5 Lessons for Candidates from the Virginia November 2017 Election

What you should learn from Ralph Northam's victory in the Old Dominion

Last Tuesday in Virginia,  Ed Gillespie and Republicans took a serious pummeling at the hands of Ralph Northam and the Democrats. The pundits are all talking about what these results could foreshadow in the 2018 midyear elections. But what does last week’s election in Old Dominion mean to you as a candidate for office?

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First if you’re a Democrat, by every right you should be jubilant at these results. Ralph Northam won the governorship by 9 percentage points — doing better than Hillary Clinton did in Virginia last November.

Democrats also scored major victories in the House of Delegates. Before the Election, they had 34 seats in the 100 seat House.

After Tuesday it could wind up a 50-50 even split for Republicans and Democrats in that legislative chamber, depending on the final result of one close race.

Republicans should absolutely be worried about these results.

Despite the president’s spin on Twitter, these results were to some degree a referendum on Donald Trump.

57% of voters said they disapproved of the job President Trump is doing.

A similar backlash happened to Barack Obama in 2009 in Virginia with a big Republican election there that November preceding the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 201o.

Regardless of whether you are seeking a partisan office or a non-partisan one, there are five key lessons to be learned from the Virginia 2017 Election.

1. Candidates Must Fit Their Constituencies

If you want to run for office and win, the majority of your views need to align with the views of a majority of your votes.

That is an understated yet very big reason why Virginia went the way it did on Tuesday.

Just like John Bel Edwards was in Louisiana, Ralph Northam was a candidate for governor who fit with the voters of Virginia.

He’s an army veteran who twice voted for George W. Bush and opposes Sanctuary Cities.

Yes, that’s Democrat Ralph Northam’s biography not Republican Ed Gillespie’s.

Northam’s left-of-center positions literally took a lot of ammo away from Gillespie and the Republicans, and helped him appeal to independents.

Virginia is a swing state. A candidate too far on the right or too far on the left isn’t a comfortable fit for too many voters.

A candidate whose positions are too far out of line with the voters of a district will have a hard time winning.

That’s one of the reasons Northam worked so hard to tie define Gillespie as a Washington D.C. lobbyist and tie him to trump.

It’s also why Northam at times distanced himself from the farther left members of his party.

Did it infuriate some of Democrats? Yes. Did he win the Election? Yes. And that’s why he did it.

Northam needed his views to fit voters of Virginia, they did, and he won.

His campaign logo pretty much says it all.

2. Top-of-the-Ticket Turnout Can Make or Break You

As a candidate you can almost always control your fundraising, messaging, and how they spend their time and money.

What you can’t control is voter turnout and whose names appear in the top race on the ballot.

Voter turnout is almost always decided by who is at the top of the ticket — contests for president, governor or U.S. senator.

Without such races on a ballot, turnout in an election is much lower.

You can generally concentrate your voter contact activity on high propensity voters. It will be harder to make other voters show up and cast a ballot.

But when there’s a hot race at the top of the ticket, watch out.

People will come out to vote that you don’t expect.

They will often wind up doing three things when they vote:

  1. They will skip your race when filling in their ballots because they don’t make it that far
  2. They vote in your race for a candidate who aligns with their preference at the top of the ticket
  3. They will cast a vote based on many different factors that can be hard to predict.

I’ve had top of the ticket driven turnout both make and break candidates I’ve worked for.

It definitely destroyed plenty of Republicans in Virginia last week as the toss up in the House of Delegates shows.

The intensity in this election was on the side of Ralph Northam and the Democrats.

They overwhelmed Republicans and candidates swept into office on Northam’s coat tails.

And this didn’t happen because Ed Gillespie and the Republicans were watching football instead of doing GOTV last weekend.

As Karl Rove noted in his Wall Street Journal column:

The Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, took about 11,000 more votes than former Gov. Bob McDonnell did in 2009 when Mr. McDonnell won that year’s race with 59%. In fact, Mr. Gillespie won more votes than any Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate in history, yet he netted only 45%.

In 2013 the GOP’s nominee for governor took 45.2%, even though he collected 100,000 fewer votes than Mr. Gillespie did. The difference is that turnout this year was up 16% from 2013. Most of the additional voters were white independents and Democrats in the suburbs who wanted to send President Trump a message.

There’s nothing you can do about the top-of-the-ticket turnout effect, other than hope the voters see you as aligned to the candidate driving it.

That’s why it’s vital that when you’re campaigning that you identify which voters are supporting you and then drive them to vote.

If you’re election is close in such a turnout wave, your IDed supporters could be what helps you win rather than lose on Election Day.

3. Be Willing to Take Tough Positions

Most people believe politicians will say anything to get elected and never take a real stand on anything.

This is a widely held belief because too many candidates fear that if they take a controversial position on an issue they will lose.

Let me dispel you of that notion right now if it’s one you have.

If taking a position that some consider controversial is fatal, Donald Trump would not be president and Barack Obama would have been a one termer.

Trump took numerous positions that a lot of people didn’t like, including members of the Republican Party.

The Republican Never-Trump movement was born out of those positions, not because they didn’t like his hair.

And in 2012 Barack Obama had to run defending the very unpopular Affordable Care Act, aka “ObamaCare.”

But rather than merely defending it, President Obama owned it. Literally.

When Mitt Romney referred to the law as ObamaCare in a debate, he apologized to President Obama for calling it that.

Obama said he didn’t mind. He said actually liked it.

It took a lot of sting out of the attack and helped Obama win his second term.

In Virginia, Ralph Northam not only took a position on a controversial issues – he went against activists of his own party.

Gillespie attacked Northam for being soft on crime, especially those crimes related to illegal immigration.

This was probably the Republican’s best line of attack against him, as Northam’s strategy seemed to be simply ignore the charges.

But he couldn’t. As the race tightened, it left Gillespie a way to still win.

So Northam declared towards the end of the race and said as Governor he would sign a bill that banned Sanctuary Cities in Virginia.

The hard left group Democracy for America viciously denounced Northam and his position.

The group’s executive director, Charles Chamberlain said:

After seeing Northam play directly into the hands of Republicans’ racist anti-immigrant rhetoric on sanctuary cities, we refuse to be silent any longer and even remotely complicit in the disastrous, racist, and voter-turnout-depressing campaign Ralph Northam appears intent on running.

Yet the issue didn’t hurt Northam. Instead it assured his victory.

Yes, it may have been controversial and inconceivable to some in his party, but it wasn’t seen that way by the voters of Virginia.

By taking this stance even though it generated controversy amongst some Democratic activists, it demonstrated again that Northam’s views aligned with most Virginia voters.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Go Negative

The list of candidates who lose because they don’t go on the attack is long and growing every election cycle.

But you can’t add Ralph Northam to that list.

He went on the attack and defined Ed Gillespie as a Washington Lobbyist who Virginians could not trust.

This ad is simple, clear, and effective.

And labeling Gillespie “Enron Ed” is right out of the Trump Campaign Playbook.  Remember the monikers “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary of the candidates he beat?

I don’t know if you need to go negative in your campaign.  Only you can know that.

(BTW:  If you’re not sure if you should go on the attack, check out 7 Rules for Going Negative.)

But if you’re in a very competitive contest, you can’t be afraid of throwing political punches at your opponents.

If you are, then you’re probably going to lose because your opponent won’t have the same concerns about going negative against you.

Ralph Northam wasn’t and today he’s Virginia’s Governor-Elect.

5. Voters Expect Results

The Virginia election results were not simply that voters preferred Ralph Northam over Ed Gillespie as Governor.

As I mentioned at the start, this was a referendum on Donald Trump’s performance as president.

Exit polls show that 57% of Virginia’s voters disapprove of the job President Trump is doing.

Gillespie and down ticket Republicans paid the price for it.

If things don’t turn around, Republicans running for the House and Senate could take the same beating next November.

Why?  Because voters expect results.

When a candidate promises to do something, believe it or not the voters expect them to do it.

If they don’t, they’ll find someone else for the job. It’s that simple.

Republican voters know that Republicans running for Congress have for seven years pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare.

They also know that they didn’t get it done. That means Republicans may not come out to vote for them next year.

Does that mean Republicans are doomed in 2018?

No.  There’s still several months between now and then, but the election results do reinforce a simple truth.

Voters expect the candidates they vote for to follow through on things they campaign to do.

Having a plan to fix a problem that concerns the voters is essential for a winning candidate.

But as I always emphasize, it must be a plan that voters believe can be turned into action.

If what you’re proposing is not realistic, most voters won’t buy into what you’re selling.

However, if what you’re saying could happen and then you don’t follow through, you will face the wrath of the voters.

Don’t say you’re going to do something in your campaign, then proceed to not do it once in office.

It’s the fastest way to lose an election.

In 1988, George Bush said to his party and the world, “Read my lips, no new taxes.”

In 1990, Bush broke his promise and signed a bill that raised taxes.

In 1992, Bill Clinton reminded everyone of the flip-flop and made Bush a one-term president.

We’ll have to see if Governor-Elect Ralph Northam stands by his Sanctuary City pledge.

If he doesn’t, then in four years we’ll be seeing that play out in Virginia’s governor’s race.