Blockbuster Virginia Election Should Mean Bigger Risks from Democrats
As Democratic wins started piling up on election night in Virginia, you probably saw the names of a few key winners circulating in social media and the press. But while the victories of Virginia governor-elect Ralph Northam, and Danica Roem, the first transgender person to ever be elected to a state legislature, rightly resonated, one key to understanding Tuesday’s significance could come from a Democrat who lost: Veronica Coleman.
When Ravi Gupta, an Obama campaign alum and co-founder of the progressive incubator The Arena, first got to know Coleman in September, she had precisely zero staff. To boost her bid for a seat in Virginia’s 84th district, The Arena fronted the money to provide three staffers to Coleman’s campaign, which the nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicted would require a “tidal wave” to win. On Tuesday night, Coleman came up short—but still received 48 percent of the vote, in a race that was expected to be a blowout.
For Gupta, Coleman’s loss indicates what he calls a “blue wave” washing over the country as much any one of the Democrats’ many wins, and he believes it sends a clear message to Democratic number crunchers heading into 2018: It’s okay to take more risks.
“There are Veronica Colemans all over this country, who we cannot overlook,” Gupta says, noting that Democrats tend to cluster around candidates who look like sure bets. “If we had supported them a little bit more, maybe we would have gone over the edge in Virginia. It tells me we have an even bigger opportunity than people realize.”
Political targeting is a booming industry, in which party operatives and consultants scrutinize electorate data to maximize their chances of winning. In the run-up to election night in Virginia, momentum began to build around a few key races, with a hodgepodge of grassroots progressive groups devoting time and money to electing candidates like Roem, Elizabeth Guzman, and Jennifer Carroll Foy, all of whom were predicted to have a decent shot at winning. Groups like Flippable, which crowdfunds money for specific state house races, analyzed decades worth of historical election data, and narrowed the list down to five candidates it would support. The group anticipated anywhere from two to eight seats would flip from red to blue. Instead, Democrats flipped 14 seats and counting, pending a handful of recounts.
‘It tells me we have an even bigger opportunity than people realize.’
Ravi Gupta, The Arena
That landslide victory suggests to Catherine Vaughan, CEO of Flippable, that some ahistorical momentum is building within her party, which might warrant Democrats broadening their sights heading into 2018. “We think that we can go deeper, and potentially shift our focus to some of these states and seats that might have been riskier before,” Vaughan says. “This allows us to play a little more on the offense.”
This shift, Vaughan says, may require pulling back the lens a bit to look not only at the numbers in a given district, but momentum in the country as a whole. In some ways, that approach is not unlike that of President Trump’s campaign in the 2016 presidential election. Just days before the election, Trump’s team sent their candidate to Wisconsin and Michigan, despite neither state having gone for a Republican presidential candidate since at least 1988.
The move puzzled members of the press and pollsters alike. But according to Matt Oczkowski, who helped run Trump’s data analytics team, the decision to target these Democratic strongholds stemmed from the campaign’s belief that 2016 wasn’t going to be like other years.
“Political gut intuition plus polling would tell you it’s a difficult state for a Republican to win, but we saw a massive increase in the Rust Belt with older, rural, white voters,” Oczkowski says. “We took early votes and absentee ballot returns and said, ‘This electorate is very different than what people think it is.’ Our version had Wisconsin as a winnable state.'”
The bet paid off, with Trump taking both of these supposed “blue wall” states right out from under the Clinton campaign. Vaughan, a former Clinton staffer, acknowledges the campaign should have paid more attention to those national trends. “A lot of us were breaking up the United States into all these different states and looking at the probability of each one differently, without internalizing that it was all correlated,” she says. Virginia suggests a similar nationwide trend may be building on the left.
Sister District, a progressive group that crowdsources volunteers and donations from Democratic districts to help historically Republican ones, made some unlikely bets in Virginia, and ended up winning in 12 out of the 13 races it supported in the state. Gaby Goldstein, the group’s political director, says that’s because she wasn’t married to the numbers when she was looking at which races to back—including Cheryl Turpin’s.
Turpin, a candidate for Virginia’s 85th district, was categorized as a “reach” for Democrats by the Cook Political Report. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump carried the district. But despite the data, Goldstein knew Turpin had a hidden asset: She had been a high school teacher in the district for 25 years. “The district didn’t look competitive on a spreadsheet, but we knew there were X-factors at play that made it worthwhile,” Goldstein says. “I think that it shows our model works, and that the typical rules are changing.”
This wave not only makes it more possible for longshot candidates to win, it makes it cheaper too. The progressive backlash to Trump’s 2016 campaign yielded a new generation of tech tools focused exclusively on tiny races. VoterCircle, an app that helps candidates’ supporters identify and send personal messages to key voters in their own phone contact lists, offers its services for free to down-ballot candidates. As a result, says Sangeeth Peruri, CEO of VoterCircle, “We’re getting lots of those candidates who are extreme longshots. They can effectively run a freebie campaign.”
Even so, Gupta says it’s critical for those longshot candidates to be able to tap into the groundswell of Democratic support that the Virginia race proved exists—even in unexpected corners of the country. It’s hard for any Democrat to gripe about Tuesday’s results (particularly considering what they went through this time last year), but Gupta says in some of the high-profile Virginia House of Delegates races, Democrats “ran up the score.” Gupta suggests that some of the victors could have performed just as well with fewer resources, while some of the close calls, like Coleman’s, could have turned out differently with just a little more. Virginia, at least, will help data-driven groups adjust those levers.
“We need to deploy resources to the campaigns on the outer edges to find out what’s possible within a wave like this,” Gupta says. “Anybody selling a perfect batting average should probably ask themselves if they were too careful.”