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Opinion: Democrats Could Learn a Lot From What Happened In Virginia

On Tuesday night, Virginia Democrats won their most consequential election in decades. After obtaining a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, Democrats now have a governing trifecta for the first time since 1993. This is no accident. It comes in the midst of a generational political shift that was put in motion years ago. Virginia’s Democrats got where they are today as a result of year-round community organizing and voter engagement.

For decades, Democrats allowed the prize of an Electoral College victory to blind them to electoral opportunities elsewhere, staving off funding and failing to provide meaningful support for candidates, campaigns and local parties in places they had written off as unwinnable. The national Democratic Party spent millions in Virginia this year, but the state wasn’t always such a priority. From its position in the South to its prominent role in America’s legacy of oppression, Virginia was long considered reliably conservative — unbreakable. As recently as six years ago, Republicans controlled the office of the governor and the General Assembly.

Local organizations like mine understood the political potential of Virginia when we got started 12 years ago. We are winning because we recognize the power of an electorate that includes and reflects the diversity of our state. We don’t talk to voters only when campaign season rolls around. We try to reach voters of all colors, women, low-income workers and young people where they are, which has made it possible for us to develop a robust base of support along Virginia’s so-called Urban Crescent, from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads. Long before Election Day, we registered more than 300,000 voters, knocked on more than 2.5 million doors, and organized within communities of color to help win significant policy changes like Medicaid expansion, which covered nearly 400,000 people.

I don’t say this to brag about our organization, but to make the case that this type of year-round organizing can pave the way for victory nationally. The restoration of voting rights provides another example. Virginia’s state constitution bars anyone with a felony conviction from voting until their rights have been restored by the governor. For more than nine years, we organized formerly incarcerated women and men to help them demand that their full civil rights be restored. The former governor, Terry McAuliffe, restored the voting rights of more than 173,000 Virginians during his term, more than any other governor in Virginia’s history. In 2016, of the nearly 20,000 men and women who registered to vote for the first time as a result of the restoration of their rights, a whopping 79 percent voted. They were a key voting bloc in Virginia, the only Southern state that Hillary Clinton won.

Part of the failure of the Democratic Party and many mainstream political organizations in the past has come out of their belief that these communities weren’t worth investing in. But trust is not built overnight. We don’t just sweep in and register voters before an election; we are registering people every day. That work is ingrained in our organization’s DNA. And we talk to people, all year, about issues that are important to them: affordable health care, access to a good education, reforming the criminal justice system, protecting voting rights and making sure our communities have clean air, water and public lands. That is what voters responded to this fall.

But changes in the shape of the electorate and rising enthusiasm among voters can only go so far, without campaign architecture that channels those changes into tangible political outcomes. Democrats can’t view these communities as a means to an end, without building authentic relationships with the people who live there.

Engaging meaningfully with voters of color means talking to tens of thousands of voters to make sure they have the information they need to cast their ballots even after receiving racist Republican campaign communications. It means listening to the changes voters want after a year of having to put up with blackface and sexual misconduct scandals among the state’s top leadership, swastikas and other symbols of hate plastered on the walls of community centers, and KKK recruitment efforts in broad daylight. We didn’t need to persuade voters to embrace our worldview — they were already there on the issues. They just needed to be convinced that their vote mattered. To give one example of how this works in practical terms, in precincts in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, turnout this year increased by 24 percent over 2017.

The lesson here is that Democrats must not write off entire geographies or communities. It took years of organizing and multiple election cycles that resulted in incremental progress for Virginia to reach the point where a Democratic sweep was possible. The same arguments once used to justify chronic underinvestment in Virginia’s progressive potential have been used to undermine the potential of similar states in the South, including other states that saw important shifts Tuesday night, like Kentucky, where the Democratic candidate for governor, Andy Beshear, appeared to beat the Trump-endorsed incumbent, Matt Bevin, in a state the president won by 30 percentage points in 2016.

States don’t become battlegrounds overnight. Democrats and national progressive organizations have the resources to take their case to the people and win, but they have to start early and organize relentlessly. When they lose, they have to stay in place and keep fighting for every political inch they can get. No place is unwinnable forever.

Tram Nguyen (@tramNVM) is the co-executive director of New Virginia Majority.

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