If Terry McAuliffe wins the governorship (again), what I’m about to write won’t matter. If Glenn Youngkin wins with a majority, this won’t matter, either.
However, there’s a third scenario possible in this year’s election, and that’s the one that gives Democrats nightmares (and Republicans hope): that third-party candidate Princess Blanding pulls enough votes away from McAuliffe to tip the election to Youngkin, who wins with something less than 50% of the vote.
This is not an unreasonable scenario for at least three reasons:
- Polls suggest this election will be close, closer than Democrats (and maybe some Republicans) ever imagined.
- McAuliffe couldn’t win a majority of Virginia voters when he was elected before, and his approval ratings since show he’s never been wildly popular, so getting to 50% plus one might be a challenge for him, especially in what appears to be an off year for Democrats, and against a hard-to-pin-down Republican candidate.
- Blanding, the nominee of the Liberation Party (not to be confused with the Libertarian Party), is very much a left-wing candidate, so any votes she polls are ones that Democrats think should otherwise go to them.
This is all quite fascinating if you’re an observer of Virginia politics (maybe less fascinating and more nerve-wracking for Democrats). It’s also historic, in ways that haven’t been fully appreciated.
The most obvious history Blanding is making is this: She’s the first Black woman to appear on a general election ballot for governor in Virginia history (a distinction that Jennifer Carroll Foy and Jennifer McClellan had hoped to have, but they came up short in the Democratic primary). Neither Blanding nor Hala Alaya and Winsome Sears (the Democratic and Republican candidates for lieutenant governor) are the first women of color on a statewide ballot in Virginia, though. That status belongs to the famed Richmond banker Maggie Walker, who in 1921 ran for superintendent of public instruction (an office we elected then) as a candidate on a slate of Black Republicans who had been kicked out of the party. She finished third with 3.3% of the vote, which is kind of impressive when you consider how tightly controlled the Virginia electorate was back then.
The year 1921 is important in another way: that was the first year that women could vote in a Virginia election (they voted the year before in the presidential election). 1921 also saw the first women running for office, even governor: Millie Davis Custis of Accomack County, who ran a write-in campaign as a Socialist. You will not be surprised to learn that she did not fare very well, polling 0.11% of the vote. Virginia has never been that kind of red state.
The more important way that Blanding is making history is this: In the modern era of Virginia politics, she is only the second third-party candidate to run for governor from the left and the first who might actually tip the balance. We have had other third-party candidates for governor, but they either ran from the right or from places on the ideological spectrum that were hard to categorize. That makes this year only the second time a Democratic candidate for governor has had to worry about a third-party candidate possibly costing him the election, and the first time that was actually a realistic scenario.
Let’s open up our history books. Or, better yet, the State Board of Elections website, which has results from every governor’s race in Virginia history (we first started directly electing governors in 1851). That’s 42 elections. You’ll see that more often than not we’ve had at least the appearance of choice on the ballot. Only 16 times have we had only a two-candidate election. Once – in 1877 – there was a one-candidate election. So that leaves 25 times when we had three or more candidates for governor. The high point came in 1933, when we had six candidates for governor: a Democrat, a Republican, a Socialist, a Prohibition Party candidate and two independents. Those being the days of the Byrd Machine, it didn’t matter whether we had six candidates or 600 – the Democrat won with just under 74% of the vote.
So let’s confine ourselves to the modern era of Virginia, when we’ve actually had competitive elections. We generally date that from 1969, when Linwood Holton of Roanoke became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. For our purposes today, I’m going to back up and start from 1965, because a) the old system was starting to break down then and b) because of that, we have a useful historical point.
That year, Mills Godwin was the Democratic nominee. He was both a former segregationist leader and by 1965 something of a transitional figure as the state, and his party, started changing around him. Holton was the Republican nominee – he saw this as a trial run for the future. It’s hard for people now to comprehend this, but in the politics of the time, the Republican was in many ways to the left of the Democrat, especially on civil rights issues. The turmoil of the time produced two other candidates for governor, both much further to the right. William Story – an assistant school superintendent in Chesapeake and, according to the Associated Press, “one of Virginia’s most ardent segregation leaders” – was the nominee of the newly formed Conservative Party. And then there was George Lincoln Rockwell, an out-and-out Nazi.
Just two decades after we had defeated Nazis in Europe, 1.2% of Virginians voted for an American Nazi. Story, the segregationist, polled in double digits – 13%. He even carried 11 localities, 10 in Southside – Amelia, Brunswick, Charlotte, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Powhatan, Prince Edward, Surry and Sussex counties – and Chesterfield County in the Richmond suburbs. In Amelia County, he took a shocking 79.2% of the vote (or maybe, considering the times, it shouldn’t be shocking). In Nottoway, he took 60.2%. His weakest showings came west of the Blue Ridge, with the absolute lowest in Wise County, where Story polled just 0.1% of the vote. All you need to know about the historical difference between Southwest and Southside Virginia can be summed up in those results.
Anyway, the point for us today is two-fold: Story still stands as the most successful third-party candidate for governor in Virginia history, modern or otherwise. Godwin won that election, with 47.5% of the vote to Holton’s 38.3%, making Godwin the first governor since Reconstruction to be elected with something less than a majority and only the second overall (depends on how you count a three-way race in the Civil War year of 1863 where William “Extra Billy” Smith won with 48.1%). McAuliffe in 2013 would become the second (or the third, depending on where you prefer to start the counting).
Over the years, we’ve had other third-party candidates from the right. We’ve had one – former Republican state Sen. Russ Potts in 2005 – who tried to run close to the center. We’ve had some Libertarians, who are hard to categorize because parts of the Libertarian platform would appeal to conservatives and parts would appeal to liberals. It’s still fun to argue about whether Libertarian Richard Sarvis cost Republican Ken Cuccinelli the 2013 governor’s race. All we know is that McAuliffe took 47.7%, Cuccinelli 45.2% and Sarvis 6.5%. Sarvis was, if nothing else, a good repository for people who didn’t like either candidate. We’ve had some third-party candidates who didn’t fit neatly anywhere.
Still, we come back to the basic point: Until Blanding, there’s only been one other third-party candidate for governor who was distinctly left wing. That was in 1977, when Alan Ogden ran on behalf of the Virginia Labor Party. “Ogden hopes to be spoiler in Va. race,” The Washington Post headlined that year. Ogden, the Post said, considered himself not just a socialist, but a full-fledged Marxist. If so, he was an unusual one. His big issue was defense of Virginia Power (a forerunner of today’s Dominion Energy). “Vepco has got to be defended,” he told the Post. He particularly liked that the utility was building nuclear power plants. What can I say? Times change.
In any case, there was serious discussion for a time about whether Ogden would make the difference in that year’s race between Republican John Dalton and Democrat Henry Howell. He didn’t. Dalton won easily with 55.9% of the vote over Howell’s 43.3%; Ogden’s 0.8% didn’t matter.
Now we come today to Blanding. She’s saying a lot of things that some Democrats wish McAuliffe would say. She’s in favor of repealing right-to-work. She’s against qualified immunity for police officers. She’s in favor of reparations for Black Virginians. She would end all state cooperation with federal immigration authorities. She wouldn’t just oppose natural gas pipelines, she says she would dismantle existing ones. For any voters on the leftward edge, Blanding might sound more appealing than the corporatist McAuliffe except for one thing: She obviously won’t win, and a vote for her might elect a Republican.
Or would it? That depends.
People often have a fundamental misunderstanding about third-party candidates, specifically the belief that they “take” votes away from other candidates. Remember all the clamor about whether Ralph Nader “took” votes away from Al Gore in Florida in 2000, and thus helped make George W. Bush president?
That depends on whether those voters would have voted anyway. If there’s a Virginian who is committed to voting and can’t decide between Blanding or McAuliffe and ultimately votes for Blanding, then, yes, you can say that’s a vote she took from him. But if that voter’s real choice is between voting for Blanding or staying home, then she’s not taking votes from anyone. Democrats might think that that voter ought to back them as the nearest ideological match, but some voters aren’t so practical. If they can’t get exactly what they want, they’ll stay home – and maybe it really doesn’t matter to them whether a Democrat or a Republican is governor. Or maybe they have a destructionist bent, and think that a Republican victory will inspire Democrats to move further left the next time.
So that means the big question is how many of Blanding’s supporters this November will add to the electorate (meaning they’d have stayed home without her) and how many will subtract from McAuliffe (meaning they were going to vote anyway but they chose her over him)? And, of course, there’s an even bigger question: Will any of that make a difference? If McAuliffe can’t get to 50%, then the answer is yes, it might.