Virginia Shows That Centrist Democrats Can Move a State Left

Ralph Northam has gone from being the object of widespread demands for his resignation to quite the progressive legacy. Photo: Steve Helber/AP/Shutterstock

In all the discussions of intraparty strife among Democrats, and the consequences of progressives or centrists having the whip hand, it’s often forgotten that the party as a whole is significantly more united, and progressive, than it was not so very long ago. A good example of the change in the weather is in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where Democrats under the leadership of centrist Governor Ralph Northam are making quite a bit of history.

The big headlines have come from successful efforts to expand Medicaid — which happened in 2018, even with Republicans narrowly controlling both Houses of the legislature — and the more recent passage of a batch of gun-control bills that spurred angry armed protests but no backsliding among Democrats who now control the governorship and the legislature. Given the extremely narrow margins of Democratic control that made any defections potentially fatal, it was also notable that this year Democrats repealed an assortment of abortion restrictions that used to routinely draw some bipartisan support, including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and an ultrasound and counseling requirement.

But perhaps the most remarkable recent achievement of Virginia Democrats has been in an area where the Commonwealth was arguably the most reactionary jurisdiction in the country for over a century: voting rights. This year the legislature passed, and Northam signed, legislation allowing no-excuse absentee voting and the option of permanent registration as a by-mail voter; making Election Day a state holiday; expanding opportunities for in-person early voting; creating same-day and automatic voter registration; and repealing GOP voter-ID requirements. These are all historic changes from Virginia’s tradition of building potholes on the road to the ballot box.

Beyond that, Northam continued his Democratic predecessor Terry McAuliffe’s practice of thwarting Virginia’s atavistic constitutional ban on voting by ex-felons via executive clemency.

All in all, for a governor who was battling widespread Democratic calls for his resignation just over a year ago (in conjunction with the revelation that he had appeared in blackface during medical school), Northam has quite the record. Without question, it was made possible by a slow evolution toward progressive political stances among Virginia Democrats coinciding with the first Democratic “trifecta” (control of the governorship and both legislative chambers) since the brilliantly eccentric and sometimes conservative Doug Wilder was governor in 1993.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argues that the progressive makeover Virginia is undergoing this year is the product of the same rise in Democratic voting in the Commonwealth’s large suburbs that got so much attention in the last few cycles:

Northam’s outsize 2017 victory came at a moment when anti-Trump and “resistance” fervor was white-hot. That win was fueled by Northam’s better-than-expected college-educated-white support and surging turnout in the fast-evolving Northern Virginia suburbs — portending trends that drove the 2018 Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives …

Then came the full Democratic takeover of the state legislature in the 2019 election, which was driven by more success in the suburbs, including around Richmond, building on those anti-Trump trends.

The conventional wisdom would suggest that a centrist Democratic hegemony built on upscale suburban swing voters might produce tepid, status quo–oriented leadership. That doesn’t seem to be happening in Virginia:

It’s often debated whether reliance on the suburbs could undercut just how progressive the party can get. But one thing we’re already seeing now is that those gains are helping to reverse the real-world policy damage that the last decade’s right wing resurgence brought about.

It’s a hopeful sign of what a Biden administration might accomplish nationally if it takes power in conjunction with a Democratic Congress.

Virginia Shows That Centrist Democrats Can Move a State Left