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Does it even matter who Democrats nominate to run for Virginia governor?

Let’s assume a Democrat is elected governor of Virginia in November. What can Ralph Northam or Tom Perriello actually achieve in the next four years?

democrats republicansFor the answer to that, look at what Terry McAuliffe has been able to accomplish as his four-year term wraps up.

Yeah, nothing.

OK, so McAuliffe diehards – I’m sure they exist – will point to his successes in pushing economic development projects. As the editor of a Virginia-centric news website, I get press releases practically every day touting projects bringing jobs and investment to the Commonwealth.

Which is of course great news, but I’ve been the editor of this news website for 15 years, and I’ve been getting these type press releases from governor’s offices touting jobs and investment dating back, oh, about 15 years.

So while McAuliffe would love you to remember him as the economy governor, what he really tried to hang his hat on was being the governor who was able to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls to extend coverage to more than 400,000 Virginians without healthcare insurance.

         

Why he failed is why it really doesn’t matter much whether Ralph Northam or Tom Perriello gets the Democratic Party nomination to run for governor in November.

Republicans hold a slim 21-19 majority in the State Senate that can’t be overcome until the next round of Senate elections in 2019. I agree that it’s odd that we don’t stagger the terms to have half the seats up every two years, but that’s part of the quirkiness of our system here in Virginia, and not nearly as quirky as electing a new lame-duck governor every four years.

The House of Delegates is a different matter entirely. In a state with two Democrats in the United States Senate, Democrats holding the three statewide offices, and Democrats as winners at the presidential level in each of the past three cycles, we have a near veto-proof majority for Republicans in our lower legislative chamber – a 66-34 advantage for the GOP.

You can decry the fairness of gerrymandering all you want, but reality is, the House is property of the Republican Party of Virginia, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Best case scenario for Northam or Perriello, then, is that they get a majority in the Senate in the 2019 elections, and have a small amount of leverage on the House in their final two years.

But as we saw with McAuliffe, who had what was effectively a majority in the Senate in his first year and a half, with a 20-20 tie in the Senate and Northam as lieutenant governor able to break ties in the Dems’ favor, he still wasn’t able to get done what he wanted to get done.

Democrats, at best, dating back to Mark Warner’s term from 2002-2006, have been reduced to playing defense on public policy.

And for this, Republicans deserve credit. When they first gained small majorities in the General Assembly in the late 1990s, heading into the 2001 redistricting, they dramatically redrew the district lines to their benefit.

They then furthered their objectives in that respect in the 2011 redistricting, which is how it is that we live in a state that regularly votes D at the statewide level and somehow has a nearly two-thirds majority for the Rs in the House of Delegates.

You could call this the Republican firewall, because that’s how it’s worked over the course of the first two decades of the 21st century.

The most Democratic governors have been able to do is cut deals with Republicans, aside from touting their hard work in getting jobs and investment into the state.

Which brings us back to Northam and Perriello, who are in the endgame of their battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, emphasizing their strengths vis-à-vis their opponent’s weaknesses, promising decisive actions on various and sundry public policies.

None of it means anything, when it comes down to it.

If you like Northam because you think he’s more likely as a centrist Democrat to be able to strike deals with Republicans in the General Assembly to get things inching in the right direction, good on you.

If you prefer Perriello because you think he’s more progressive and will battle Republicans to move the axis further to the left by the time his four years are up, good on you.

Just keep in mind, the most important role that either will play will be in the 2021 redistricting, and that the impact there won’t be felt until 2025 or 2027, at the earliest, assuming Democrats can figure out between now and then that they need to start building a bench of House candidates across the Commonwealth, and following through in 2021, 2023 and beyond.

My apologies in advance to fellow Democrats who have read this and feel like they’ve been punched in the kidneys, but yeah, this is an 8- to 10-year process that we’re in right now, no matter who you vote for in next month’s primary.

Column by Chris Graham

 
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