In June, many Democrats were humming “Georgia on my Mind” in a misplaced euphoria at the prospect of a major win in a Republican congressional district. The national media fed the narrative as it painted that House race — the most expensive in history — as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.
A far better case can be made for Virginia’s fall elections as the first real test of a Democratic resurgence.
Democrats can draw positive lessons from Georgia’s special election. We built a strong infrastructure and made serious gains in a district in which we’ve never played, and we forced Republicans to invest in a race that should have been safe. Despite those efforts, however, it was still a loss.
In hindsight, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District never should have been christened the epicenter of the resistance. Rather, as Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman suggests, the number of seats Democrats pick up in Virginia’s House of Delegates is a better indicator of success.
This fall’s contests for the Virginia House are a much better investment for a party hungry for change. Consider:
- The geographic, racial and socioeconomic diversity of our competitive districts. Georgia’s 6th is a predominantly white Atlanta suburb. Here in Virginia, all 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election in 2017. We are contesting 54 districts held by Republicans, including each of the 17 Republican-held districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in November. These districts are spread throughout the state, from Northern Virginia to Richmond to Southwest to Virginia Beach. And they include a broad demographic mix of African American, Asian American and Latino voters who are central to the Democratic base.
- The cost of a House of Delegates campaign. The average Virginia House race will not cost $55 million. The cost of flipping two districts in expensive Northern Virginia in 2015 was about 5 percent of what was raised by Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee in Georgia.
- The strength of our candidates. One of the criticisms of Ossoff was that he was not connected with his district; he didn’t even live in it. This is not the case with our Virginia candidates. They are deeply connected to their communities, where they serve as teachers, nurses and small-business owners. They also reflect the increasingly diverse districts they seek to represent. More than half of the Democratic nominees running for Republican-held seats are women, about a quarter are people of color and five are openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
- The energy and odds. Eight Republican incumbents either announced they would not seek reelection or simultaneously filed to run for another office. Democratic enthusiasm in Virginia is surging, with the party turning out 177,000 more voters than Republicans in the June primary. The energy is on Democrats’ side, and the approval rating of the Republican-controlled Virginia House is only two points higher than President Trump’s. Furthermore, we’re targeting districts that, unlike in Georgia, were won by Clinton and by statewide Democrats in recent elections.
- States matter. After former president Barack Obama’s first election, national Republicans targeted state legislatures, hoping to flip chambers and control redistricting for a decade. They were successful, as Democrats in state houses lost 900 seats, and Republican-controlled redistricting gave us a Congress dominated by the far right. They came close in Virginia to securing a veto-proof majority, and almost succeeded in overriding Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) veto of their bill to defund Planned Parenthood last session. But in Virginia, all of our statewide elected officials are Democrats. And we realize that unless Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam wins the governorship this fall, both legislative chambers and the executive branch will be controlled by a party that has repeatedly pushed socially divisive legislation that undermines efforts to build a thriving economy that works for everyone.
Democrats can take back the House by winning the 17 Republican-held districts Clinton won in November. We need to build our party from the ground up, not the top down. This will require connecting with voters on the values they consider important and finding new ways to support hard-working people as they build a future for themselves and their families.
David J. Toscano is the Democratic leader in the Virginia House of Delegates. He represents Charlottesville and Albemarle County.