By Paul Ferguson
No matter which side you were on, 2018 was a fascinating election for those who like to observe and study trends. On the local level and in three Virginia Congressional Districts, incumbents were defeated.
President Trump has motivated Democratic and Independent Voters by his policies, demeanor, and ethical questions about him and members of his administration. However, as we saw with Republican Governor Hogan winning re-election in Maryland, President Trump is only one factor that voters considered. Maryland is considered more favorable to the Democratic Party than Virginia. The Maryland results show that defeating an incumbent is a difficult task. The candidate and the message matter—despite political demographics and a particular election year trend.
In Arlington, Matt de Ferranti defeated incumbent County Board Member John Vihstadt. Vihstadt is an independent who previously was active with the Republican Party. Certainly 2018 was a good year for Democratic candidates in urban and suburban areas nationally. However, it would be unfair to say that de Ferranti won only because he was a Democrat. His credentials are solid as a former teacher and an attorney who advised local governments in land use matters. He was one of the most energetic, personable, and thoughtful candidates I have seen over the course of my career.
De Ferranti handled himself well at debates as did Vihstadt. Neither engaged in negative campaigning. Vihstadt stressed that he brought “balance” to the Board. De Ferranti stressed “vision.”
The words “balance” and “vision” can mean different things to different people. For me, balance infers less spending and fiscal caution. Vision means clearly stating your priorities and making sure you have enough funding for your priorities.
When faced with this independent/balance versus Democratic/vision choice, a solid majority of discerning Arlington voters chose Democratic vision over independent balance.
De Ferranti took strong stands on renewable energy, affordable housing and addressing child hunger. He showed a commitment to progressive issues but at the same time stressed that he understood fiscal constraints and the need to solve the persistent commercial office vacancy rate in order to bring in new revenue.
Arlington’s Democratic Party is as energized as I have seen it over the years. Numerous new volunteers, many of them young, were part of Matt de Ferranti’s campaign. This is a good sign for Democratic candidates heading into 2019 when two County Board seats are on the ballot. Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey are both planning on running for re-election. Both have had impressive first terms on the County Board and should be strong candidates for re-election.
In Virginia’s three Congressional races where incumbents were defeated, national Democratic momentum, Trump dissatisfaction, and a weak Republican Senate Candidate, Corey Stewart, were certainly factors. However, each winning Democratic candidate had great credentials and ran impressive campaigns. Each of the three winning candidates were women. Each focused on economic issues.
Abigail Spanberger’s win over David Brat in the 7thCongressional District (Chesterfield, Henrico, Culpeper) was the biggest surprise since the demographics favored the Republican candidate. In my opinion, Spanberger was simply the better candidate. Spanberger was a federal law enforcement agent and former CIA operations officer. She is known as a skilled debater. After the first debate, Brat refused to debate again.
In the 2ndCongressional District, (Virginia Beach, Norfolk area) Elaine Luria defeated Scott Taylor. Elaine Luria was a Navy officer. The incumbent, Scott Taylor, was a Navy SEAL. Both candidates had good backgrounds for this district. Scott Taylor received negative publicity when it was found that members of his staff were gathering signatures for a third-party candidate who might take votes away from the Democrat. Some of the signatures were found to be invalid and the third-party candidate was removed from the ballot.
The 10th Congressional District (McLean, Loudoun, and out to Winchester) is close enough to Arlington that many Arlington Democrats volunteered to assist Jennifer Wexton, who defeated Barbara Comstock. Jennifer Wexton is a Virginia State Senator and former prosecutor. She is an energetic campaigner and fundraiser and she is comfortable speaking and debating. Barbara Comstock was unable to distance herself from President Trump. This District is close enough to Washington, D.C. that there are many federal employees there, including law enforcement, who are concerned about President Trump’s actions and statements. President Trump was clearly a factor in this election.
The Democratic Party in Arlington and Virginia has tremendous momentum heading into the 2019 elections for State Senate, House of Delegates, County Board and Constitutional Officers. The candidates, messaging and organizational intensity will again matter, making the 2019 elections again critical to the future of our county and state.
Paul Ferguson has served as the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Arlington and the City of Falls Church since 2008. He served as a Member of the County Board from 1996-2007.