Within minutes of NBC News calling Virginia’s gubernatorial election for Ralph Northam on Tuesday night, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez phoned into MSNBC to celebrate. “I’m feeling incredibly optimistic,” he said when host Chris Hayes asked about Democratic gains in the state’s House of Delegates. “The author of the anti-transgender bathroom bill just got defeated by a woman named Danica Roem -- a transgender woman who is a spectacular candidate.”
Perez proceeded to name-check Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala, the first Latinas ever elected to the House, but then Hayes asked him about another candidate -- one who’d barely received any national attention throughout the campaign. “There’s also, I believe, a Marine veteran who identifies as a democratic socialist who, if I’m not mistaken, is running competitively with someone in the House GOP leadership,” he said. “The House GOP whip might lose to a socialist Marine veteran? Is that actually happening?”
It was indeed. Democrat Lee Carter, a red-haired, 30-year-old Marine veteran from Manassas, won a remarkable nine-point victory to oust Delegate Jackson Miller, a deep-pocketed Republican incumbent who serves as House Majority Whip. Carter ran openly as a socialist -- he and his supporters crooned the union anthem “Solidarity Forever” after their victory -- and he won with almost no institutional support from the state Democratic Party.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Patrick Wilson reported last month that party leaders “abandoned” Carter after he declined to report campaign metrics like the number of doors he’d knocked on and the amount of money he’d raised. Carter told Wilson he “ceased reporting to the House caucus after multiple information security lapses in which confidential information that we reported to the House caucus was leaked outside of the party infrastructure.” But he also said the party leaders “wanted a bit more editorial control over my messaging than I was comfortable with.” Wilson wrote that “Democratic Party leaders were not eager to discuss Carter, preferring to promote other candidates.” In fact, Wilson called Carter “the kind of rogue candidate that gives an apparatus like the Democratic Party of Virginia a fit.”
Carter did receive funding from Democratic-aligned groups as well as support from WinVA, a PAC supporting Democratic House candidates run by former congressman and gubernatorial primary candidate Tom Perriello, according to a campaign finance report uploaded by The Intercept’s Lee Fang. But Carter’s victory is a testament to his own campaign and the work of outside groups, including the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which caught the rising Democratic wave that swept even unlikely candidates into office on Tuesday.
It’s fitting that Carter’s campaign ended with a shocking result, because it was inspired by a literal shock two summers ago. “I was installing lighting control systems and I got shocked because the lighting control panel I was working on was miswired by an electrician,” he told me in Manassas last month. “I got a 245-volt shock -- in one hand, out the other -- right across the chest.” He blew out his back in the incident. He could barely walk for months. His frustrating battle with the state to get workers’ compensation for his injury inspired him to enter politics. “When I was able to walk again,” he told me, “I decided I’m not just going to walk. I’m going to run for something, because nobody should have to go through this.”
Carter came to his political ideology recently -- as in, just last year. “I was actually already running by the time I considered socialism as an economic philosophy,” he told me. “My introduction to it actually came through the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. He went out there and said, ‘I’m a democratic socialist. Here’s what that means: It means I believe in strong unions, health care for everybody and an end to discrimination.’ Well, that’s what I believe in, too. I dug a little more into it, and I realized a lot of the problems we have in today’s society reflected in electoral politics are symptoms of economic problems.”
Carter said he’s “always been a bit to the left of where the Democratic Party was, and a little dissatisfied with what they were doing on a large scale, and never knew why. It wasn’t until Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that I put two and two together. I looked up to guys like FDR and Democrats of that era who were really rooted in working-class politics. They had these mass movements of union workers who stood up and said ‘We’re not going to be mistreated by corporate interests anymore,’ and they were able to achieve 50 years of stability and prosperity for this country. I always wondered why Democrats couldn’t act like that again.”
Miller, the Republican candidate, naturally didn’t see Carter’s socialism as part of a proud American tradition. After largely ignoring him for most of the campaign, he sent out mailers comparing Carter to Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. But Carter told me his own campaigning focused on the issues, including single-payer health care and getting money out of politics, which resonated with voters. “What we do when we get out there and talk to voters is get past the label entirely,” he said. “My literature and all my paid communications are just about what I want to do when I go down to Richmond. In fact, my mail consultant had to add the word ‘Democrat’ to my walk cards at the last minute before he sent them to the printer.”
At the same time, Carter was happy to talk about socialism when asked. “If you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater, Republicans are going to call you a socialist anyway, so you may as well just own the label,” he said. “The issues that I care about and the issues that the Democratic Socialists of America are working on are the issues that the Democratic Party’s voter base cares about.”
Carter worked well with his local Democratic Party throughout the campaign, but acknowledged the state party was a different story. “On the state level, it is a bit more strained,” he said. “The corporations I’m actively attacking fund the state party. It’s obviously going to create some tension.” Yet despite this dynamic, he and his team were confident they could win based on a simple numbers game. They knew Miller had never received more than 9,500 votes in the district, and they believed they’d found enough voters to exceed that. As it turned out, Miller won 9,510 votes on Tuesday, but Carter won 11,360.
Plenty of the credit for this race belongs to a cadre of idealistic young people, since much of the ground organizing came from local members of the Democratic Socialists of America. The group’s D.C. chapter endorsed Carter, and one of the chapter’s leaders, 22-year-old American University graduate Jacquelyn Smith, managed his campaign. On Tuesday night, she tweeted that Carter’s election is a bellwether of future success.
Long before he knew the results, Carter believed something similar about his campaign -- that it could demonstrate how bold ideas are the pathway to rebuilding the Democratic Party. “Honestly, there are a lot of candidates who are playing it safe, but playing it safe is not the safe bet anymore,” he told me last month. “That’s the big takeaway I got from all of 2016. The center doesn’t hold. We had Bernie Sanders on the left. We had Donald Trump on the right. Things are completely different. The parties are due for a realignment, and who knows how that’s going to shake out.”
Those weren’t quite the tea leaves Tom Perez was reading on MSNBC. He didn’t say much about Carter, even after Hayes brought him up. But on a night of surprising success for his party, the chairman did say this much: “There are a lot of remarkable things going on tonight in the House of Delegates races.”