Establishment Democrats have long believed the mantra that electoral victory runs through independent voters, and that appealing to these voters requires them to distance themselves from their base. That might or might not have been true during the era of Clintonian triangulation, but those days are long past.
The nation’s demographic changes have almost exclusively benefited Democrats — from the rapid growth of the Latino and Asian communities and the growing secularization of our society to the increased number of single mothers and the dramatic size of the millennial generation (95 million strong, compared to 78 million baby boomers). And rather than attempt that “rebranding” thing they talked about so much earlier this year, Republicans decided to dive into Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s toasty warm ideological cocoon.
But no matter how much Republicans alienate core Democratic groups, Democrats have a long history of doing the same, afraid of embracing their base lest they suffer some sort of punishment at the ballot box. It’s why the Democratic Party generally lags its base on key issues — from opposing the Iraq War to marriage equality — that would otherwise line them up with public opinion. Sometimes, the Democratic Party never catches up, as on the public health insurance option or Medicare for All. But Democrats have reluctantly evolved on myriad issues over the last decade, all of which have better aligned them with the party base and public opinion — in marked contrast to what the Tea Party is doing to the GOP.
This is why the Virginia governor’s race is providing liberals with validation. While Democrat Terry McAuliffe is not personally appealing, his campaign is another story — it’s muscularly liberal, from his support of marriage equality, an assault weapons ban and an immigrant-friendly immigration approach to limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired plants. None of this would be noteworthy if McAuliffe were running in a blue state like Maryland, but in a traditionally conservative and currently purple state like Virginia?
McAuliffe’s camp crunched the numbers and clearly realized it was better off activating core Democratic voters than trying to woo the blue-collar white voters they lost long ago. And by appealing heavily to base liberals, a funny thing happened: according to The Washington Post’s final poll of the race, independents have flocked to McAuliffe — from 36 percent support a month ago to 47 percent this week. Meanwhile, Tea Party darling rival Ken Cuccinelli dropped from 39 percent to 36 percent. Given a clear contrast, even independents are opting for the liberal.
Virginia is important for another reason. With Hillary Clinton poised for a 2016 presidential bid, some liberals worry that she will rehash her husband’s tired 1990s playbook. But few people are more closely aligned with the Clintons than McAuliffe. If he wins easily next week, as the polls say he will, it will give her future campaign clear evidence that a new era has arrived, one that assumes Reagan Democrats are gone and it’s OK, because they’re no longer anyone’s path to victory.
Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.