RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Democrat Ralph Northam will be the new governor of the state of Virginia. He won decisively last night against his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie. The Democrats also took the governorship in New Jersey. In both races, the Republican candidates avoided campaigning with President Trump while embracing many of his hardline positions like cracking down on illegal immigration.
Governor-elect Northam was also criticized for running a lackluster campaign and for tacking to the right to win votes. So what do these results portend as we look to the midterms in 2018? We're going to put that question to our next guest. Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva is in our studios this morning. He's a Democrat from Arizona and the co-chair of the left-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus. Congressman, thanks so much for coming in.
RAUL GRIJALVA: Thank you very much for the invite. Appreciate it, Rachel.
MARTIN: Your party's been on its heels since sweeping defeats a year ago. You finally got some big wins yesterday. Are there bigger lessons to be learned for your party?
GRIJALVA: Yeah. They were big wins. They were resounding. The marches were more than were expected and predicted. I know we're going to go through an autopsy period where you look at the exit polls and you see how constituencies - what constituents reacted to.
But the big takeaway, I think, has to be for our party that the American people are desperately seeking a check and balance on this administration and on Trump and that the Bannon-Trump playbook about nationalism fueled by bigotry, fear mongering - going to those extreme levels in order to try to motivate voters - that that playbook didn't work.
And even though Gillespie distanced himself on a physical way from Trump, the fact that he adopted the playbook and that it did not bear fruit, I think is an important lesson for Democrats to understand that we can't just run against Trump.
And I think what was done very well in Virginia and in New Jersey and in other places is the down ticket. The delegates to the Commonwealth in Virginia - the resounding wins there and the possibility of taking over the majority, those were fueled by constituents. And I think the party has to look very closely at issue-based, responding, not being defensive, not being bold. And if we don't do that, I think, then these these victories today will not give us the momentum going forward.
MARTIN: You say the party needs to be bold. You were a Bernie Sanders supporter during the presidential campaign. Some Democrats have suggested in order to win, the party needs to be bold. The party needs to tack left, put up more firebrand candidates. Ralph Northam in Virginia was not a firebrand candidate, to say the least - almost the definition of an establishment candidate. What do you make of that?
GRIJALVA: I think that, you know, that he was the candidate that I think generated support merely by the fact that he was running against a very - in the air of Trump. And I think Democrats are going to profit. There's a unifying force and factor among Democrats is Trump. But, like I said earlier, just running against him is not going to be the issue - is going to create victory or let us take back the House or win the Senate.
You know, what's going to do it is the issues. And the issues in Virginia were very important. It was about health care and the expansion of Medicaid - expansion. It was about transportation and infrastructure and rebuilding that. It was about education and kids. The buzz issues around immigration - 12 percent of the people felt that those were important issues that motivated them to go to the polls.
MARTIN: Let me ask you though, your party has had some hard times recently. Polls still show national support for Democrats is at an all-time low. And we just had the former chair of the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, Donna Brazile, say last year's Democratic primary was essentially rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton. Are you concerned - as someone who backed Bernie Sanders during the primary, are you concerned about the role of the DNC still?
GRIJALVA: I remain concerned. I'm glad that Keith Ellison is there - someone that used to be the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus that I supported for the chair. But the fact remains that the DNC's problem is not what - you know, what Donna outlined and what others have suspected and said about the DNC not being inclusive wasn't - to some extent is absolutely true.
What the DNC needs to do is to take the model that was very important in this election to embrace diversity, to embrace inclusion, ideas and make that the coalescing point. Until they do that, the suspicion about the direction of the DNC and its leadership are going to continue to be questioned. If we want to get where we need to be to create the maximum check and balance to this administration, the DNC can play a great role or, as we've seen in other places, the grassroots and other organizations will take up the responsibility.
MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Raul Grijalva, Democrat from Arizona, thanks so much.
GRIJALVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.