On Not Beating the Odds


Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District makes no damn sense. Shaped like a wizard’s hat, it stretches from its wide base at the state’s southern border and winds up nestling against the DC metro area in the north. It occupies a huge slice of the middle of the state, is more than 200 miles long, and contains more than 700,000 people, 65 percent of whom live in rural areas.

Smack in the middle of the district is Charlottesville. Charlottesville is what people who speak in clichés call a “liberal enclave,” a spot of blue in a red sea, and so on. Its biggest employers are the University of Virginia and the local hospitals. Despite its infamy as the place where the Unite the Right protests happened, and where Heather Heyer was killed, people here are quick to tell you that the chino-wearing race war virgins responsible for its national notoriety are not representative of the city in the least. Eighty percent of its voters went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Fifth has been represented by Republicans since 2002, with the exception of Democrat Tom Perriello, who was barely elected in the Obama landslide of 2008 and was defeated in the Tea Party landslide of 2010. Going into Tuesday’s midterms, FiveThirtyEight gave it an 87 percent chance of being represented by Republicans based on historical patterns; the site also said that Virginia’s current map gave Republicans a 14 point advantage in the state.

This is all to say that Leslie Cockburn, a former journalist and the 2018 Democratic nominee for Congress in the district, faced an uphill battle. Last night, she lost that battle to Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner and possible Bigfoot erotica enthusiast. She earned 46 percent of the vote, five more points than the last Democratic nominee in 2016 and 11 more points than the 2014 candidate. She came pretty damn close, but she couldn’t overcome the odds.

Her race was also seen as something of a bellwether for the rest of the midterms. Chuck Todd called it a “tsunami-watch” race, saying that if it had flipped, it would be “something we’ve never seen before on the Democratic side.” Though Democrats took the House, and won the popular vote by 7 percent, it was not the Big Blue Wave many had hoped for. It was not something we’ve never seen before; it was a familiar tale of toil and defeat. It wasn’t magic. It was life.

On Election Day, I joined Rob, a Cockburn campaign volunteer, as he spent the afternoon knocking on doors in Charlottesville. Rob is a deeply likable man, who moved back to Charlottesville in 2017, after 15 years in the Tetons. He’s a production manager at the brewery where the Cockburn campaign held its election night party. His son Cormac was a field organizer for the campaign, and we picked up his high school-age son from a phone banking shift.

As we went door-to-door in the rain, he explained that the list of doors he had to knock should be all definite Cockburn voters, and he would ask whether they had a chance to vote yet. (It was better, he said, to ask whether they had a chance to vote yet rather than asking outright if they did vote, which puts people on the defensive.)

In four hours of canvassing over two neighborhoods, only one person who answered the door—a majority weren’t home, since it was the afternoon on a work day—said they hadn’t voted yet. Many said they had been first thing in the morning; one resident told us that, at 9:30 that morning, he had been the 1,600th voter at his polling place. In fact, so many people had already voted that Rob wondered if his list was wrong—he shouldn’t be talking to people who vote in every election, he said, because they don’t need the push.

Many of the houses had signs indicating their support for Cockburn or other progressive policies; I saw several of those “we’re glad you’re our neighbor” signs that sprang up after Trump’s election. There were lots of smiley young families; almost every house we visited had a dog that desperately wanted us to either pet them or die. One neighborhood was comprised of new-looking McMansions, with cavernous garages and beautiful views of the hills around Jefferson’s Monticello, lit up blood red in the post-rain sunset. Even there, among mostly white people who clearly made six figures—usually an extremely Republican demographic—there were plenty of Cockburn signs. Most were enthusiastic about Cockburn, too, and many thanked Rob for working on the campaign. One guy sarcastically told us he had written in Ted Cruz and Dana Rohrabacher.

I asked Rob what kind of issues people had said were important to them, as he had gone door-to-door in the weeks leading up to the election. Almost all of them said healthcare, he said. Cockburn supported Medicare for All, but other major issues dominated the campaign, too, most notably the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed fracked gas pipeline which Cockburn opposed. Her website said the state’s rural areas are “vulnerable to the schemes of large, out-of-state corporations that despoil the land without a stake in the consequences.” Denver Riggleman also opposed it—because it would run through his land.

Rob was remarkably diligent and thorough in his canvassing. He told me with great pride about a woman who hadn’t known she could vote absentee since she was going to be out of town on the day, until he told her. I went out that day with him partly because I wanted to see what the voters he spoke to were like, but mostly because I was interested in people like him—people who really drive a campaign. When we took the canvassing packets back to volunteer headquarters, it was full of volunteers waiting to get out there. These people had poured so much energy and optimism into Cockburn’s campaign, as I found when I talked to other volunteers and staff that night, at the Cockburn campaign party at Three Notch’d Brewery.

Most of the time, you try and try, and campaign and volunteer and knock on doors, and you lose anyway.

The party was upbeat, and very crowded. CNN played on the big screens, and every time a Democratic win flashed up, people cheered—except for when Andrew Cuomo’s win was announced. Not a peep for that. The crowd was a mix of Cockburn supporters and actual campaign staff and volunteers—who, I found, were universal in their praise for the campaign’s field operation.

John and his partner had been up at 5 a.m. to start campaign work. Kate had driven two hours down to Danville to knock doors that day; I spotted her fighting back tears after Cockburn’s concession speech. Everyone I spoke to who had worked on the campaign emphasized how robust the field operation was; one called it “extraordinary.” They were all cautiously optimistic, before the result came in—except one campaign worker who said he thought she would lose by 10 points, because the district is so stacked. He was only a couple points too pessimistic.

Where does that energy go, after such a gutting loss? After you work and work, and you still lose? At the party, I talked to Rebecca Wood, a single payer healthcare activist who told me she’d been carried out of the Kavanaugh and tax bill hearings in the Senate. “That’s what I have in me,” she said. “I’m not going to stop until single payer happens.” I was shocked, in fact, how high spirits seemed to be even after the news of Cockburn’s loss had spread. Some campaign staff and volunteers looked crushed, but others I spoke to were at least happy with the rest of the results. More people seemed dismayed when the big screen playing CNN told us Ted Cruz had won.

At about 9:20 p.m., about half an hour before Cockburn showed up, I saw one volunteer pick up one of the many handmade blue waves on a stick and wave it about, half-hopefully and half-sardonically, saying “Maybe? Maybe?” to his friend.

Turnout was high in Charlottesville: 61 percent voted, only two percent lower than the 2016 election and almost double the 2014 midterm vote. Albemarle County, which surrounds Charlottesville, which went 65 percent for Cockburn, had even higher turnout. Matching midterm vote to presidential-level turnout is astronomical. But it was high in the red areas, too. Cockburn’s campaign knocked on every door in Charlottesville they could—in fact, one campaign volunteer said they knocked every door in the whole of Albemarle County—but it wasn’t enough to overcome a district that is primarily, by design, Republican. The campaign workers did their job as well as they could do.

And it’s hard to imagine the sort of Democrat who might have had a better shot than Cockburn. Yes, she had the air of a DC elite, coming from a background in journalism. She was for Medicare for All; Riggleman described her, inaccurately, as “Ocasio-Cortez in a scarf.” But she’s lived in Rappahanock County, on a farm, for two decades, and she had a campaign uniform of a farmer’s vest and riding boots right through Election Day. Maybe protecting the beautiful land of Virginia from the pipeline wasn’t a message that would ever persuade those rural Republicans to vote for her, but it was more important that Riggleman was a warm-bodied Republican who said the right things about liberty and taxes, and pledged to join the House Freedom Caucus. What do you say to people like that to get them to vote for a Democrat instead? Do you tell them you favor the subsidies of the Affordable Care Act instead of Medicare for All? Do you hem and haw about the migrant caravan, which worked out just great for Joe Donnelly, who lost his Indiana Senate seat last night?

You don’t. You just try your fucking hardest to turn out everyone else, and you probably gotta get lucky and hope the Republicans nominate someone even more unpalatable than the Bigfoot porn guy, too. And then, in 2020, you work on redistricting, and voter ID, and every other bullshit thing that the Republicans have thrown up to make it harder.

This election was the culmination of the psychic angst that set in on November 9, 2016. A majority of Americans disapprove of Trump, and almost half of yesterday’s voters strongly disapprove. Millions and millions hate his rotten guts, and were shocked by his unexpected victory, and what it said about this country. Since then, they have been waiting for the spell to break, for the democracy threat level to revert from Not Normal to Normal. But this election was never going to be that.

In life, unlike in the books and TV that the #Resistance turns to for comfort, there is generally no savior. Dumbledore doesn’t show up. On TV, if the odds area against someone, that’s a good indication they’re going to show ‘em all and win anyway; in real life, it’s a good indication you’re going to get crushed. That’s how the odds work. Most of the time, you try and try, and campaign and volunteer and knock on doors, and you lose anyway.

When Cockburn gave her concession speech, and said Denver Riggleman won, someone in the back yelled “Gerrymander won!” Yes, she said, gerrymandering won, but “there is a future for all of us here as one unit.” That doesn’t really mean a lot—it’s politician speak—but there’s truth in there. Gerrymandering is a product of political efforts by a party determined to shape democratic processes to their advantage; it can be overcome by other political efforts. Florida just restored voting rights to felons; progress can be made. Things are getting a little better.

And there’s always next time.

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