Norman Leahy is a contributing Local Opinions columnist.
But in the contests for the U.S. House, Republicans showed flashes of the old suburban strength that made them the commonwealth’s dominant force for a generation. And if the GOP can reclaim just a bit more of that vote, then Democrats up and down the ballot in 2021 and 2022 are in trouble.
This doesn’t mean that the Northern Virginia suburbs are suddenly going to revert to their ancestral Republican roots. The days of the 8th Congressional District, for example, sending a Republican to the House of Representatives are probably done and gone. The Democrats’ hold on the 10th District, which elected a Republican House member for nearly four decades until 2018, looks solid right now.
But the story changes downstate, where the results show that Republicans still have plenty of fight left in them.
The case study: the hotly contested, and fantastically expensive, 7th Congressional District race between incumbent Abigail Spanberger (D) and challenger Nick Freitas (R). Unofficial results show Spanberger won, 50.5 percent to 49.3 percent — not much different from her 50.3 percent-to-48.4 percent victory over Republican incumbent Dave Brat in 2018.
Spanberger’s win that year capped the Richmond suburbs’ big swing away from the GOP that began in 2017. In those earlier contests, Ralph Northam became the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate to win vote-rich Chesterfield County since 1961.
Down the ballot, Republican House of Delegates stalwarts John O’Bannon and Manoli Loupassi were swept from office. Democrats solidified their House of Delegates gains in the 2019 election.
But Democrats were unable to extend those gains into the state Senate, picking off only one of their regional targets, Republican Glen Sturtevant in the Chesterfield County-based 10th District. In Henrico County, Republican incumbent Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant was reelected.
The consensus before the 2020 election season got fully underway was that the 7th would be a close race. The coronavirus pandemic complicated matters, delaying the district’s Republican nominating convention from April to July. It also raised questions about how the general election would be run.
As it turned out, the Spanberger-Freitas race was oddly conventional. Spanberger attempted to position herself as an independent, district-first problem solver, while Freitas tagged her as a tax-hiking, big-government member of Team Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker from California. In many ways, it was a rerun of the messages used in the 2018 campaign Spanberger won.
Team Freitas, however, took the conventional campaigning a step further, not only employing direct mail, an underappreciated campaign staple, with vigor, but also doing plenty of door-to-door canvassing and in-person events.
Spanberger made a lot of phone calls and ran a lot of television commercials.
In-person outreach still matters in the 7th District. It’s a lesson for Democrats running in 2021 and 2022: You can and should campaign as much over the air and over the phone as your budget will allow. But there is no substitute for shoe-leather campaigning — even in a pandemic.
The other big lesson: Northern Virginia may be safe Democratic territory, where it’s possible for candidates to embrace a progressive policy wish-list. The rest of Virginia isn’t. The crowd of Democratic candidates seeking the party’s 2021 statewide nominations would be well advised to listen to the message Spanberger delivered directly and forcefully to her fellow House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), on a conference call on Thursday.
Spanberger said Democrats lost House races they should have won, and that her own reelection bid nearly foundered because of an ad linking her to efforts to defundng police departments. Spanberger also urged Democrats to stop talking about socialism and to get back to basics.
She warned that continuing along the same lines would see Democrats getting “torn apart in 2022.” She’s right — and the message applies to Virginia’s 2021 races as well.
That’s particularly true with President Trump out of the picture. He was never going to win Virginia. But he was the most powerful organizing force Virginia Democrats have had in decades. If he’s gone, they need something else to motivate those suburban voters to stick with the Democratic brand.
As for Virginia Republicans: Well, I’ve been mighty hard on them in recent years — and with good reason. In candidates such as 2018 Senate nominee Corey A. Stewart or even former 7th Congressional District incumbent Brat, the party willingly embraced a narrow, nativist and ugly brand of populism that fractured their own governing coalition.
Rather than a party of ideas, it became a party of grievance and fear. To his credit, Freitas and, to an extent, Senate nominee Daniel Gade were able to scrape some of those barnacles off the hull and replace them with appeals to personal responsibility and limited government.
That’s the old recipe for Republican success. They would be wise to keep it handy for 2021.