FAIRFAX, Virginia—Ralph Northam’s campaign didn’t rent the largest election night party space. The rec room at the student center on George Mason University’s campus only had enough space to comfortably fit about 100 or 150 supporters. It was a size that spoke of narrowness: narrow win, narrow defeat. With tightening polls in the week before the election, the room at GMU seemed designed, at best, for a sigh-of-relief party.
What Democrats got was a broad victory and a blowout party, after Northam won easily, followed by the party’s lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates. Democrats made vast gains in the state Legislature and could wind up winning the House of Delegates majority, something that no prognosticators saw coming.
The measured optimism quickly turned into ecstasy at Northam headquarters. Virginia’s results, combined with a strong showing in New Jersey and New York, meant Democrats had their best election night in five years.
“Let’s get off our back foot!” said Tom Steyer, the activist billionaire who was in attendance.
The results gave Democrats some much-needed momentum heading into 2018, and a marquee victory to demonstrate they can win against Donald Trump.
Northam’s campaign conceded that the race had tightened in the previous weeks, but they denied it was because of Ed Gillespie’s ads about immigration. The Gillespie ad that did the most damage among swing voters, as a Northam aide told me, was “the pedophile one.” Meanwhile, ads about protecting Confederate monuments, and the kerfuffle over a short-lived Latino Victory Fund ad—depicting a Gillespie voter with a Confederate flag bumper sticker chasing down minority children—was able to activate some of the Trump base in rural, southwestern Virginia. It was the common base-riling culture war and suburban parent scaremongering that seemed to bring Gillespie back. But it didn’t put him anywhere near over the top, and the ads may have been a net negative in alienating swing voters.
“We saw in the way that Gillespie ran that [Republicans] have a problem,” former Virginia Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello told reporters.
“There is no constituency for their corporate economic agenda,” continued Perriello, who had run as a progressive challenger to Northam in the primary. “And then the only other thing they have is the divisive cultural issues, and people seem to be rejecting that as well.”
As Twitter was blowing up with news of Northam’s outperformed expectations, few people at the Northam rally seemed to have any idea. Music was playing over the loudspeakers. Though MSNBC was showing on a couple of TVs, no one quite knew what was happening. At one point, the TVs got stuck on an image of Richard Nixon.
But then rally organizers turned the sound on. The first thing the crowd heard was MSNBC calling the race for Northam, eliciting a loud roar. They changed the channel to CNN, just as Wolf Blitzer was announcing the same. Another roar. They lapped it up as CNN analyst John King ran through Northam’s margins in Fairfax and Loudon counties on his magic wall.
Steyer, the Democratic Party’s biggest donor, had made a point to be in attendance, hours after his grassroots organization, NextGen, had set up a petting zoo on Virginia Tech’s campus to lure students to the polls. He told me he was “a little bit relieved, and a little bit defiant.” The relief was that Northam pulled it off, though Steyer defiantly believes that Democrats should push even harder. As the leader of another prominent progressive organization in attendance told me, “it’s fantastic that Northam won despite how uninspiring his campaign was.”
Northam played to type in his victory speech. The governor-elect, a pediatrician, made an extended medical metaphor about how “this doctor will be on call for the next four years!”
The fissures in the party were still smoldering even as Northam began his speech. A handful of protesters, upset with Northam’s position against “sanctuary cities,” interrupted the beginning of his speech. Northam briefly left the stage until the protesters were ejected.
That dispute over the party’s direction overlooks a separate problem that’s been dooming the party as much as any ideological posture: the negligence of down-ballot organization and party infrastructure. By that account, Virginia Democrats’ big night was a validation for one Democrat in particular: Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, on his first Election Day in that role.
“Organizing is what we’re all about at the Democratic National Committee,” said a proud Perez, who’s faced negative headlines about both lagging fundraising and, from still-aggrieved Bernie Sanders supporters, as an establishment puppet himself. “Organizing in every ZIP code, leading with our values, that’s what we did in Virginia. We organized in every corner of the state. We fielded 88 candidates for the House of Delegates.”
Perez expressed hope that the party could finally move past the infighting over 2016 and focus on next year.
“I didn’t hear a word from my last four days in Virginia,” he said, “about Donna Brazile.”