In 2017, Virginia was the first and ultimately the perfect case study on how the country would respond at the ballot box to a Trump presidency. Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) win provided the road map for the 2018 Blue Wave and President Biden’s victory. Will Virginia provide a different playbook for the Biden era?
Virginia was the first election to demonstrate the suburban backlash to Trump that was later the formula for how Democrats took back the U.S. House in 2018. In 2017, women candidates dominated Democratic legislative primaries — winning 15 of 17 competitive races in Virginia — and foreshadowing the 2018 historic Democratic freshman class that elected a record number of women to Congress.
The primary and general election turnout in Virginia shattered records, but new voters were only slightly more Democratic than Republican. The Democratic primary for governor was a battle between the establishment center-left candidate with deep support in the African American community and a Bernie Sanders-backed progressive challenger that D.C.-pundits wrongly predicted was a better fit for anti-Trump energy. It’s hard to miss the analogy to Biden’s primary nomination battle.
Virginia not only predicted Democratic gains in 2018 and 2020, but it also foreshadowed the political violence that would mark the end of Trump’s presidency. When white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, their hate could not stop Virginia from delivering Trump his first electoral defeat. Tragically, political violence bookended Trump’s presidency when a failed coup couldn’t stop the certification of a free and fair election.
Here are the questions Virginia answers first that will write the political campaign playbook in the Biden era:
Are suburban voters anti-Trump or trending toward Democrats? Can Democrats keep their gains in the suburbs? If Trump remains relevant in the media, does that help keep suburban support for Democrats?
Do rural voters become more persuadable when Trump is gone? Many of the rural non-college White voters who make up Trump’s base do not identify as Republican. Do they just stay home without him?
What is turnout like without Trump polarizing the electorate and dominating voters’ attention? Does a decrease in turnout benefit one party over the other? A decrease in non-college voters could benefit Democrats. Complacency among Democrats who just won the White House could benefit Republicans.
What are Democratic and Republican primary voters looking for? Under Trump, former independents joined Democratic primaries to be part of voting him out, increasing turnout and nominating more moderates. Without Trump as president, it could be a giant reset button in primaries.
Historically, the party that holds the White House suffers in the midterms, but 2022 could be an exception as Biden navigates the country through vaccine distribution, economic recovery and so much more. The last time a party that held the White House gained in the midterms, extraordinary circumstances gripped the nation: Our country was attacked on 9/11, and President George W. Bush was building political support to invade Iraq. Biden and Democrats in Washington have the chance to dramatically improve people’s lives by safely opening up the economy and returning the country to normal. This extraordinary circumstance can be much more powerful than partisanship or historical trend — but no one will know until Virginia voters weigh in.
Twitter is full of hot takes and predictions about the next four years based on the past four. Though it’s important to learn from the past, it is more important to look forward. Only Virginia can tell us what voters are looking for after Trump, what the road map for the midterm elections will be and how our political campaigns will operate in this new era.