On November 5, Virginia Democrats captured control of both chambers of the state’s General Assembly for the first time since 1993.
This victory didn’t happen overnight.
As New Virginia Majority co- executive director Tram Nguyen wrote in the New York Times the morning after the election, getting to this point took 12 years of year-round organizing, registering 300,000 people of color, and young people. Her organization knocked on 2.5 million doors and organized with the communities to win Medicaid expansion in 2018 and the restoration of voting rights to those with felony convictions. They focused on youth, people of color, and the formerly incarcerated: all groups they knew Democrats would ignore.
What’s more, Black women’s votes translated into a win for Democratic governor Jeremy Northam and other top state elected officials. Ninety-one percent of Black women voters cast a ballot for Northam, the most of any group; white men and women only chose the incumbent between 36 and 48% of the time. And, as Nguyen noted in her editorial, voter turnout in Northern Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capital surged 24% over 2017.
She the People held a town hall with New Virginia Majority and other partners in May, just weeks before the primary. We highlighted the leadership by women of color in an environment where we are often ignored or overlooked, and the effort to organize in the shadow of scandals in which top Democrats were exposed for wearing blackface or accused of sexual assault.
I spoke with Tram earlier this year about what was at stake in the election. “We have the power,” she told me. “We’ve always had the power. But … we have the power to reshape the political landscape here in Virginia. Women of color voters, I think, will be the margin of victory” in many of the state’s electoral races to come.
Tram foresaw what could and did happen in Virginia—and the Democratic sweep will have national implications. Now that Virginia Democrats have the majority, there is a world of possibilities, starting with the state ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). With the House Judiciary Committee removing the obstacle of a ratification deadline and Virginia turning blue, that U.S. constitutional amendment is moving closer to reality.
But when we talk about Virginia, the game-changing work of the New Virginia Majority and Tram Nguyen’s leadership should be front and center. She and her organization believe in and organize with communities of color. Its coalition built trust over time and stood strong for progressive issues. Now, Virginia has a Democratic trifecta.
There is a powerful lesson for the Democratic Party, its donors, campaign consultants, pundits, and the would-be experts: Do not write off entire communities. Don’t throw up your hands at the seemingly long odds of winning in a battleground state.
We need a long-term plan. Women of color are the leading experts in this effective model of organizing, and they are also the voting bloc that can lead a multiracial coalition to victory. Leaders like Tram will determine the result of the presidential election in every single battleground state, and we have enough time—12 months left—to go all in on this winning strategy.
In Georgia, Nse Ufot leads the New Georgia Project Action Fund, which was a critical force behind the unprecedented turnout in the 2018 midterm election. For years, she and her team have registered half a million Georgians of color in all the state’s 159 counties. Their turnout operation in rural, urban, and suburban corners is second to none. They narrowed the Democratic vote gap in Georgia, bringing the state within 99,000 votes of Democratic control—even with rampant cheating and voter suppression tactics from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who oversaw massive purging of voter rolls that worked to his electoral advantage in his contest against Stacey Abrams. Ufot and her colleagues have been playing the long game, and the battle for the White House—and the electoral votes—will likely come down to Georgia and a handful of other states.
In Texas, Michelle Tremillo runs the Texas Organizing Project, which is behind key wins in district attorney, legislative, and judicial races—especially in the Houston area. Texas is now a battleground state, thanks to their long-term efforts with a powerful block of women of color who turn Texas blue.
It’s clear that the tides are changing, and Democrats need to change with them. The most powerful, strategic, effective, and intelligent move right now is to fully invest in the organizing and vote of women of color—especially in the swing states. It sets us all up to win our justice politics, and it is such a departure from 2016.
We need a strategy that doesn’t just rehash the Republicans’ Southern strategy, which handed over the fate of the nation to conservative white voters. Democrats need to stop squandering their resources and energy on trying to win over Trump voters—and for that matter, white moderate voters seduced by fear, racism, and victimhood. The Democrats have not won the white vote nationally in many decades, and studies show Trump supporters are largely unmovable.
Instead, let’s focus on engaging women of color in contestable states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Concentrating on women of color will break the lock that conservative whites have had on U.S. politics and will coalesce the electoral power of the New American Majority.
Why do women of color matter so much? Here are the facts: In the 2016 election, the estimated number of women of color who did not vote in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin far exceeds Trump’s victory gap, according to voter data.
Take Michigan. Trump narrowly carried Michigan, finishing with about 10,700 votes more than Hillary Clinton. Approximately 800,000 women of color in Michigan were eligible to vote in the last presidential election, based on the American Community Survey. Yet only around 60 percent actually turned out to vote, according to a recent analysis of voting trends of Current Population Survey. Had the women of color turnout been a few percentage points higher, Clinton would have carried the state. The Democrats can carry Michigan this time around if they pour adequate financial resources and political capital into turning out the women of color vote.
Americans in general do not vote in high numbers, but women of color—particularly Black women—have the highest voting turnout rates of any race and gender. The old strategies of going to communities of color a month before the election, promoting mediocre candidates who don’t speak to our hopes and dreams, and running culturally incompetent campaign swill not suffice anymore. When inspired, women of color vote. When a multiracial coalition leads on our issues, when organizing builds trust over time, we vote.
And when our turnout at the polls have been above average over the last decade, Democrats have won. When our turnout lags behind the national average, Democrats lose. This point is further underscored by the fact that women of color are steadily increasing our share of the electorate. “Ahead of the Majority: Foregrounding Women of Color,” a joint report from the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund and the Groundswell Fund shows that women of color’s voter registration rate jumped 25 percent since 2008.
The strategy is clear: The Democratic presidential campaign that focuses its platforms and policies on the issues that women of color care about most like health care, immigration, and creating a more inclusive economy, will inspire us to go to the polls in November 2020.
Let me also be clear: I am not arguing that women of color will win every state for the Democrats. They helped flip Virginia, and we will be the difference makers between winning battleground states and four more years of Trump.
Women of color are ready.