Ralph Northam's big win for the Democratic party in the Virginia governor's election is being hailed as a "rebuke of President Trump." But it's also a rebuke of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The race, which was called a "bellwether" and a "must win" for Democrats, is a teachable moment for Democratic party operatives heading into 2018. But the race appeared to stay close the whole time, with RealClear Politics rating it a "toss up" less than a week away from the vote. So what helped Northam pull it out?
Most analysts in the media have focused on the campaign tactics employed in the race, especially when the campaign for Ed Gillespie, the Republican, took a Trumpist turn and decided to demonize immigrants, defend Confederate monuments, and portray Northam as soft on crime. But the Virginia race suggests candidates running in swing states will have to get the issues right rather than the rhetoric.
In state and local elections education is a top issue, sometimes the top issue. Education is the number one or two priority in most city, county, and state budgets and is a concern for literally every single voter, including adults with no school-aged children who pay taxes to support local schools and rely on the quality of those institutions to bolster their property values and anchor their neighborhoods.
In the Virginia governor's contest, education was the voters' "top concern," according to at least one poll.
Education became a strong theme for both candidates in the campaign, with Democratic supporters of Northam frequently tying Gillespie to DeVos, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten calling him "a clone of Betsy DeVos."
But Northam differed significantly from Gillespie on the issues as well as the image. Northam generally disagreed with Gillespie's call to expand the number of charter schools in the state and favored instead more investment in traditional public schools. Northam also opposed Gillespie's proposal for education savings accounts that allow parents who pull their children from public schools to direct that funding to private school tuition or other "education expenditures."
As a result, Northam was backed by teachers unions while Gillespie got financial backing from the DeVos family – who expect their lavish cash donations to Republicans to result in support for charter schools and voucher programs that send public money to private schools – and from conservative groups, including those backed by the Koch brothers, that pounded on Northam for his opposition to "school choice."
So education was a defining issue in the race, and where the candidates stood mattered a lot. But it's also important to note Northam got education right not only by differing from Betsy DeVos but also by distancing his views from some views held by Democrats too, especially those Democrats aligned with leftover policy ideas from the Barack Obama presidential administration.
As Virginia-based parent and education activist Rachel Levy observed during the Democratic primary contest between Northam and his rival Tom Perriello, Northam had "a record of supporting public education in Virginia," while Perriello seemed to be content to simply align his views on education policy to those were held over from the Obama presidential administration. Big mistake.
After Northam's primary contest victory, Levy wrote for The Progressive, "Perhaps like so many Democrats, Perriello hasn’t spent much time getting to know the issue … His loss reflects a disconnect between public education defenders and otherwise-progressive politicians who have not yet gotten the memo that defending public schools is a key value for progressive voters."
So to a great extent, Northam took on DeVos and her policy ideas by "breaking from Barack Obama," writes Graham Vyse for New Republic. "Northam represents a distinct departure from Obama’s emphasis on charter schools, support for high-stakes standardized tests, and tense relations with teachers unions," Vyse explains.
Calling Northam's victory in Virginia a clear indicator of the Democratic Party’s shift on education may be "premature," as Vyse says. "But with DeVos making 'school choice' like charters and private school vouchers increasingly toxic for Democrats, there’s certainly room for a stronger defense of public education on the left."
Northam made the stronger defense and did so by departing from Obama's education orthodoxy. And he won partially because of that. Now who's next?