With all due respect to the gubernatorial candidates who won their elections on November 7th, there can be no doubt that their road to victory was paved, in part, by voter’s rejection of Donald Trump and Trumpism. The president wasn’t on the ballot, but his presence was felt by an energized electorate intent on sending him a message of rejection.
Much attention, of course, was focused on Democratic wins in the high-profile contests for governor in Virginia and New Jersey. The margins of these victories were larger than expected and were correctly attributed to the striking unpopularity of President Trump in both states. In both, polls showed that twice as many voters said that they cast their vote as a message “against Trump” as did those who said their vote was a message in support of the president.
Exit polls in Virginia also showed that 47% of voters “strongly disapproved” of Trump, with one-half of those who voted for the Democratic candidate for governor, Ralph Northam, saying that opposition to the president was what motivated their vote.
Much the same was true in New Jersey where opposition to the president was even stronger with 54% saying they “strongly disapproved” of Trump. Compounding the Republican’s problem in that state was the fact that the current GOP governor was even more unpopular than the president.
Dealing with Trump’s strong negative ratings proved to be a dilemma for the Republican gubernatorial candidates as they attempted to keep their distance from the White House while at the same time trying not to alienate the president’s shrinking, but still fervid, support base. For example, Virginia’s Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, did not invite Trump to campaign with him. Nevertheless, his TV ads echoed the president’s themes of white supremacy and fear of immigrants. In one ad, Gillespie attacks Northam for supporting the effort to remove the state’s confederate monuments, using the line “Ralph Northam wants to tear down history while making life easier for illegal immigrants”. This appeal to fear and xenophobia was rejected by Virginia’s voters.
As important as the governor contests might have been, even more significant were the down ballot contests won by Democrats. They tell the real story of this year’s election.
In states and cities across the US, important victories were won by a remarkably diverse group of candidates who, each in their own way, had to overcome their opponents’ appeals to fear or bigotry. Their victories not only deal a blow to the appeal of Trumpism, they will help to redefine the American political landscape for years to come.
Across Virginia, at least 14 Democrats unseated incumbent Republican state legislators. Because the results in five additional contests are so close that ballots must be recounted, Democrats are close to retaking control of the legislature for the first time in many years.
The stories of the 14 victors are impressive. Two are Latina women, one of whom is half Arab American. They are the first Latina women to win in Virginia. They and several others among their victorious colleagues won despite being targeted for their support for immigrant rights. Another of the women who won is remarkable not only because she is the first transgender person to win in Virginia, but because she defeated the number two ranking Republican in the state—a man who was the leading opponent of transgender rights and an Islamophobe, as well. It should be noted that two other Arab Americans also won in Virginia.
In northern New Jersey a Sikh won as mayor of Hoboken—the first of his faith to hold an office in New Jersey. An Asian American and Indian American won elections in Edison, New Jersey despite ads that threatened to deport “foreigners” like them.
Across the country, Arab Americans, both Christian and Muslim, fared quite well. In an era where Arab-baiting and Muslim-baiting have become worrisome phenomena, every Arab American victory represents another nail in the coffin of bigotry and intolerance.
In Michigan, Arab Americans retained control of Dearborn’s City Council and gained a seat in nearby Dearborn Heights. Arab Americans also won in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Georgia, Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota (where Somali Americans are making rapid progress entering the political mainstream).
In many instances, these Arab Americans, like the Asian and Latino candidates had to overcome negative advertising campaign that targeted them for their ethnicity (or religion) or for being “soft on immigration or terrorism”. And yet, even with this, they won.
The bottom line is that the American electorate appears to have turned a corner in 2017. A decisive majority sent a message that not only have they turned away from the president, but they also reject the fear and division he exploited in order to win last year.