Analysis: Outsiders Winning At All Levels

By John Celock

The outsider movement by the electorate this year is not just limited to the rise of Trump and Sanders, voters at the state and local level are showing the same thing.

Last week’s primary elections in North Dakota and Virginia had voters showing establishment types in both parties the door, embracing instead candidates who were running with the opposition of the party establishment. This included businessman Doug Burgum defeated longtime state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjam for the GOP nomination for governor, while in Virginia, Arlington County Board Chairwoman Libby Garvey won the Democratic nomination for a second term on the board defeating Erik Gutshall, who was backed by the county’s Democratic leadership.

Burgum’s defeat of Stenehjam was pretty stunning, considering the only public polling – from January – had Stenehjam up by 50 points and he had been endorsed by the state Republican Convention. With Republicans dominating state contests in North Dakota, Burgum now becomes the favorite to succeed Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) in November.

Stenehjam was pretty much considered a governor in waiting since Dalrymple announced his retirement last year and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley (R) announced that he would not seek the governorship this year. First elected attorney general in 2000, Stenehjam served 24 years in the state Legislature before that, giving him high name recognition and experience in state government. At the same time 40 years in state government was not necessarily the right recipe to win in a year when voters continue to show distrust for incumbents and insiders and a desire to try something new. Stenehjam found that North Dakota Republicans decided to try something new.

Stenehjam is not leaving politics though, with his term as attorney general running through 2018. He could decide to seek another term or he could decide to ride off into the sunset and likely law firm job, like many other attorneys general who have lost gubernatorial bids. At the same time though, there is precedent for him to stage a comeback. Stenehjam’s predecessor as attorney general, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, left the office to unsuccessfully run for governor in 2000 and came back to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2012.

In Virginia, the race was more complicated than North Dakota, with a woman who has been in countywide elective office for 20 years suddenly becoming an outsider with her old allies abandoning her reelection. Garvey had served 15 years on the Arlington County School Board before winning a special election to the county board in 2012 and a full four year term later that year. Her sin? She showed an independent streak on the all-Democratic county board first by vocally opposing a street car project then by backing independent John Vihstadt, a former Republican, in his successful 2014 bid for a county board seat. Vihstadt’s wins in a 2014 special election and election for a full term later that year helped defeat the controversial street car proposal.

Garvey was forced out of a party leadership post in 2014 and found herself targeted by Democrats this year. While she picked up endorsements from some, many of the county’s top Democrats, including County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette and former Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, lined up behind Gutshall. Gutshall supporters tried to paint Garvey as a renegade and conservative, a potential politically fatal accusation in the blue county. Garvey tried to play up her liberal bonafides, noting her Quaker roots in pacifism and commitment to bike riding, while also noting that she was an independent voice and was not going to go along to get along. Some of the criticism including comments from former colleagues about her job performance, that could lead you to question why they even backed her in previous elections.

At the end of the day, though, Arlington voters showed that they do not follow party lines. Yes, Virginia’s open primary system helped Garvey, who won Republican leaning parts of the county, but she did well in Democratic areas as well. Arlington voters showed that they would not blindly follow what the Democratic leadership told them was best. With no Republicans running and Garvey’s only general election opponent being a Green Party candidate who runs for office annually, Garvey is virtually assured another four years in office.

Will this continue in both, hard to say. In many cases this was a reaction to the specific races that occurred this year and may not continue. But what it does show is that all politicians should know that a growing independent streak among voters is here and is not going anywhere.