The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia Democrats must beware the enthusiasm gap

Voters cast their ballots under a giant mural at Robious Elementary School on Nov. 3, 2020, in Midlothian, Va. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Gaby Goldstein is co-founder of Sister District.

Early voting is underway for Virginia’s next governor and all 100 seats of the legislature’s House of Delegates, and these are tighter races than Democrats may have expected. Virginia’s elections have national consequences, both because Virginia has quickly become a progressive policy leader and because it is a bellwether for next year’s midterms. But Democrats are running out of time to shake off complacency.

In just the two years that Democrats have controlled the legislature and governorship, Virginia has raised the minimum wage, rolled back abortion restrictions and expanded voting access. As state legislatures increase their power over the policies that affect our lives, Virginia has led the South, and the nation, as a laboratory whose policy successes build the promise of progressive federalism.

These races are also critical bellwethers for next year’s midterm elections. Control of Congress after 2022 likely lies in the hands of the more motivated party, and elections in Virginia historically serve as a preview. And though Democrats eked out a narrow federal trifecta last year and defeated an expensive, far-fetched recall in uber-blue California, neither success is cause for complacency. Democrats should not consider Virginia to be a done deal, especially for legislative races. Let’s be clear: Virginia’s Democratic trifecta is in jeopardy.

It’s important to remember that, despite Democrats’ presidential and Senate wins last year, down-ballot results were not stellar. One thing was clear: Republicans had an enthusiasm advantage down-ballot.

Democratic margins in the House shrank, and efforts to increase Democratic ranks in state legislatures fell short. Several factors contributed: Gerrymandering in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin kept Democrats from getting closer to parity in state chambers, and a global pandemic kept Democratic candidates from running traditional in-person voter-contact programs, which further boosted the advantage enjoyed by Republican incumbents.

But another factor came into focus as we analyzed the post-election data: a pronounced enthusiasm or awareness gap between voters for the top and the bottom of the ticket on the Democratic side. Consider this: In the battleground states of Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania, Republicans running for state legislature received a higher percentage of the vote total than then-President Donald Trump. In all of those states, Democrats running for state legislature received a lower percentage of the vote total than then-presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Looking to 2022, we know that midterm performance is a reflection of the out-party’s enthusiasm and motivation. And generally, the out-party is more motivated and more enthusiastic than the president’s party. That is why the out-party tends to do better in midterm elections. Next year, Democrats will need to out-motivate and out-enthusiasm the GOP to buck the historical trend, hold the House and Senate, and make appreciable gains in state legislatures.

Throughout the Trump years, Virginia’s elections served as important partisan barometers. The 2017 gubernatorial and House of Delegates races were seen as an early and emphatic referendum on Trump. Democrat Ralph Northam won the governorship by 9 percentage points, and Democrats picked up a colossal 15 seats in the House of Delegates. The next year, three Democratic women flipped U.S. House seats. In 2019, Democrats flipped both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in a generation, completing a blue trifecta. And in 2020, Biden carried the state by 10 percentage points. But any assumption that Virginia is now solidly blue would be very wrong.

Importantly, Virginia voters tend to elect governors from the presidential out-party, and Democratic voters tend to turn out less than Republicans in odd-year elections. As with congressional midterms next year, it would take historic levels of Democratic engagement this year to buck the trend. Some signs are positive: Legislative Democrats are fundraising well. But many Democrats feel a lack of urgency and complacency. On the Republican side, there is strong investment in campaign and field operations up and down the ballot and a lot of enthusiasm.

The governor’s race is tight, with Cook Political Report moving it from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss Up.” Despite being extremely well known, former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe is statistically tied with newcomer Republican Glenn Youngkin, according to recent statewide polls of likely voters. And even if McAuliffe wins, Democrats could still lose their majority in the House of Delegates — especially if McAuliffe’s performance is middling in battleground legislative districts outside of deeper-blue Northern Virginia.

State legislatures are ground zero in the fight for our democracy and our freedom. As we watch Republican-controlled legislatures eviscerate reproductive rights and sprint to gerrymander redistricted maps, Democrats must stay battle-ready and motivated to fight back. A mission-accomplished mentality could prove fatal.

Virginia is leading the South in progressive policy, and its success depends on retaining its Democratic trifecta. And Virginia’s odd-year elections often portend the nation’s political future. But Democratic success is not a foregone conclusion, and this year’s elections are stress tests for Democratic enthusiasm. Democratic strategists and voters must heed the warning from 2020: Beware the enthusiasm gap, and fight all the way down the ballot.