November 21, 2017/Press

Lessons from Virginia

This month saw a historic election in Virginia as Democrats not only won the governorship by the largest margin in decades but flipped at least 15 House seats and possibly the chamber. That success is evidence that Tuesday wasn’t just about Northam or Gillespie, it was about a broader move within the electorate, one that holds unique insights for North Carolina.

The parallels between North Carolina and Virginia are undeniable. Each has a popular Democratic governor and a gerrymandered, far-right legislature trying to rig the system to stay in power. Each has a growing suburban population turned off by Republican attacks on immigrants and our middle class. Even down to the electorate, the strong link between North Carolina and Virginia holds.


The 2017 Virginia election is largely a story of a rebellion in the suburbs – a once reliable Republican stronghold. Suburban voters rejected the racism and xenophobia coming from the Virginia GOP and D.C.

County 2013 Dem Win Margin 2017 Margin Net
Alexandria +49 +58 +9
Arlington +49 +61 +12
Fairfax Co +22 +37 +15
Falls Church +48 +59 +11
Loudoun +4 +20 +16
Prince William +8 +21 +13


Traditionally blue areas like Northern Virginia weren’t the only ones to see huge Democratic gains. The three largest-population Trump localities (Virginia Beach, Chesterfield, Chesapeake) all went Democratic.

County 2013 Dem Win Margin 2017 Margin Net
Albemarle +19 +29 +10
Henrico +13 +22 +9
Chesterfield -8 +.01 +8
Virginia Beach -2 +5 +7
Chesapeake +3 +9 +8
James City -9 +0.5 +9


Similar Democratic gains in suburban North Carolina will put even the most gerrymandered seats in play. Even more conservative turnout estimates endanger GOP seats in counties like Guilford, Forsyth, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Wake, Pitt, Cumberland, Gaston, Carbarrus, and Harnett.

Bottom line: the GOP has left suburban voters – and suburban Republicans – behind.


The 2017 elections bucked the prevailing political wisdom that non-presidential year electorates are older and whiter, and therefore more Republican. Democratic margins in urban areas and precincts with a strong African-American population swelled.

County 2013 Dem Win Margin 2017 Margin Net
Manassas Park, Precinct 2 +13 +34 +21
Prince William, Kilby +39 +48 +9
Fairfax Co, Westlawn +35 +55 +20
Fairfax Co. Lynbrook +23 +51 +28
Richmond City +57 +65 +8
Norfolk +40 +48 +8
Hampton +38 +44 +6
Newport News +25 +32 +7


We’re already seeing this in North Carolina – the Charlotte mayoral race saw turnout rise by 6 percent compared to 2015, driven largely by African-American communities, while African-Americans in Fayetteville and across the state showed up to vote in municipal elections.

North Carolina’s African-American population is a higher share of the electorate than Virginia (20% in Virginia vs. 22% in NC), pointing to even deeper loses for Republicans in heavily African-American areas such as Fayetteville and Pitt and Guilford counties.


Independent voters broke Democratic in large margins in Virginia, as college educated white voters – men and women – abandoned the GOP over their far-right policies that hurt the middle class.


(New York Times, Associated Press)

According to exit polls, the issue that mattered most to Virginia voters overwhelmingly was health care (39%), followed by gun policy (17%). Democrats won 77% of voters that listed health care as their biggest issue. Even a once reliable GOP wedge issue – gun policy – split voters 49%/49%.

Republicans’ racist, anti-immigrant tactics focused on cultural issues like sanctuary cities backfired, driving communities of color to the polls and turning away independents. And their focus on raising middle class taxes to cut taxes for the wealthy similarly tanked. White female college graduates – which split evenly in the 2013 governor’s election – went Democratic by 16 points.

Voter 2016 Dem Win Margin 2017 Margin Net
White college graduate women +8 +16 +8
White college graduate men -14 -8 +6


NC Republicans have shown on health care and tax cuts they’re no different from national Republicans. The top state Republican called ACA repeal “good policy” while NC GOP refuses to expand Medicaid, despite a hospital in Sen. Berger’s backyard going bankrupt. On taxes, they willingly lashed themselvesto the national issue, which middle class voters disapprove of and which 61% of Americans say would mainly benefit the wealthy.

The toxic national GOP brand is already threatening down ballot candidates. White women voters in New Hanover recently reported regretting voting for Trump. One voter warned she “might be voting to drain the swamp some more.”

With similar trend lines, Democratic gains with college educated white men and women will leave the GOP with a small – and shrinking – base.


Virginia was the first test of politics in the Trump era. Democrats showed a strong and growing base, making inroads in traditionally Republican voters turned off by GOP “culture warriors” and policies that hurt the middle class. Meanwhile, Republicans retreated into scare-tactics and negative partisanship.

A toxic national GOP brand and continued policies that rig the system against our middle class like sabotaging our health care system and cutting taxes for the rich will only compound a challenging political environment for NC Republicans. That political environment is already forcing early retirements for GOP members, a trend likely to continue as we get closer to the filing deadline.

The momentum and grassroots support and enthusiasm are undeniably at Democrats’ back. The North Carolina Democratic Party, with Governor Cooper’s leadership and through our joint Break the Majority partnership, is confident that we can break the Republican supermajority.