Michael Ross has been a loyal Republican for as long as he can remember. But voting in Virginia’s gubernatorial election Tuesday, the retired advertising executive said he rejected every Republican on the ballot and chose Democrats — whether he knew anything about them or not.
His reasons were not rooted in any particular candidate, issue or a change in political philosophy, but in an ever-expanding antipathy toward President Trump and the party that propelled him to the White House.
“I’ve been with the Republicans my whole life, but what the party has been doing is appalling,” said Ross, 72, as he was about to get a haircut Wednesday in Lorton, a suburb about 20 miles south of Washington. “It’s completely divisive, and the politics of this country has gone berserk. Trump has demonstrated that he doesn’t deserve to be president.”
On the ballot, Virginia’s election was about the state’s future and who would assume a slew of elective offices, from governor to attorney general to seats in the House of Delegates. Yet a year after Trump won the White House, voters in Virginia said in post-election interviews that their choices were shaped more by their attitude toward the president than any candidate close to home.
Ask them to identify an issue championed by Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D), and they may fumble for an answer. Ask them the name of the man who was elected lieutenant governor and they might have to think for a moment. Ask them to identify who they chose for the House of Delegates, and they were likely to reply with a blank stare.
But ask them why they voted Democratic, and their answers were precise and infused with anger.
“I don’t like Trump and I don’t like where our politics are going,” said Patty Potts, 48, an education programmer who lives in Lorton. Her husband, Mike Potts, 51, a software process engineer, regards himself as a fiscal conservative and a loyal Republican who researches candidates before voting. But he chose only Democrats on Tuesday, and said he didn’t need to study the candidates’ biographies or positions.
The fact that they weren’t Republicans was all he needed to know.
“The Republicans are just so negative,” Mike Potts said. “We have kids — 10 and 7 — and we need a little hope. The Republicans aren’t giving us any. I’m protesting and it feels good in the sense that I’m registering my concerns about it. Normally I would like to know a little more about whom I’m voting for, but right now I’m overwhelmed by the protest aspect of it.”
His sentiment was shared by Democrats, who said they were focused more on who they were opposing than who they were supporting.
“It could have been Dr. Seuss or the Berenstain Bears on the ballot and I would have voted for them if they were a Democrat,” Toren Beasley, 60, a marketing executive, said as he left a Starbucks in Lorton. “I might do more analyses in other years. But in this case, no. No one else gets any consideration because what’s going on with the Republicans — I’m talking about Trump and his cast of characters — is stupid, stupid, stupid. I can’t say ‘stupid’ enough times.”
Northam is a soft-spoken man who twice voted for President George W. Bush and was little known before his bid to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Yet the governor-elect was the recipient of more votes than any candidate in the commonwealth’s history of gubernatorial campaigns, and he got more votes than any Virginia Democrat in the past 32 years.
The outpouring is rooted in the state’s population growth, as well as the fury provoked by Trump’s presidency. But it’s less certain whether Northam’s nine percentage-point victory over Republican Ed Gillespie — and Democrats picking up 15 House seats in the General Assembly — is evidence that voters are embracing Democratic policies.
“The danger is that the party misreads the election as a mandate — winners do this all the time,” said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. “They take a landslide victory and make it an affirmation of everything that they campaigned on, their policy positions, and themselves personally, when in reality it’s that the other candidate is worse or unacceptable. Or it’s about a national political climate that was driving the Democratic mobilization.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose district includes Northern Virginia, said he was reluctant to interpret Tuesday’s results as a mandate if only because “anyone who claims it almost always overreaches.”
But Connolly said Democratic victories in the legislative races, as well as the top statewide contests, represent a consolidation of Democratic power, particularly in Northern Virginia, where Republicans were trounced.
“It was an affirmation of a Democratic approach,” he said. “Trump fueled what happened, and the fuel was red hot and intense. But it wasn’t a mindless reaction to Trump. It was a cognizant choice to switch course to a more open, inclusive and welcoming agenda.”
Not in all cases. Even if they reject Trump, several voters said they remain open to Republican candidates.
Kathryn Shaw, 57, a homemaker who lives in Stafford, thinks Trump is a “megalomaniac — everything is about him, it’s not about the country. It’s about his ego and how he’s being perceived.” But Shaw said she voted for Gillespie because “I didn’t like what Northam stood for,” citing his abortion rights stance.
“As long as the Republican doesn’t seem crazy, I will vote for them,” Shaw said. “Trump is the exception, not the rule. It’s his personality, not what he’s doing. He just doesn’t seem stable.”
Paul Gallagher, 51, a consultant who lives in Lorton, also voted for Gillespie even though he dislikes Trump. Gallagher, who prefers to support candidates on a case-by-case basis, said that the 2016 presidential election was when he used his vote to send a message. He rejected Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton and supported Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.
“Both parties can be effective or ineffective,” he said. “The country is polarized. We need people to go down the middle.”
But other voters said they are sufficiently repelled by Trump’s conduct as president — the tone of his rhetoric, his use of Twitter — that they saw the election as a chance to rebuke the Republican Party as a whole.
“Trump is very rude, he has no heart, and I believe, as a Christian, you have to give respect in order to get it,” said Dawn Smith, 55, a cashier at Giant who lives in Woodbridge and who voted for the Democratic ticket. “He’s always trying to destroy people, send people back to their countries. I just don’t like the guy.”
Martin Andrews, 66, a retired contracting purchaser who lives in Fairfax Station, said he voted for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but said he used his vote for Northam to convey his unhappiness with how Trump comports himself.
“I just think we’ve become less civil in our discourse and that Trump is setting the tone,” he said. “He’s coming from a place where it’s impossible to interface with the other party — and we just don’t need that.”
Dave Hughes, 59, a Web designer who lives in Springfield, said he was more focused on Washington than Virginia as he voted for Northam on Tuesday. His mission, he said as he sat outside a Panera Bread, was “sending Trump a message that we’re not going to sit back anymore.”
That neither Northam nor Gillespie impressed him was of no significance, he said. What mattered more was that “Trump would take credit if Gillespie won,” Hughes said. “That was his thing, and that could not happen.”
Sitting with her cup of soup inside the Panera, Sandra Kilburn, a retired pediatric physical therapist, recounted having voted for George H.W. Bush and other Republicans.
But Democrats were her choice Tuesday — up and down the ballot.
“Our nonpresidential president,” she said, citing her reason. “I’m appalled.”