Ralph Northam shows boring can win

  • Ralph Northam’s win in Virginia’s governor race shows that politics can be more normal again.
  • Northam was criticised and mocked for the way he ran his campaign at times, but he ended up winning by the largest margin since 1985.

Ralph Northam is the most underestimated man in America.

Allegedly, the governor-elect of Virginia ran a hapless, unfocused campaign that didn’t connect with voters on issues they care about.

His ads, saying he’d fight President Donald Trump but also work with him, were mocked for showing a candidate who listened to focus groups too much and who wasn’t showing the fight Democratic voters demanded.

He was supposedly flummoxed by Republican Ed Gillespie’s wedge-issue campaign that pitted immigration activists against swing voters, and we were supposed to understand that his wishy-washy responses about “sanctuary cities” pleased nobody.

Democracy for America, the left-wing campaign group, declared his campaign “racist” and declared its non support (over the public objections of its founder, Howard Dean). Apparent protesters upset about the sanctuary city issue even disrupted his victory speech Tuesday night.)

And then Northam won the widest victory a Democrat has achieved in a Virginia governor’s race since 1985.

I’m not saying that blending in with the wallpaper was the key to Northam’s victory. All I’m saying is it doesn’t appear to have hurt.

“Bedwetting” national Democrats were alarmed that Republicans were bringing the culture war and Northam didn’t seem to be responding in kind.

But ads about sex offenders and mailers about MS-13 are not some sort of ultra-powerful jiu-jitsu move Republicans can use to win elections at will, unless shamed out of it on the grounds of alarmism or racism.

In some cases, they’re just the sign of a flailing candidate who doesn’t have a compelling pitch about what he’ll do if he runs the government.

If the exit polls are right, the median Virginia voter agreed more with the Republican Gillespie than with Northam about the issue of Confederate monuments. They just didn’t care very much.

They liked Northam’s pitch better on healthcare. They weren’t that motivated by Gillespie’s promise of a tax cut. And, as is often the case, they were inclined to vote against the party of an unpopular president.

Northam’s win means, perhaps, politics can be normal again

This election makes me hopeful that, after Trump, American politics can be normal again. Cultural controversies won’t go away, but they can become a lot less central in our politics, as they were less central in Virginia Democrats’ campaigns this year.

Democrats appear to have picked up enough seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates to approximately tie the chamber, and one Democratic pickup on Tuesday tells a neat story about the way our politics are only somewhat consumed by cultural fights.

In Prince William County, Danica Roem is poised to become the first openly transgender person to be elected to and seated in a state legislature.* Roem’s opponent was long-serving Del. Bob Marshall, the state’s self-declared “chief homophobe.” His campaign materials referred to her as a man.

Roem’s campaign was trailblazing, but it was also ordinary. Running in a district beset by heavy traffic, her campaign signs proclaimed that she would “Fix Route 28 Now.” Roem’s election is culturally historic, but Marshall was the candidate who gave the impression of being consumed with the culture war instead of the business of government.

I wrote a few weeks ago that we need to make politics about government again.

State politics have not gotten as bad as federal politics in this regard. States and localities do a lot of direct service provisions, and voters have a pretty good understanding of what these governments are supposed to do. They notice when their local officials are screwing up.

I think Virginia Democrats just showed that Trump hasn’t changed the rules on that. All the Trump distractions — fights over immigration policy issues that are essentially federal, fights over symbolic issues like war monuments — do not have to drive a campaign just because your opponent sends a lot of mail about them.

Government can be boring again. Thank god.

*Althea Garrison was outed shortly after her election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1992 and was not re-elected. Stacie Laughton was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2012 but never took her seat.

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