Campaign 2021. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

From the many takes we have heard on what happened in Virginia’s election one month ago, one point is clear: We Democrats failed to inspire.

 Objectively, turnout was at record highs for a gubernatorial election. This was to be expected with 45 days of early voting thanks to Democratic leadership making it easier than ever to vote in Virginia. Republican campaigns realized this benefit and encouraged early voting heavily as well. However, the usual drop-off of turnout in the 2021 election as compared to the 2020 presidential election was twice as steep for Democrats as Republicans. Republicans only experienced a 15% decline in the number of raw votes, whereas Democrats felt a 33% decline in votes this November over last.

In retrospect, a perfect storm coalesced leading to this defeat. First, with the nomination of an establishment candidate for Governor running on his past and not a vision of the future. Second, with an outreach campaign that was late and deficient statewide. Lastly, a message and communication style which did not open the “big tent” Democrats needed to succeed, neglecting rural, black & brown, and progressive voters. One saving grace was the multitude of quality House of Delegates candidates, or else the margin of defeat would have been greater.

What Democrats nationwide can learn from Virginia’s election and how we can move forward:

  1. Trump-centered messaging is lazy. Forget Trump. We must focus on how we will improve the lives of everyday people. 
  2. We must make our case to everyone. Jason Kander writes that sometimes we get caught trying to convince one group, then using a different set of facts with another group. Let’s not make our case to each juror, rather to the entire jury at once, Kander says. Genuinely showing up, listening, and then engaging with anyone who is committed to uplifting our communities will grow our ranks.
  3. We must invest everywhere, including grass-roots quality candidates. Some have framed the election as a battle for the suburbs, taking for granted Democratic bases in cities and writing-off rural areas. Democrats must be the big tent party to succeed, full of coalitions with genuine diverse perspectives and candidates to reflect as much. This means having a constant presence in every corner of the Commonwealth and the Country. If we can raise enough funds for endless TV ads and mailers, we can invest a small fraction of the budget in consistent year-round outreach.
  4. Money is important in winning elections, but there comes a point when it hurts. Google the Law of Diminishing Returns, and there you will find a graph illustrating this point. At first fundraising dollars are critically important to get your message out as a candidate. Then a point is reached where contributions begin to produce less of a return as you can only buy so many TV ads, mail pieces, etc. But eventually the perception of values compromised to raise more and more funds hurts us. We must draw hard lines around our values e.g. never taking donations from fossil fuel interests.
  5. Institutions are vital for our collective success and we must fight for them. This modern party was built on Medicare, Social Security, labor rights, and other big ideas as we believe investing in our societal success means we are inextricably connected.  I believe we can celebrate our American individualism and lift up the whole of us together. Our campaigning and engagement must elevate the belief that our sum is greater than our individual parts. This is the only way for our message to win long-term and for our policies to stick.
  6. Keep basic needs front and center. Maslow’s hierarchy teaches us that if we aren’t providing basic needs and meeting people where they are, tribal identity politics becomes easy as people look to place their frustrations. Hence, we have seen a flare up in racism in recent years as candidates are fueling this division. Meeting these needs can unite us.

Our country is numb to the shock and awe tactics from flamboyant candidates. I run on Truth, Love, and Grit and that is what most voters want to know: are you being honest with them, do you care, and are you willing to work hard for a brighter future for them and their families. Beyond the next bumper sticker slogan, let’s inspire a coalition who believes politics can work for good. Let’s punch holes in darkness together.

Sam Rasoul

Rasoul represents most of Roanoke in the House of Delegates. He is the only Democrat from the House to win in the western half of Virginia in 2021.