The Roundtable is a discussion of news and events among Torchlight staff. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and links have been added after the fact. This conversation took place on November 11, 2017.
Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussion of news and events. This was an election week, with off-off year votes serving as the first test of where the electorate’s mood might be heading in the years to come. While there were votes throughout the country, the elections in Virginia and Alabama dominated the headlines. We’ll start with Virginia, where Danica Roem won election to the House of Delegates as the nation’s first openly transgender woman to reach that level of electoral success, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor’s seat, and the Democrats are a few recounts away from taking control of the legislature. First question for the panel: what’s the significance of these races? Are we seeing a harbinger of Democratic victories to come, something unique and contained to Virginia politics, or something else altogether?
David Schmitz, Junior Managing Editor
I think what is most significant is the turnout and engagement from Democratic voters. It wasn’t just an off-Presidential election, it was an odd-year, no Senators, election. This is supposed to be the wheelhouse of the Republicans, with their vaunted base turnout no matter what election it is. Something is different. Anger and motivation were on the Democrat’s side this time, which should be encouraging for them and frightening for Republicans going forward.
I think you’re right there, Dave. I woke up Tuesday with almost nothing to vote on, and assuming it would be the usual parade of low-turnout, obvious results almost always are. But at the same time I was seeing enthusiasm and engagement from friends and relatives I hadn’t seen before in presidential years, let alone off-off years.
Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor
Like 9/11, Trump’s election was essentially a “teachable moment.” Many Democrats and others who weren’t engaged before seem to have learned their lesson—that they do need to vote, that they need to pay attention to politics and be engaged, and that it matters what party holds power at every level of government. This swing we saw in Virginia is the very welcome result, and I think bodes well for 2018.
Sam Dieffenwierth, Researcher
Well they’re significant, no doubt about it. People don’t normally get so worked up over off-year elections, especially when the offices at stake aren’t that prestigious- “dogcatcher” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Senator”, that’s for sure. However, I’d like to point out that the Virginia elections are kinda of a fluke- when you think Virginia, you shouldn’t think “Lee” and “Richmond”; you should think “Beltway” and “Alexandria”. Ms. Roem’s home district is one of the wealthiest in the country, and it’s populated mainly by Washington staffers and military contractors. At the same time we saw a lot of anger on the Republican side as well- a virtual nobody, Corey Stewart, came within a whisker of beating the Never Trump Ed Gillespie. He lost, which probably kept some of the GOP home. But that anger was still there- even Governor-Elect Northam had to swing right on immigration. I think that if the Democrats can maintain this level of turnout going forward they’ll be in a good place, but they also need to remember to pick the right districts to target- the more urban and wealthy, the better.
Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)
One thing to remember is that Virginia has elections every year, with the gubernatorial the year after the presidential. So while there is generally a falloff (about 70% falling to 40% or so) it isn’t as significant as other states (the least voted election is usually the year before a presidential, when there are no statewide or federal races). It should be noted that the turnout increase was to about 50% (results have not been certified, so I am making an estimate by news reports), so it isn’t like we suddenly did Presidential numbers.
The basic takeaway is that when people actually show up and participate, democrats win, and gerrymandering can be overcome. If we can keep that as the message, I think the effect of this may be long term. Gerrymandering and the like have long been demotivating factors for voters, and now that they see if you participate, you can still win, it may actually turn the tide, and then if we can get more governorship and state houses, it makes things even easier when we make the districts even fairer and more representative.
Sam’s point on local demographics is well taken, but part of the victory comes from people like Danica Roem, who made the race completely local, despite all efforts for others to make it about identity.
I think that transitions us nicely over to Alabama, as deep red a state as they come. Roy Moore beat out the Trump-supported Luther Strange in the Republican primary, only to find himself accused of dating teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Despite the alarming and, frankly, appalling accusations against him, Moore remains in the race, and retains the support of the Alabama GOP. His opponent in the general, Doug Jones, is polling astonishingly well for a Democrat in an Alabama Senate race. Does Jones have a road to actually beat Roy Moore, or are we looking at something like Jon Ossoff in Georgia earlier in the year – a freakishly narrow loss, but a loss nonetheless?
As much as I personally object to every thing Roy Moore stands for, it is still his seat to lose.
It’s Alabama, so democrats would have to be real stupid to call a win anywhere near reliable and safe. However, apparently 80% of the state have heard some version of the allegations, and there is still a month left. The democrats _can_ win it, but they have to be careful that they don’t try to make it about national characters. As far as I can tell, Jones is a pretty good dem, but getting appearances by (for example) Elizabeth Warren probably would not help. A dem taking a seat in Alabama (especially Sessions’ seat) would be a massive indicator that Republicans are in sustained trouble though, rather than a kind of flash in the pan anger.
Do you think that the fact that we have a month left is good or bad? It gives people time to hear about the allegations and have conversations and so on, but the news cycle is fast; do you think there’s a risk of it falling out of the public consciousness? Or is it too serious an accusation to worry about that?
I don’t think there is much chance of that. Everywhere else is going to be talking about it. Even if Fox News never mentions it, it will remain in public consciousness. Which is also an indication of exactly how far their power is. They can bend the truth as far as they want, but can they substitute their own?
I don’t think it’ll fall out of the news cycle – even if the Democrats get sick and tired of repeating it, the Republican establishment will bang that drum ’till the cows come home. The Washington GOP hates Roy Moore. Hates him! Can’t stand him at all. You can see it in the headlines and such- “Senators Run from Moore”, “Republicans Try to Block Moore’s Path”, etc. And the problem is, for both the Mitch McConnell types and the Dems, is that Roy Moore is wildly popular in Alabama. Heck, President Trump threw his weight behind Moore’s opponent and Moore still won. Dating a teen when you’re in your thirties is skeevy but it’s not so uncommon (Jerry Seinfeld did it when he was almost a decade older than Moore) that it’ll sink him. Put me down for a Moore victory; I think this is something that might make Alabama voters turn up their nose but they’ll still be pulling the lever for Moore in December.
It looks like we’re all in fair agreement that Roy Moore probably shouldn’t be a Senator, given that he’s accused of sexual misconduct with underage women, but Doug Jones will have a tough road to walk. What does Jones need to do to give himself a fighting chance?
Jones should be hammering away at his own substantial past accomplishments and continue to remind voters that Roy Moore willingly usurps lawful orders without care for Constitutionality. Before the revelatory accusations, that was to be the plan and it should be what the candidate continues to do. Allow the 4th Estate to do it’s job on anything else.
He definitely needs to keep the race local. Running against Trump won’t work down there, although running on turning Alabama’s reputation around might. As David said, his career and history are great foundations he has been running his campaign on. I don’t have a great grasp of the issues down there, but if he can style himself as the man who goes to Washington to stop the Republicans from raising their taxes to pay for cuts for the wealthy, that should also be effective.
“Turning around Alabama’s reputation” is a risky campaign move. As someone who lived there for a bit they really don’t like that kind of thing! They’re quite proud of their state and to run on “People Think Our State is Dumb” is not a good idea.
I meant more on the “we do not want to be known as a pedophile senator state!”, but again, you would know better than I.
We’re just about up to the end of our time here, everyone. Final thoughts on the recent and upcoming elections?
I’d like to add that the Democratic party should be doing whatever they can—money, volunteers, Obama visits, etc—to win this absolutely winnable race. Even setting aside the child molestation (2017 is the worst year), Roy Moore is a monster with no business being in government, let alone a Senator. It’s a moral obligation for Democrats to stop him from doing so. Because the GOP aren’t brave enough to do it themselves.
Going forward for both Democrats and Republicans, they need to keep their base happy with their candidates while also providing a reason to be energized to vote against the opposition. It’s pretty easy for Democrats at this moment, they have Trump and a litany of incumbent Republicans to run against. For Republicans, they need to figure out how toxic Trump is becoming for their base, for some it’s going to be business as usual, but I suspect for many Republicans, the difficult decision to distance themselves from their current President is going to have to happen sooner rather than later. They also need to stop proposing for elected officials pedophiles and self proclaimed “homophobe-in-chiefs”.
Hopefully, this is an opportunity for greater political engagement over all. If we can keep this amount of participation in off years, and add to it on presidential years, the maps will start to look truly different. As you said, the problem in the past has been democrats don’t vote in off year elections. Well, now we see what happens when Democrats don’t vote, but we also see what happens when Democrats *do*. And winning is way more fun than losing. hopefully, that translates to a new generation of people who realize you can’t get shit done if you do not participate.
I highly agree Chris! I think one silver lining about this era is that it’s going to kill the “both sides are bad” plague of voter apathy. Increased turnout can only be a good thing for our democracy. However, I’d like to point out that no one’s proposing these candidates for elected officials – the people, the voters, are coming out behind them. The old “smoke-filled room” candidates are losing (at least on the Republican side) and in the next few years we’re going to see more and more of the new, more populist candidates that energize the GOP base. The Democrats have the energy and turnout on their side now, but can they keep it up? It’ll be an interesting fight!
An interesting fight indeed, and hopefully one that will, over time, elect some people to do the hard work of good government. That’s all the time we have for the Roundtable this week; thanks as always, everyone, for a lively conversation!
Torchlight’s editorial staff are politically engaged citizens who stepped up to be journalists. (You could, too!) They participate in regular Roundtable discussions and work together to learn and write about the news.