The most interesting place in Virginia this year will be – well, opinions vary on that, now don’t they? Some prefer the mountains, some the beach (I’m obviously partial to the former). Some may prefer getting muddy with four-wheelers on the Spearhead trails or an outdoor show at Wolfbane Productions in Appomattox. Some may prefer a warm summer evening at a minor league baseball game or a crisp fall afternoon at Lane Stadium. Some may prefer, well, the list is pretty endless, isn’t it?
By contrast, the most interesting places politically this fall in Virginia will be pretty limited. The 2nd Congressional District in Hampton Roads has always been competitive and the new redistricting maps sure don’t change that. The reconfigured 7th District in the Piedmont between Richmond and Northern Virginia will be interesting; it’s technically an open seat, but one that Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger (whose Henrico County home was drawn into another district) will be running in. And then there’s the 5th District in Southside which, given our focus, is the one I’m most interested in today.
Two recent developments have raised the political profile of the 5th District, one on each side of the proverbial political aisle.
First, incumbent Bob Good, R-Campbell, now has a challenger for the Republican nomination – Dan Moy of Charlottesville.
Good, in his first term, has placed himself in the company of such far-right members of Congress as Marjorie Taylor Greene. The only reason Good hasn’t cut a national figure for himself is he’s hasn’t had their propensity for saying inflammatory things, although Good, in a quieter way, has come pretty darned close. Early on, he declared COVID-19 to be a “fake pandemic” and, in an interview with The Washington Post, seemed to suggest it wasn’t real at all because he didn’t know anyone who had died. That will come as a surprise to the families of the more than 1,300 people in his district who have died from the virus.
Moy, in an interview with Charlottesville television station CBS 19, contends that Good has gone too far right. “I’m not a polarizer, I’m a fighter,” said Moy, a recently retired Air Force veteran. Usually, charging that someone is too far right is not a winning formula in a Republican nomination contest, so we’ll see. Republicans tell me that Moy is well-liked and well-connected, but challenging an incumbent for a party nomination is always an uphill fight (unless, of course, you’re Good running against Denver Riggleman two years ago).
Fifth District Republicans will choose their candidate in a convention, not a primary, so we won’t necessarily get a fair test of how Republicans districtwide feel about their congressman aligning himself with such infamous company. Not that it will matter much to Republicans, but you’d think Democrats would prefer to run against Good than Moy, because Good makes a better target and offers the potential of Democrats picking up some Republicans who just can’t stomach someone who voted against awarding medals to the police officers who defended the Capitol when a pro-Trump mob stormed the building on Jan. 6, 2021. But those Republicans may not be inclined to participate in a closed Republican nominating process. Moy would be better off in a primary, but there won’t be one.
Democrats, meanwhile, will have a primary fight, and it might be a humdinger. There are now at least four candidates: former prosecutor Lewis Combs, farmer Warren McClellan, small business owner and minister Josh Throneburg and now Andy Parker, who became a nationally known advocate for gun control after his daughter, WDBJ-TV journalist Alison Parker, was killed on live television. That’s the second big development that elevates the interest in the 5th District race. Parker obviously has the most famous name; Combs leads the field in fund-raising with Throneburg not far behind.
If the casinos in Danville and Bristol were open, maybe we could bet on who will win. I’ll leave the oddsmaking to others, except to venture one observation: Parker’s entry into the race will give both Good and Moy a talking point in their intra-party contest. Both will hold up the specter of Parker winning as a reason why Republicans shouldn’t gamble on the other guy as their candidate. Only Good has the stature to take on such a well-known liberal! Good is so far right that Parker might win! Take your pick. Among Democrats, all the other candidates will have their own talking points, one of which is likely to be: Umm, Parker doesn’t live in the district. He used to. He didn’t move but the district did, with the latest redistricting putting Parker’s Henry County home into the 9th District. Unfortunately, for him or any other Democrat, the 9th is also the most Republican district in the state. It’s also not even home to the 9th District congressman anymore; the new redistricting puts Rep. Morgan Griffith of Salem into the 6th District, although he says he’ll keep running in the 9th. The law doesn’t require a House member to live in his or her district, just the state.
Here’s what we can say with absolute certainty: In the fall there will be a Democrat and there will a Republican. What will be the odds then?
For those on either side who take the 5th District as a foregone conclusion, let’s look at some numbers.
The reconfigured 5th is actually the third most competitive district in Virginia – this according to the report that the two redistricting special masters filed with the state Supreme Court.
The most competitive is the 2nd, now held by Democrat Elaine Luria. It’s rated at 49.6% Democratic, 48.4% Republican, so a 1.2% Democratic tilt.
The second most competitive is that redrawn 7th, which is rated as 52.3% Democratic, 45.7% Republican, for a 6.6% Democratic margin – good news for Spanberger but close enough for Republicans that she can’t rest easy.
And then there’s the 5th, which is rated as 53.0% Republican, 45.2% Democratic, a 7.8% Republican tilt.
That means the 5th is the most vulnerable Republican district in the state. Now, all things are relative, so whether a district with a 7.8% Republican advantage is truly vulnerable, well, that’s a different matter. But simply from a mathematical perspective, if Democrats are trying to pick up a seat in Virginia that’s now in Republican hands, the 5th is their best shot. (Their next best chance is the 1st, which now goes from the Richmond suburbs to the Chesapeake Bay and is home to Republican incumbent Rob Wittman. It’s rated as 53.2% Republican, 44.8% Democratic, for an 8.4% Republican advantage.) After that, the opportunities run out – on both sides.
The only other Republican districts in the state are the 6th (now held by Ben Cline), which is pegged at 59.4% Republican, and the 9th (now held by Morgan Griffith), which is 67.7% Republican. And that’s why Parker isn’t running in the 9th. Republicans don’t have many options, either. They can certainly try to knock off Luria – Hampton Roads has a long back-and-forth history. They can try to knock off Spanberger. But after that, their next best hope is the 10th in Northern Virginia, now represented by Jennifer Wexton. That district is 56.2% Democratic, with a partisan spread of 14.5%. It would take a really big Republican wave to wash in that high.
So, back to the 5th: How much has redistricting changed it?
On one level, maybe not much at all. In 2020, Good polled 52.4% of the vote, his Democratic challenger 47.3%. The difference between 52.4% then and the special masters’ computation of 53% seems pretty small indeed.
On the other hand, the way the map has changed might well help Good in his nomination fight. The 5th shed the northern part of the district – Greene County to Fauquier County along U.S. 29 – and instead added Lynchburg and Amherst County. That’s right next to Good’s home in Campbell County, and home to Liberty University, where Good once worked in the athletics department. The new map may not change the overall numbers much but give Good more of his Lynchburg-area base; that would seem good for him and not for Moy.
Another way to look at the upcoming race: 2022 looks like it will be a Republican year. The president’s party typically loses seats in the midterms. President Joe Biden’s polls currently aren’t very good. Inflation is back. (People said they wanted raises; they got raises, but, guess what, companies pass those costs on to consumers. Welcome to Economics 101.) Now, maybe things will change between now and November, but we still come back to years of experience: Midterms are usually good for the party out of power. To oust Good (assuming he’s the Republican nominee), 5th District voters would have to be pretty upset with how far right he is. Are they? Or are they willing to accept that extremism as preferable to a Democrat?
More good news for Republicans: Good’s 52.4% of the vote in 2020 came during a Democratic year. (Yes, I know the district has changed somewhat but, as we’ve seen, the overall Republican vote doesn’t seem to have changed, just where in the district that Republican vote is coming from.) That means it’s possible that there are more Republican votes out there. Republican Robert Hurt went as high as 60.9% in 2014.
Still more good news for Republicans: Turnout is lower in midterms than presidential years, and that turnout is often down in ways that benefit Republicans and hurt Democrats. The challenge for any Democratic candidate in the 5th this fall will be to boost Democratic turnout. The trick will be to gin up their base while hoping to win over some disaffected Republican voters who are turned off by Good (again, assuming he’s the nominee). That suggests whoever the Democratic nominee is shouldn’t be so far left that they have no hope of appealing to those Republicans, although the Democratic left often doesn’t get excited about centrist candidates. Practicality is not the strong suit of ideologues on either side.
One thing that’s possibly good news for Democrats, although the key word there is “possibly.” For all of the percentages I’ve thrown around here, the actual numbers involved are relatively small. Good won in 2020 by 20,673 votes. Democrats basically need to find 21,000 votes. Can they?
They already know the most likely places to look – Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The difference between the Democratic vote in Charlottesville in 2018 and 2020 was 3,519 “extra” voters in 2020. If they can get Charlottesville Democrats to vote at presidential levels in a midterm, there are 3,519 of those 21,000 votes they need. In Albemarle, the difference was 8,952 votes. In all, that means there are 12,471 Democratic votes available in Charlottesville and Albemarle. In Prince Edward County, 1,251. In Danville, 2,870. Add all those together and Democrats are at 16,592 – still short of 21,000 but getting tantalizingly close. I cite those localities because those are the Democratic strongholds in the 5th. Unfortunately for Democrats, those are the only strongholds, which means any other “extra” Democratic votes would have to be extracted from Republican localities – although obviously there are Democratic voters in those, just in the minority. The bigger challenge is inspiring a big Democratic turnout without spooking Republicans into a big turnout of their own. That can be done – Republicans sure did it in last year’s governor’s race – but it remains a challenge. (There’s another way possible that Democrats could produce those 21,000 extra votes: They could persuade Democratic voters to move out of Northern Virginia. The party wouldn’t miss them there, and they’d do Democrats more good in Southside. Don’t count on that, though).
Another measure: The Democratic candidate in 2020 polled more votes while losing (190,315) than the Republican candidate who did while winning in 2018 (165,339). So the Democratic voters are there but once again, the question: Can Democrats generate presidential-level turnout in a mid-term election where the odds are against them?
So, those are the numbers. See how much fun this is going to be?