to a spat over how much the candidate should report to the higher-ups. (Carter is still part of the Democratic Party.)

The conflict between Carter and his local party bosses is likely to play out on bigger stages as the 2018 midterms approach. Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are already facing primary challenges from the left. There will likely be crowds of Democratic candidates competing among one another to unseat Republican members of Congress in California. Party insiders will continue a long-simmering beef over DNC membership that Tuesday's elections didn't settle.

But if there are still plenty of differences dividing Democrats, the debate over how far to the left the party's candidates should run and which messages to emphasize may matter less than the very fact that they aren't Republicans. On the generic ballot, a method of predicting midterm races, Democrats lead Republicans by double digits. Trump's approval rating keeps dropping, and the GOP's top legislative priorities this year—repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes on the rich—look like political losers. Almost two dozen congressional Republicans in have already announced they aren't running for reelection next year, probably either because they see a wave election coming or simply because they want to get away from Trump.

If there's a lesson to learn from Virginia, it's that Republicans have one big problem the Democrats don't: the guy living in the White House, who is simultaneously the elephant in the room, the monkey on their backs, and an albatross hanging around their necks. In the Republican gubernatorial primary, Gillepsie barely beat out Confederate statue-loving loony Corey Stewart, then pivoted to race-baiting in the general election with ads linking Northam to notorious Central American gang MS-13. But while Gillepsie echoed Trump's rhetoric, he didn't actually embrace the president. Meanwhile, Trump endorsed Gillepsie and recorded a robocall for him, then denounced him on Twitter as soon as it was clear he wouldn't win—standard operating procedure for a party leader who demands loyalty while giving none in return.

Overreacting to the latest round of elections is always a bad idea. If theocratic Republican Roy Moore wins the Senate race in Alabama next month as expected, maybe the "Democrats are doomed" narrative will pop back into vogue. And it shouldn't be forgotten that the midterm map heavily favors Republicans. But Tuesday showed that nationwide, Democrats really are more energized than the GOP right now. And whatever intra-party faction individual liberals, lefties, and moderates support doesn't matter as long as they show up and fill in the correct bubble on the ballot.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.