Gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey were solid wins for the Democrats. While it certainly would have been difficult for former Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno to claim the seat given her veteran status of the extremely unpopular Christie Administration, winner Phil Murphy himself is a former CEO of Goldman Sachs. Similarly, Virginia’s Governor-elect Ralph Northam ran on fairly centrist Democratic principles, with a noticeable absence of anti-Trump rhetoric (not to say Northam ever supported, or came close to supporting, President Donald Trump or his policies).
This is to say that two very moderate Democrats locked up important seats, and did so in the era of Trump without platforms relying on anti-Trump sentiments. Two reasons why this should resonate with Democrats, and reflect on midterms to come: First, it might be reasonable to conclude that, like Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid revealed, running primarily on opposition will not be sufficient — Democrats want a new message; second, that if Democrats want to look for wins and rebuild, they’ll need to start more locally — perhaps turning the tide toward an awareness of smaller elections that has been necessary for years.
In an era when the Whigs were fracturing along intraparty divides, the original Republicans came to power and gained prominence in Congress by focusing on mid-level elections; winning local and gubernatorial, working up to congressional, and eventually claiming the presidency. There has always been a value to local elections, and the power local offices hold over the everyday lives of constituencies are often gravely overlooked.
As the Democratic Party attempts to search out new leaders and fresh, compelling platforms (even amid hurdles like Donna Brazile’s revelations and Sen. Al Franken’s scandal surrounding sexual misconduct allegations) they also require wins to energize the base — which is typical for progressive-leaning voters. Without a presidential election coming anytime soon (I assume), voters feeling anxious about the Trump administration have been eager to direct that energy toward any winnable election — former Democratic nominee for Congress Jon Ossoff’s race this summer perhaps being the first, and these recent gubernatorial elections being the most recent. Luckily, this may actually mean local elections are going to get attention from voters who might not otherwise pay attention to them. A bottom-up approach may serve the Democrats better in the long run in the reconstruction of their message than playing the waiting game for 2020.
But for 2018, this may lead Democratic candidates to consider the weight they will attribute to anti-Trump platforms. It seems that opposition to a nativist, nationalist administration of varying degrees of ineptitude is no longer a plus for a candidate, but a bare minimum of Democratic affiliation. In this sense, Democrats will have to find a fresh message, do what Republicans under the Obama administration weren’t able to; gather opposition not only to unfavorable ideas, but actually offer viable alternatives.
As 2018 approaches, Democratic candidates will need to get a clue of what their voters are really looking for — besides a warm body that agrees not to dismantle basic health care. Preserving progressive approaches to social issues is still necessary. I do not believe centrism necessitates compromise on principles grounded in the life and liberty of marginalized groups. However, it does mean the party will need to put serious effort toward forming coalitions with incremental reform in mind, and put money behind candidates who are willing to remember groups who historically voted blue not for social justice and inclusion, but for economic equity, job security and basic protections for Main Street.
Like Northam and Murphy, our new crop of candidates should have progressive goals with the intention of reaching them through achievable, centrist measures. The Democrats no longer boast congressional majorities; the kind of forceful change we observed with the passage of the Affordable Care Act will not be possible in this climate, under this president. During eight years of the Obama administration, Democrats profited from fit leadership and strong roots. Today’s world demands a more nuanced, more sophisticated style of politicking, and hopefully voters will support candidates who have the skill to do so. Either way, news from the East Coast was good. Hopefully, a year from now, more will follow.
Lily Vaughan is a junior majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs Fridays.