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Opinion Here’s a state that’s quietly reversing the tea party’s damage

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam listens as members of the medical staff at the Richmond Community Hospital discuss how the hospital is dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)

A decade ago, the tea party movement — remember them? — helped power a smashing Republican victory in the 2010 midterms, leading not just to GOP control of the House of Representatives, but also to a massive Republican takeover in state governments across the country.

But, while most of the national press corps has been focused elsewhere, one state just undid a bunch of the damage that the tea party movement wrought.

I’m talking about Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam just signed a host of bills that reversed many GOP initiatives of the last decade.

This is a watershed. Virginia may be the first state to reverse so many tea party-driven initiatives. And because Virginia sits at the nexus of many trends in national politics right now — shifting demographics, Democratic gains in the anti-Trump suburbs — this illustrates what those trends could end up meaning in policy terms.

Democrats now have control of both chambers of the Virginia statehouse for the first time in over two decades. (Video: The Washington Post)

Fueled by anti-Trump energy, Ralph Northam was elected Virginia’s governor in 2017, and Democrats took full control of the Virginia state legislature in the 2019 election.

That is now having a big impact in reversing what Republican officials achieved in the last 10 years.

In recent weeks, Virginia Democrats passed into law a voting-rights bill that repealed a GOP voter ID law — one similar to the many voting restrictions passed by legislatures taken over by Republicans in the tea party wave.

That voting-rights measure also expanded early voting and established automatic voter registration. These measures will make voting easier, which undoes what Republicans had engineered in a very fundamental way, since making voting harder was their aim.

Democrats also passed into law a new measure limiting handgun purchases to one per month. That undid a previous measure signed by Republican former governor Robert F. McDonnell.

Democrats passed a host of other gun reforms, including expanded background checks. Notably, these proposals had drawn thousands of armed gun rights activists to a rally in Richmond, yet Democrats carried through the promises they had campaigned on.

Democrats also passed into law a measure, co-sponsored by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, that rolls back a GOP measure requiring women to get an ultrasound and wait a full day before getting an abortion.

Then there’s the role of the Affordable Care Act — which helped fuel the 2010 GOP takeover — in this story.

In 2018, Northam signed into law — with the support of some Republicans, who then still retained some control of state government — an expansion of Medicaid that extended health coverage to hundreds of thousands of poor and working people.

That was a big breakthrough, given that GOP control of state legislatures after the 2010 wave represented a huge barrier to expanding Medicaid in many states. A big Northam win made it possible. Since then, the Democratic-controlled state legislature has also passed into law an ACA exchange.

What makes all this so interesting is that the Democratic takeover in Virginia is on the front lines of many trends in the Trump era.

Northam’s outsize 2017 victory came at a moment when anti-Trump and “resistance” fervor was white-hot. That win was fueled by Northam’s better-than-expected college-educated-white support and surging turnout in the fast-evolving Northern Virginia suburbs — portending trends that drove the 2018 Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives.

The 2018 wave also enabled Democrats to retake a good deal of ground in state legislatures across the country, undoing some of the immense GOP gains earlier in the decade.

Then came the full Democratic takeover of the state legislature in the 2019 election, which was driven by more success in the suburbs, including around Richmond, building on those anti-Trump trends.

Now the results are allowing for the undoing of large swaths of what the tea party wave produced, in a state that has been firmly driven by those trends into the Democratic column.

All this might be the tip of a spear. Democrats have already launched a massive push to win ground in state legislatures across the country. It’s a tall order, but if Democrats can flip chambers in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina — which have Democratic governors but GOP-controlled state legislatures — more efforts to undo the tea party legacy could follow.

Note that Democrats are campaigning on the promise of expanding Medicaid in state legislative races in North Carolina, where GOP legislators have still blocked the expansion, unlike in next-door Virginia.

“Last decade, Republicans made Virginia into a tea party testing ground,” Jared Leopold, a consultant to state Sen. McClellan, told me. “This session, Democrats undid many of their extreme right-wing policies.”

“If Democrats can continue to swing the pendulum of state government,” Leopold continued, they can keep reversing more “damaging laws passed under the tea party wave, and pass new progressive laws.”

It’s often debated whether reliance on the suburbs could undercut just how progressive the party can get. But one thing we’re already seeing now is that those gains are helping to reverse the real-world policy damage that the last decade’s right wing resurgence brought about.

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