The governor’s race in Kentucky may have given the GOP its most satisfying victory of Election Night 2015, but the maintenance of the status quo in Virginia may be the most meaningful. Outside groups poured into the Commonwealth in an attempt to gain Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe more leverage, including the SEIU and Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control activists, who spent more than $2 million on statehouse races. They came up empty, and in the process called into serious question the direction of the Democratic Party and the strategy of its presidential frontrunner:
Republicans held onto the Virginia Senate in fiercely contested elections Tuesday, leaving Gov. Terry McAuliffe without legislative leverage or political momentum as he works to deliver Virginia for his friend and ally Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016.
The outcome was a blunt rebuke to McAuliffe (D), who had barnstormed the state with 24 events over the past four days and who portrayed the elections as a make-or-break moment for his progressive agenda.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly were on the ballot. But all eyes were on a handful of Senate seats that would decide whether Republicans held their 21-19 majority in Richmond’s upper chamber. Because the GOP dominates the House, flipping the Senate was the term-limited governor’s only hope for building a legislative legacy.
Democrats could have taken control by picking up just one seat because of the tie-breaking authority of Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D). But Republicans held all of their seats.
Virginia will be a critical swing state for both parties next year. Until Ed Gillespie nearly dethroned Mark Warner in what would have been the upset of the 2014 Senate midterms, Democrats must have felt rather secure in the Commonwealth. They had both the governor and both US Senators, and could be forgiven for figuring that the state Senate was simply a lagging indicator of a pronounced swing towards Virginia becoming a solidly blue state. The northern Virginia area — called NOVA by Virginians, as opposed to ROVA, the “rest of Virginia” — relies heavily on federal spending and includes a number of the nation’s top counties for median household income on that basis. And with McAuliffe hitting the road hard to push for Democratic control of the Senate, the momentum and the money should have made an impact.
Instead, Democrats ended up with no gains at all. Larry Sabato calls this an important win for Republicans against a Democratic onslaught:
It also thwarts a spare-no-expense effort by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, to gain traction for his legislative agenda as he enters the final two years of his four-year term.
“This is a big, important victory for the state GOP,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “By holding the Senate, they have contained the McAuliffe governorship for its duration. Governor McAuliffe threw everything he had into this but came up short.”
This should have Democrats rethinking their commitment to making gun control a centerpiece for their 2016 campaign. Hillary Clinton released a new ad yesterday that flip-flopped from her 2008 defense of gun ownership, and during the campaign she has hailed the mandatory confiscation of firearms by Australia as a potential policy in the US. The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips wonders why Hillary has suddenly seized on gun seizure, considering that gun control is hardly a high priority — even for Democrats:
In an effort to sew up the primary and motivate her party for the 2016 general election, Hillary Clinton is trying to rally the troops around gun control. But public opinion data suggests it’s still not a huge priority — even in her own party. …
There’s just one problem with Clinton’s tactic: Gun control isn’t yet a proven vote-mover in her party.
In 2014, Democratic-leaning voters told Gallup pollsters that gun policy ranked 10th on their list of “extremely and very important” priorities. Ranked above guns were time-honored Democratic issues such as Social Security and Medicare, the environment and distribution of income and wealth.
A September CNN-ORC poll similarly found gun control ranking toward the bottom of issues Democratic-leaning voters say are “extremely or very important” in the presidential election next year.
Phillips asks whether Hillary can make Democratic voters care more about gun control in the primaries. The better question is whether her push on this issue to gain a momentary edge over a primary opponent who trails Hillary by a significant margin will end up losing Democrats a lot of votes in the general election — and not just in the presidential contest. Democrats didn’t lose any ground in Virginia, but they lost seats that they might have otherwise won with the amount of resources they poured into the state, much of which pushed gun control as an overarching issue.
This shows that Democrats still haven’t learned their lesson from 2014’s midterm disaster. They spent that cycle emphasizing issues that had low priority with voters and ended up losing winnable races across the country, and almost lost the safe Senate seat in Virginia too. Now they want to push issues that don’t even rise into the top five for voters of their own party. If that’s the strategy, then Democrats had better prepare themselves for another big defeat, and not just for the White House.