Wednesday, June 14, 2017

5 Thoughts on Last Night's Primaries

I must admit, I wasn't expecting last night's primary in Virginia to be the source of much conversation, but in politics lately you should never really count on any election to return the expected norms, and the Old Dominion was no exception.  As is our usual on the blog, here are five thoughts I have about last night's results:

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA)
1. Local > National

National pundits who won't let a narrative go until it's dead in the ground wanted to frame the race last night as one between the Bernie Sanders wing of the party and the Hillary Clinton wing of the party, but the reality is that that narrative felt pretty false.  After all, Tom Perriello had received endorsements from Bernie Sanders, John Podesta, David Plouffe, Elizabeth Warren-the Sanders, Clinton, and Obama wings were pretty well covered-while Northam was largely forgotten by national politicians and instead had to rely upon a robust slate of local politicians.  Northam's win proved that local still matters, even in primaries (though it clearly didn't hurt his results in Northern Virginia by winning the Washington Post endorsement, one of the few newspaper endorsements that still seems to carry some heft).

Northam's win, though, could have major ramifications for 2018, however.  I'm going to get into this a bit this weekend on the blog (I've had bronchitis, which is why I haven't been writing as much), but there are a lot of members (either current or former) of Congress running for governor in 2018.  Northam's win, though, could be a sign that states may be willing to go anti-Trump in Democratic primaries, but Congress still remains wildly unpopular.  States like Colorado, South Dakota, and Minnesota all have primaries coming up that pit statewide constitutional officers similar to Northam against members of Congress similar to Perriello.  Those constitutional officers, many of whom I feel pundits are underestimating because congressional representatives have a bigger megaphone they're used to hearing, could look to Northam's race as a blueprint to winning.

RNC Chair Ed Gillespie (R-VA)
2. Trump is Not an Anomaly in the Republican Party

It has to be said that last night's Democratic Primary was expected to be the place where all of the scuttle was supposed to be taking place, but it was in fact the Republican Party contest that was the nail-biter.  Former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, who almost pulled off an enormous upset in 2014 when he ran closer-than-expected against Sen. Mark Warner, ended up winning, but by less than 5000 votes against Corey Stewart, a local county supervisor.

It cannot be underscored how strange this is.  One could argue this was another case of local nearly trumping national (considering Gillespie's most famous political peak was as RNC chairman), but the reality is that this feels more like a Trump vs. establishment sort of race.  Stewart, despite being from Minnesota, ran as a southern country boy, speaking like a more ostentatious version of the president.  While Gillespie stayed focused entirely on the general election, where a Republican in a Hillary state starts out far behind, Stewart talked about wanting to keep his Confederate statues and was an adamant defender of Donald Trump's Access Hollywood tapes, stating it's "how frat boys talk."  That nearly paid off in a primary where the Republicans couldn't remotely equal Democratic turnout, and poses a challenge for Republicans next year: how are you going to be able to appeal to the Trump base in a primary without screwing over your general election chances?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
3. Bernie Sanders is Winning...but He's Also Losing

While last night was hardly a Bernie vs. Hillary moment that so many people wanted to frame it as, it has to be said that Bernie Sanders continued his losing streak.  Sanders has been making multiple arguments that the DNC should embrace more progressive candidates in red districts, but from Kansas to Montana, it seems like his strategy is failing; Democrats are doing well in these places, but they aren't sinking the basket.  With Perriello, he would have had a surrogate that likely would have won the general, and could have become the poster boy for the Bernie movement headed into the midterms.  With Perriello out and Sanders not wild about Jon Ossoff, it appears that Sanders is largely without anyone to get behind for the remainder of the calendar year, and without a victory to show for 2017.

That being said, it cannot be underscored how much of an effect Sanders has had.  In a similar fashion to how Hillary Clinton had to take a hard-left turn to compete with Sanders last year, Ralph Northam went from a guy that was rumored to be wanting to switch parties in 2009 to being a progressive who ran hard-left against Donald Trump.  This would have been unthinkable in a Democratic Primary in Virginia even four years ago-that we'd be in a place where the Old Dominion would have a "run to the left" primary and that victor would be the frontrunner headed into the general.  Northam became a "late converter" progressive almost entirely due to pressure from the Sanders wing of the party.  It may be little comfort to Sanders, an ambitious politician who is trying to prove he could win in 2020, but his ideas are being translated, even if that means his team can't actually translate to a victory.

Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA)
4. Polls are Terrible

This is a problem that I don't think anyone can really underline more severely, but it's also a problem without a solution: yet again, polling was a disaster headed into last night.  Only one poll on the Republican side had showed Ed Gillespie remotely vulnerable, yet he nearly was upset in a Eric Cantor-like upset, while most recent polling had showed Perriello gaining or at least a tied match, but Northam won in a huge 12-point victory, not even close considering the quality of both candidates.

The thing here is that polling companies could not be in hotter demand (public interest in polls continues to rise with more political engagement through social media on both sides), but their reliability and credibility could not be lower.  Headed into a Georgia special election next week that shows a tied election, will we also have a situation where either Jon Ossoff or Karen Handel end up winning by a double-digit victory, further hurting their credibility?  At what point do we go back to listening to simple dynamics of a race and completely ignore poll numbers?  And when will a polling company break through and find a way to accurately reflect the current of a race in an era of cell phones where no one picks up an unknown number?  These are all questions that are going to make some firm very rich if they can figure out the answers.

Jon Ossoff (D-GA)
5. The Democrats Have to Win Here

Northam now sets up what is going to be one of three races the Democrats need to win in 2017.  At this point, considering their minority status, the Democrats have done surprisingly well this year-they've held off most of the Trump agenda, have been able to raise oodles of cash, and enthusiasm is extremely high.  However, that can't sustain until they have actual victories to trumpet.  Races in Montana and Kansas proved there's a shocking amount of enthusiasm for the Democratic side, but Republicans still hold those seats-the Democrats have yet to actually pick up a major Republican seat or hold a competitive election with a progressive.

That now changes with the next three major races of the year: next week's special election in Georgia, and the November gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.  The national dynamics make the governor's races very likely wins for the Democrats, but they still need to sink the baskets (and it's worth noting that New Jersey is a pickup), whereas Georgia would indicate that 2018 is very much in play for the House D's, and would help in terms of fundraising and candidate recruitment.  My argument is that the Democrats need all three of these seats to keep their momentum going into next year, when the House could well be in play, as could over a dozen governor's mansions.  I don't know that margin matters a whole lot (particularly in Georgia), but they need W's.  The Democrats have a solid hand, but it's soon time to see if they will win the pot or continue to be a party that gets a close second place.

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