Virginia may foretell a brighter future for Dems

Northam: I hope to win your confidence
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Story highlights

  • Steve Israel: Virginia has long been a reliable gauge of the political wave of the nation in the year after a presidential election
  • The impact of Tuesday's Democratic victory goes far beyond 2018, as it opens the door to leveling the redistricting playing field

Former US Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. His next book, "Big Guns," will be released in April. This piece is one in a series of columns for CNN Opinion on life after Congress. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Dispirited Democrats received an early Christmas gift Tuesday with the election of Ralph Northam as governor of Virginia. In an American political ritual, the same Democrats who were prepared to treat a loss as irrelevant are now portraying their win as earth-shattering. Meanwhile, Republicans who couldn't wait to frame their victory as a sweeping affirmation of the entire Trump agenda now treat the defeat of Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chair, as a political asterisk.

But Virginia state elections offer a real historical precedent. In volatile political environments like the one we're now in, Virginia has curiously become a reliable barometer of a national political wave in the year following a presidential election.
    Steve Israel
    It's not that Virginia is a bellwether, it's that it's Cassandra on the Potomac. It forecasts future elections, but its warnings are usually unnoticed.
    Take heed, fellow pundits and prognosticators:
    In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States. In 1993, Republican George Allen became governor of Virginia. In 1994, Newt Gingrich led House Republicans to win 54 seats and take the House majority for the first time in decades.
    In 2004, George W. Bush was re-elected President of the United States. In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine was elected Virginia Governor. In 2006, House Democrats picked up 31 seats to capture the House majority.
    In 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell became Governor in Richmond. In 2010, House Republicans won 63 seats and recaptured their majority.
    Virginia's prescience doesn't hold every year. But it's been the frothing tip of every wave election in the past 25 years. And right now, I suspect there are plenty of House Republicans looking for the high ground of retirement.
    Virginia's Tuesday election has implications far beyond 2018. Every 10 years, states engage in congressional redistricting. (Full disclosure: I'm a strategic adviser to the Democratic Governors Association, which is working to advocate for the election of governors, who have a key voice in that process). Depending on the state, the party that controls the government draws the squiggly congressional maps designed to elect House members of the same party for the ensuing decade.
    Republicans did a brilliant job of defeating almost 1,000 Democratic governors, state legislators and other local officials after 2008. They took control of redistricting and built a firewall against House Democratic gains. That process -- used by both parties -- is why Congress is so polarized today. Redistricting is a perverse take on that old song, "Hokey Pokey:" you put your right foot in, you take your left foot out.

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    That was certainly true in Virginia in 2011 -- where Virginia's Republican governor signed congressional and legislative maps that have since been struck down as illegal racial gerrymanders by the courts. Under those 2011 gerrymandered maps, Democrats in Virginia held just 3 out of 11 Congressional seats in 2016. After the US Supreme Court invalidated Virginia's congressional map, Governor McAuliffe refused to sign redrawn lines that were not fair, resulting in the intervention of the courts and a new map that netted Democrats one seat.
    The Democratic victory in Virginia sets the stage for leveling the redistricting playing field that's so advantaged Republicans.
    The legendary Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." In the case of Virginia, local politics is national.