If you’re to the political left of, say, Mussolini, enjoy celebrating the overall good results Democratic candidates had in Tuesday’s elections. The much-hyped Virginia gubernatorial race was over almost the moment the polls closed, depriving the evening of drama. That’s OK; after more than a year of non-stop bad news, liberals will gladly take the win.

Now, the bad news: special and off-year elections receive far more attention than any scattered batch of state-level races deserves, and the urge to over-interpret the results is irresistible for the media and political class. Whether you were pleased or upset on Tuesday evening, take a deep breath and remember that if not for the odd timing of these races – in an off-off-year – they would barely have been noticed.

The media likes elections. Elections are more interesting to news consumers than the standard non-electoral political fare, and content providers have the ratings and clicks to prove it. If the 24-hour cable networks can find an election to cover, they will give it saturation coverage.

Sometimes the only elections available are oddly timed special elections – last month’s Alabama Senate primary was a good example – or a few state-level races. They end up filling a vacuum in the ability of political news outlets to provide election coverage. Talking about 2016 gives most of us a migraine at this point, and it’s too early to go H.A.M. on the 2018 election stories yet.

So, elections that are important but not Earth-shattering end up receiving the kind of grand, breathless coverage and punditry that blow what is happening out of all reasonable proportion.
These races deserve coverage. They are important. But they’re not nearly as important as the Hot Take industry is going to claim over the next few days. There is something to be learned from these races, but maintaining perspective is important.

For Democrats, who seem destined to struggle to control the narrative of elections, Tuesday night was a no-win situation for the 2018 storyline. Had Democrat Ralph Northam lost in Virginia, the “No matter what the liberal fake media says, REAL ‘Mericans support Trump and his agenda!” storyline would have carried the day. This would reinforce the idea that no matter how bad things seem to go for the Republicans, Democrats will screw it up.

Now that Northam won – and it is worth noting that Hillary Clinton won Virginia handily in 2016, so Northam would have had to be spectacularly inept to lose – jubilant Democrats took to the internet immediately to proclaim, as journalist and political analyst Dave Wasserman did, that Tuesday’s results lead to the conclusion that Democrats are likely to take the House in 2018.
He concludes, “You can't really look at tonight's results and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the current favorites to pick up the U.S. House in 2018.” With due respect to a good journalist, that is truly spectacular overreach. A year ahead of the 2016 election, nobody could have predicted Trump’s victory. Much can happen in a year. We have no idea where we will be one year from today. Given the way Trump is operating, we may not even be alive (or having elections) in a year. Chill. Virginians picking a governor is not, as some pundits are excited to say, a nationwide referendum on Donald Trump.

This serves no positive function for Democrats. Idle chatter about one party being the favorite can lead only to complacency – marginal voters failing to show up because they’ve heard for a year that the candidate they support is going to win – or unhelpfully high expectations. Bold assertions that they will overcome a forty-five seat GOP majority in the House will feed the eventual narrative of Democrats doing well…but “not as well as we expected.”

The media and the professional readers of political tea leaves have no incentive to follow Tuesday’s results with careful conclusions that invoke context and the dangers of overstating limited evidence. They prefer to grab your attention with bold, unqualified statements that this. is. HUGE. But that does not make it true. Give it a month and there is a good chance that Tuesday’s elections will be largely forgotten.

The valid, sober interpretation of these races is simple: Democrats won some races they very much should have won, and they can feel good about getting their base to show up and follow through. You can’t win the hard races if you’re unable to pick up the ones that should be slam-dunks. So, Tuesday was a good night for a party and a group of supporters that needed badly to have a win to boost morale.

For the GOP, they will shrug the races off as unimportant but behind the scenes a lot of people who have to run in 2018 will learn from Ed Gillespie’s mistakes in Virginia. He engaged in a shameless campaign of Trump-style race baiting and immigrant bashing and it accomplished little except to bolster pro-Democratic Latino/a voters. Rather than rushing to embrace the preferred strategy of a President who is currently about as popular as genital herpes, Republicans should ask if pandering to the worst aspects of the GOP base has run its course. Trump is loud and monotonous. Voters may just be tired of the act. Why imitate it?

In the end, what we learned on Tuesday evening consists largely of things we already knew. If Democrats can get their base out, they can win. Pandering to white populist sympathies is only a useful strategy for Republicans in solidly red states. And the President is a delusional, gutless sack of lame excuses and Taco Bell Mild Sauce.

What we didn’t learn is who will win a year from today. We didn’t learn what Americans think. We didn’t learn any universal truths about politics. These races are not unimportant, but the urge to draw large conclusions from a small sample is dangerous.

64 thoughts on “HOLD YOUR HORSES”

  • I don't know, Ed – the Virginia Governor's race may not portend anything more than you say here, but I do think it's significant that in districts gerrymandered to favor Republicans, Democrats were able to flip at least 12 seats in the state legislature. That's certainly not an infallible sign that Democrats will take the House in 2018 (a much harder target), but I do think it's encouraging evidence of more widespread (not just NOVA) disaffection with the Trump/Republican agenda and evidence of Democratic voters being willing to get out there and vote. So while wild optimism, as usual, may not be warranted, I think you're also underplaying this a bit too much.

  • It feels like a switch was flipped this year, starting with the Women's March the day after the Inauguration. The Republicans have moved so far to the right, that it creeps out even the Bush family.

    The next reason was high turnout. When turnout is high, elections go blue, or so the thinking goes.

    Finally, Virginia uses paper ballots and scanners. Election are hard to hack/steal with a paper trail.

  • "Virginians picking a governor is not, as some pundits are excited to say, a nationwide referendum on Donald Trump."

    They are making the same statements here in New Jersey when it more likely comes down to us not wanting another 4 years of — figuratively and literally — Chris Christie Lite.

  • NoVA Observer says:

    I don't know Ed. While I think it will be easy for Democrats to over-hype this and they have a natural tendency to be complacent, I don't think we can look at these races at the granular level and suggest that this was just another off year election where the opposition party picks up seats. The Virginia Assembly elections in gerrymandered districts is a thunderclap not just in Northern Virginia, but also in Hampton Roads and suburban Richmond. The fact that some of the local races in suburban NYC that had been in Republican hands for decades shifted to Democrats is not just business as usual. We've had Republican presidents before and it never flipped these seats. I think its waaay to early for Democrats to assume anything, but I also think that if I'm a Republican officeholder in suburban America anywhere in this country this morning, I'm more than a little worried about what the political future holds for me.

  • I don't know if it's complacency or something else, but if the Democrats don't come up with something to run on besides "We're Not Trump," I don't think it's going to go all that well for them. So far, I haven't heard much of anything else. FWIW, I'm still a registered Democrat and I voted straight-ticket D last year.

  • I keep reading how the Dems need to come together and decide what issues they stand for. That may be true, but it can wait. Right now, there is no bigger issue than Trump. And no surer way to combat him than to get people to the polls. Just as James Carville boiled 1992 to "It's the economy, stupid," the message for 2018 should be equally simple.

    How about "11/8/16. Don't let it happen again."

  • PhoenixRising says:

    Ed….a gay married adoptive father of a Cambodian immigrant, who ran on fiscal controls so we get our roads fixed, won a town council seat last night.

    In North Carolina.

    If all we get is the Mark Lillas and Hillbilly Elegy bros to shut up about the importance of white men feeling centered by progressive movements, that is reward enough, but I think we're going to see more state leg seats that haven't been contested get Democratic candidates.

    Voting is still treated as a means of self-expression by too many Americans, and that's a huge problem if you want our country to be governed by responsible adults. But if what voters express in the primary and next Nov is disgust for the Trump-led GOP, it's a lifeboat.

    If the wave swamps enough state legislatures to get districts reflective of voter preferences, we may yet save the republic.

    Doug Jones, the man who jailed the Klan and is running against a scofflaw rejected fascist in AL to replace Jeff Sessions, needs you to make 10 calls today. Who's next?

  • The Democratic part leaders will trumpet this one governors election as a repudiation of Trump. In doing so, they will miss the actual sea change taking place in lower races. Just read 538 if you want to confirm this.

    I'm certain they will take Northam's win as a confirmation to continue promoting neo-liberal Clintonite/McAuliffe candidates rather than learning the lesson that people actually want change.


  • My takeaway from yesterday is that many Democratic Socialists and #OurRevolution candidates won, shattering the myth that voters are afraid of socialism. Will the Democratic Party take heed? Doubtful.

  • Let me engage in one of my more endearing qualities and try to answer a question that the author posed as rhetorical.

    "Republicans should ask if pandering to the worst aspects of the GOP base has run its course. Trump is loud and monotonous. Voters may just be tired of the act. Why imitate it?"

    Because doing it the other way works less. I think the reason Gillespie ran the race that he did is that he spent years in a unique position to understand how many voters don't care about issues like health care or education, but instead vote based on fear and hatred of anyone different. Playing to those worst aspects may or may not have run its course (we all pray it has), but it replaced whatever-else-Gillespie-could-have-done as the only feasible option in a swing state long ago.

  • "I think the reason Gillespie ran the race that he did is that he spent years in a unique position to understand how many voters don't care about issues like health care or education, but instead vote based on fear and hatred of anyone different."

    So…my question would be; the Democratic Party held office for a generation by reminding the Common Clay that they SHOULD fear and hate the plutocratic bastards that tanked the nation in 1929 and had had a boot on their collective neck since…well, since forever.

    So if voters are motivated by hate and fear…why NOT encourage that in the right direction. Along with a constructive agenda of economic equity and political inclusion, natch. But ISTM that there's gold in them thar "vampire squid" attack ads.

    If the wingnuts can convince Cletus that he needs his AR-15 to fight off that "gummint bureaucrat" how hard would it be to convince him that those insurance company bureaucrats or multinational corporation bureaucrats aren't his friends, either..?

  • I live in Virginia, so I get to take this seriously in any case :), but I'm going to chime in with the others that point out that the news here is not the statewides (where Dems won by 7-8 points each), but in the massive (and unexpected) swing in the House of Delegates. It was 66-34 Republican before. It is going to be 50-50, plus or minus one or two once the absentees and provisionals are counted (and recounted). This is a "wildest dreams" level of shift, that *nobody* was predicting, and there are many possible explanations (laid out by others upthread) but all of the explanations have national implications, potentially.

    Also worth expanding on @sluggo's point: "Virginia uses paper ballots and scanners. Election are hard to hack/steal with a paper trail." Yes, and this is the first election that's true (it wasn't even true yet during the primaries for this election)—the old DREs in many jurisdictions (including mine) only just got decertified. We can be a lot more confident than before that our tallies are unhacked, and when we do a recount it will actually mean something.

  • Aardvark Cheeselog says:


    > So if voters are motivated by hate and fear…why NOT encourage that in the right direction.

    Because there is no "right direction" for hate and fear?

  • Hear, hear!

    Aardvark Cheeselog said:

    > So if voters are motivated by hate and fear…why NOT encourage that in the right direction.
    Because there is no "right direction" for hate and fear?"

  • @Blahedo; Holland also conducted its recent election using paper ballots and scanners because the obvious hacking that went on in our election. I was proud of Virginia for stepping up.

  • This serves no positive function for Democrats. Idle chatter about one party being the favorite can lead only to complacency – marginal voters failing to show up because they’ve heard for a year that the candidate they support is going to win – or unhelpfully high expectations.

    I disagree 100%. The perception of one party being the favorite can just as easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy — Dems have an easier time recruiting good candidates because they feel like they're not just tilting at windmills; Republican incumbents decide they'd rather retire now and beat the K-Street rush, giving Democratic candidates a better chance at flipping an open seat; Repub donors decide to throttle back on the giving instead of throwing good money after bad; Dem small donors and volunteers are energized. Is it possible to take it too far? Sure. But right now is exactly the time where a feeling of momentum can really help the Democrats.

  • Ed:

    I'm not good enough at teh googlefu to find out what the numbers were from yesterday's elections; who won, where and outta whose stable. You are.

    So, let us know if you have some numbers for who carried the day.

    My local races featured NOBODY in opposition to several incumbents.

  • I am willing to draw one longer term conclusion, namely that Virginia is now a moderately blue rather than purple state. Clinton won fairly easily and the Democrats have now flipped a lot of state house seats that you would never have imagined turning blue. I think Virginia was trending towards a re-alignment and it's now accomplished.

  • @NickT, on to North Carolina!!

    But the Dems are STILL, a year later, at a national level pretty much in disarray. And still hippie- punching. Sure, they should pick up some seats in the House in '18. But 30+?

    Also, I worry that if Kris Kobach's* “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity” (sic) has any "success" fewer and fewer likely Dem voters will even be able to cast ballots in the first place. "Here's your provisional ballot, Mr. Lam…"


    *Middle name Karl ; )

  • Here in the K.C. 'burbs we had a special election to fill a state senate vacancy, the anointed Republican won, spending a breathtaking multiple of what the Democrat spent (Also a breathtaking multiple of what the position pays.), for all that money, he won by 8%.

  • @Safety Man!

    But being the good responsible party shouldn't they attempt to reduce the over-partisanship of gerrymandering when they redraw districts? Or are we truly in a 'whomever is in charge fucks everything up more' state?

  • I agree, Ed ; "as above, so below" doesn't seem to really work in regard to political systems (for the most part). Municipal elections in my town were a bloodbath for democrats (mostly because the town-level party leadership is utter dogfood), and can't be seriously correlated to the results elsewhere without a lot of magic asterisks.

  • Really tired of bots/paid socks yammering that Ds don't have a plan.

    Anti Trump and anti Repub are not empty sloganeering. They mean:
    civil rights
    minimum wage
    health care
    climate change
    clean air/water
    some minimal action on guns
    equal pay

    You know, eat your vegetables, do your homework, smile at the little old lady next door. Act like a human instead of an economic unit.

  • You know, eat your vegetables, do your homework, smile at the little old lady next door. Act like a human instead of an economic unit.

    Heresy! In the new Ownership Society, our only role is an economic producer and consumer! :(

    Amazing how similar the right Wing New Ownership Society man sounds to the New Soviet Man?

  • Brian M., one of the tragic things about the fall of the USSR, they're no longer around to be a bad example and business folk who's Grandparents would have their actions constrained by not wanting to look like commies no longer have that restraint.

  • @Jestbill:

    I'm neither a sockpuppet nor a bot …bzzzzzt… I am a normal, as you say, "humon".

    However, many corporatist Dems really don't have a plan to deal with the "big issues" of the day. – There is no plan to deal with the potential further collapse of wages due to the gig economy and automation (is… is it retraining? Because you can't retrain people into jobs that don't exist).
    – There is no conception of how to have a better foreign policy that doesn't place America into yet another ForeverWar in the ME.
    – There is no plan to fix the spiralling student debt that is a burden carried by all students today.
    – I see only a very small number of Democrats calling for the end of the privatized incarceration state, and many are pretty cool with Kamala Harris flouting her imprisonment top scores.
    – The kinds of serious work required to deal with Climate Change (beyond joining the Paris Accords) seems beyond them.
    – Hell, they can barely get behind single fucking payer, a concept adopted by most first-world countries decades ago.

    Now, I do think there is a difference between the base and the Dem core, which is lousy with corporatist dirtbags… but don't ever believe that some corporatist Dem that owes his soul to big donors will step up on your behalf.

    "You know, eat your vegetables, do your homework, smile at the little old lady next door."

    When the world is (quite literally) on fire, this kind of wet blanket bullshit just isn't enough anymore. Being the decent, pro-Captialist technocrat just doesn't get anyone hard, mostly because the mess we're in was caused at least in part by wet blanket, pro-Capitalist technocrats.

  • Maybe winning isn't the portent of the 2018 elections, but losing sure as hell would have ratcheted back our chances. If politics is a momentum game, then I'd rather we have the outcome we got than the alternative. Maybe we need to celebrate once in a while in order to stay energized for the fight ahead.

  • My favorite part of the election results in VA is that an openly transgender woman beat the asshole who drafted the bathroom bill. FUCK YEAH.

  • @jcdenton:

    All good points.

    The democrats and the DNC, in particular, deserve to be vilified and scolded. That's all well and good.

    They will not be surrendering to a group that has done that to them and then turn over their mailing lists, accounts and connections.

    Perhaps you think that you don't need any of that. You're wrong.

  • @Demo, Virginia is an odd place. There's the prosperous, multicultural blue area around DC with jobs and highways and signs of civilization, but you go further out and you swear you're living in an episode of The Waltons, only with meth. It's kind of a microcosm of the United States; the blue part supports the rest, and the rest sit back and whine about how they need more, more, more, more from the blue part, and also, oh, yeah, the blue part sucks and it's inferior to the "Rill Murkkuns". Throw in some gratuitous whining about "takers" (ironic because it's sheer projection) and racism against the immigrants and non-white people.

  • @democommie

    You're confusing broad criticism with political strategy. The DNC is lousy with corporate Dems. The actual mechanism for changing that is to join the party and try to throw them out (the DNC recently threw out all of its progressives to replace them with more corporate lobbyists, so you know, things can always get worse).

  • @ katydid
    The other thing is that people in rural areas have no fucking clue about population density. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/11/09/this-one-map-shows-the-republicans-problem-in-virginia/?utm_term=.8b68726f4b9b

    The look at the first map without ever considering the second map. (Trivia note: nearly 5% of the entire country lives in two counties).

    What Virginia did in this election needs to be the Democratic playbook for the next generation. Small donors, GOTV, contest every seat, paper ballots, run up vote totals in blue areas.

  • Thanks for the link sluggo! Money quote: "After all, people vote, acres do not."

    I was pleasantly surprised by how the voting went. Northern Virginia is made up in large part of workers for the federal gov't and the support services (contractors) who work with them. They tend to skew Repub despite the fact the Repubs tend to cut their funding and otherwise beat up on them.

  • @ Chicagojon

    If the Dems win the majority, then sure, they can de-gerrymander the districts, but I don’t think they did, which is why I said veto-power…
    Also, hopefully the Supreme Court will rule something on gerrymandering period.

  • Caution is in't a bad idea but some of your premises are weak. Northam beat Hillary's margin and she was running with a favorite son of the state. Northam's campaign seemed not to really counter Gillespie's racism and many people, myself included, would not have been surprised to see him lose. And not only did he win, but down ticket Dems did very well.

    The other thing is that we're taking about Virginia. If you look at statewide races over the last 25 or so years, the adjectives that describe the GOP winners would be dumb, conservative and/or corrupt. People like that bonehead, George Allen, Jr (gov & senator) and more recently Bob McConnell were easily elected. On the Dem side, moderate to conservative, hackish, and/or cautious would be the adjectives. Terry McAuliffe has been a surprise–a party hack (basically a Dem version of Gillespie) who has been more specific and progressive than anyone expected. But go back to the 90s and Virginia had not one but 2 senators from two different parties who regularly made lists of the 10 dumbest or least effective senators: John Warner and Chuck Robb. Virginia 's leadership often has only looked good compared with the Barry years across the river in DC. Northam fits the moderate label and ran a cautious campaign but he's also done things like restore voting privileges to felons. For a state that usually elects unimpressive if not oafish people, Northam's victory is significant.

    Virginia gets a lot of coverage because its close to DC, but it is not entirely unlike some other purple states, although it is more Southern than the classic Midwestern swing states which means less labor heritage and more feudalism. So, well organized, Dems may prosper elsewhere in places they narrowly lost in 2016.

  • @ jcdenton:

    By all means, take the party over. What I'm hearing is a lot of, "Fuck them, we'll do it ourselves!". Serious miscalculation, that. I WANT progress which means "Progressives" have to be elected. But it will take time, as that's happening, voting one's conscience or throwing a vote away on protest is decidedly prone to coming back to bite folks in the ass.

    Yes, proceed with the takeover.

  • @sluggo's link prompts me to add another thing: any "standard map" version of an election map is going to be misleading because of the population density problem, but Virginia's is *exceptionally* bad because of the way we treat counties. Specifically, in Virginia, any municipality that's designated a city is *not* part of a county—it's its own county-level unit. So on the map, you see all these tiny dots all up the Shenandoah valley, across Southside Virginia, and in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which are where a *huge* percentage of the population are (and which swing heavily towards blue), but are tiny compared to the nearby/surrounding counties, which would have been reddish to start with but are even redder due to having the cities excised from them. You can see this effect in sluggo's link by comparing the standard map to the cartogram and counting all the tiny dots that expand in to substantial blue and purple blobs.

  • @Katydid: I'm not Northern Va, I'm down in Farmville (I teach at Longwood). (Also I'm not *from* here, I'm from the Chicago area, but I don't think that's what you were asking. :)

  • Sorry, I didn't phrase that well. I'm not "from" Virginia, either, but I go where the work is. I was just surprised that so many posters here seemed to be speaking from experience about Virginia politics. :-)

  • @NickT, sure a house divided can't stand, so I know! Let's vote for people in splinter parties that have ZERO chance of getting elected, so we can self-righteously puff ourselves up that we're so PURE in our votes!

  • @Katydid: I'm from Fairfax originally, but have lived in the Fredericksburg region for half my life now. It was quite a culture change moving down here…

  • Fredericksburg! The home of Mary Washington College! (my daughter considered going there so we did a campus tour)

  • jcstarz; I had a college roommate back in the 1980s who started at Mary Wash; it wasn't particularly cheap then, so her parents made her go to a state university. I went with her to a Halloween party there once and we stayed with her old roommates; the dorms had 6 girls to a 20×20 room, sharing a bathroom with 4 toilet stalls and 4 showers with another room of 6 girls. The buildings were old and run-down.

    When I re-visited as a parent, about 5 years ago, it didn't look like much had changed. It's co-ed now (wasn't back in the 1980s) but the campus accomodations are poor for the price they ask.

  • OT:

    When I tell people that I went to 2 different state U's, UofNebrasksa @ Omaha (67-68) and U of Mass @ South Dartmouth (80-81) and that the schools cost $12/credit hour and $45/credit hour, respectively they think that I'm kidding.

  • Speaking of the Alabama senate race, is anyone paying attention to the way the Republican party has become the Party of Flimsy Excuses for Pedophiles? Turns out Moore has a history going back 40 years of creeping on young girls. Is anyone at all surprised? He's also got quite the history of religious nuttery. However, Republican spokespeople are claiming that Joseph married Mary when she was a teenager and thence came Jesus, so how dare we question Moore? (The theology is as apallingly wrong as the justification for pedophilia.)

    The phrase, "At long last, sir, have you no decency?" applies here.

  • @Katydid

    Is it any surprise that a party willing to support DJT (someone with a long record of sexual assault accusations) is also willing to support other pedophiles? I mean, at this point, it's not a question of whether they've retained any decency, it's a question of whether we can stop their naked grab for power and steerage of the US into a fascist, klepto-capitalist oligarchy.

  • @Demo: University of California, 1984: $15/credit hour. Community college was $5/credit hour. Same era University of Maryland: $45/credit hour. On the other hand, minimum wage was $2.33/hr. OTOH, just took a community college history class (for my own edification) last spring: $60/credit hour.

    I work with a lot of Millenials, and IMO a lot of the whining about college costs are from people who went to top-expense schools–schools that were beyond their ability to pay. One of my baby boomer coworkers has a daughter who went out-of-state to Tufts and ended up owing $70k/year, for a total education of $250k. In art. She works part-time (seasonally) in a plant nursery and he complains nonstop about his mortgage (he refinanced his house) and loans both the parents and the kid took out. For a part-time seasonal job selling plants and mulch. She could have stayed home and done that–my state college's tution is $11k/year.

    My spouse and I told our kids, "We've saved $X for your tuition. You can go to state college on a free ride, or go anywhere else you want and make up the difference yourself." They both chose state college (different branches).

  • @ Katydid:

    "(The theology is as apallingly wrong as the justification for pedophilia.)"

    For me, all theology is wrong.

    "Trump is reviving the nativist 19th century political party the Know Nothings:"

    I think "Re-Animating" is more like it. And who better than a dayglo ghoul?

  • BTW, a more betterer indicator of how people are looking at Trumpligulamygdalanesque politics is:

    How many kids dressed up as Buffon Bouffant L'orange on Halloween?

  • Those hoary old ivy (or blackberry) covered not necessarily Ivy League campus' remind me of Salvadore Daly: buildings, the entire campus melting into the background, mildewed in the corners regardless the draft, a pervasive sense of unremarkable decay.

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