Four Democrats are seeking three slots for city council in Roanoke's Democratic primary.. Here's a rare configuration of signs for all four. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Tuesday is primary day in Virginia, although most of Virginia west of Richmond gets a reprieve from politics.

Republicans will hold primaries in four congressional districts: the 2nd in Hampton Roads, the 3rd in Hampton Roads, the 6th from Roanoke north to Winchester, and the 7th in the upper Piedmont.

Of those, the most closely watched will be the 2nd, where the winner will face Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria in a swing district, and the 7th, where the winner will face Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger in a district that doesn’t much resemble the one that elected her in the past. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt previewed the 6th District contest last week. My only observation as someone who lives in that district: I see a lot of signs for Republican incumbent Ben Cline. I’ve seen none for challenger Merritt Hale. The winner faces Democrat Jennifer Lewis. In 2018, Cline defeated Lewis by a 59.7% to 40.2% margin and redistricting has made the 6th more Republican since then by bringing in the Winchester area.

In Northern Virginia’s 8th District, Democratic incumbent Don Beyer also faces a challenger.

For those of us on this side of the state, the most interesting contest might be the Democratic primary for the Roanoke City Council, where four candidates are seeking nominations for three seats (and in Roanoke, all council elections are at-large, so this council members wind up representing more voters than a member of the House of Delegates).

This primary is important for several reasons:

  1. Roanoke elections matter not just to Roanoke; they also have regional implications. Roanoke is the largest city west of Richmond. In an interconnected economy, what Roanoke does matters to neighboring localities. It may not matter in Big Stone Gap but it does matter in, say, Botetourt County and Bedford County, whose economies interact with Roanoke’s every day. The direction Roanoke’s city government takes matters beyond the city limits.
  2.  The Democratic nomination tends to be tantamount to election in Roanoke. Republicans have not won a city council election in Roanoke since 2000 (when Ralph Smith won a four-way race for mayor and Bill Carder led the balloting for three council seats). There have been occasions where Democratic nominees lost, but they lost to independents who had some relationship to the Democratic Party.
  3. This fall, Republicans are fielding a full slate of candidates – sometimes in the past they haven’t – and have signaled they intend to run on the city’s crime rate. That means the question is whether the weakest Democratic candidate to emerge from Tuesday’s primary will be stronger than the strongest Republican. Out of a field of Dalton Baugess, Nick Hagen and Maynard Keller, who will the strongest Republican be?
  4. There’s another wrinkle to this fall’s council election: Former Mayor David Bowers, elected in the past as a Democrat, is running as an independent. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor as an independent in 2020. In that campaign, he seemed to run against Democratic incumbent Sherman Lea from the right, and garnered 46.7% of the vote. So that means another question is whether the weakest Democratic candidate to win Tuesday’s primary will be stronger than Bowers. There will likely be other independents, too, but none with Bowers’ name recognition or electoral history.

    Looking ahead, we don’t know what Bowers’ political strength is these days. At one time, he was clearly one of the most popular politicians in Roanoke, based on election returns. The question is whether that time has passed. It’s never wise to count Bowers out. In 2006, he finished fifth for three council slots but two years later, in 2008, took 53.5% to win the mayorship again, knocking off an incumbent. Did the 2020 race signal that Bowers’ popularity has waned, or that he still retains enough support to win a multi-candidate race for council where a majority isn’t required? Or were his 2020 numbers boosted by Republicans who had no other candidate – but will this fall? We obviously won’t know until November, but Bowers’ presence in the race will complicate things. Can he draw enough votes to defeat the weakest Democrat? And where will his votes come from? Will he draw enough votes away from the Democratic slate to allow a Republican to win? Or will he draw votes from the Republican ticket and weaken them? We don’t know yet. In any case, we’ll be looking at Tuesday’s results to see who the third-place Democrat is. Will that person be the weakest Democratic candidate in the fall – vulnerable to both Bowers and/or the strongest Republican – or will general election voters see the field differently?

Some observations on that Democratic field:

  1. We really only know the electability of one candidate: Joe Cobb. He led the field in the 2018 general election, earning him the designation as vice mayor, which goes the top vote-getter. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t lead the Democratic field on Tuesday. (He’s no longer vice mayor; with staggered terms, that designation only lasts two years).
  2. Cobb and Vivian Sanchez-Jones are the only incumbents in the field (incumbent Bill Bestpitch, who holds the third council seat on the ballot, is retiring). Sanchez-Jones, though, has never been elected. She was appointed to replace a council member who resigned. That made her the first Latino to serve on the council, but she has no electoral track record. We won’t know her electoral strength until Tuesday. Over the weekend, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, was canvassing for her, which should help, given Rasoul’s popularity in the city.
  3. Peter Volosin has run and lost before. Does that mean voters have already passed judgment on him, or will it help his name identity this time around? In 2018, Volosin ran for the 6th District Democratic nomination for Congress, finishing second in the primary with 27.2% of the vote. That year he ran strong among Roanoke Democrats; the city was the only locality he carried. In 2020, he was one of three Democratic nominees for the council and was something of a surprise loser, finishing fifth for three slots, thus becoming one of the few Democratic nominees to lose an election in Roanoke. The third slot went to Stephanie Moon-Reynolds, who had previously sought the Democratic nomination but wound up running as an independent. She also had the advantage of being the city’s former clerk, so was well-known citywide. What may have been the biggest surprise was that Volosin finished behind the strongest Republican that year, Peg McGuire. Are Democrats concerned about that? We’ll find out.
  4. The fourth candidate is newcomer Terry McGuire, who, as a newcomer, has no electoral track record but seems to have a lot of campaign signs (although that often doesn’t mean anything). That’s a long way of saying I have no idea who will win this primary, other than my assumption that Cobb will lead the way.
  5. No matter who wins, this is the first time since 2014 that Democrats will field a slate with no Black candidate. For a city that’s 29% Black, that surprises me. Only twice in the past 10 council elections has there been no Black candidate running on the Democratic ticket – 2014 and 2010. Right now Roanoke enjoys an unusual distinction – here’s a white-majority city with a Black majority on its council. That distinction will probably end with this year’s election. There may be Black independents on the ballot this fall but historically it’s been hard for independents of any sort to win unless they’re well-known and have significant citywide backing the way Moon-Reynolds did.

    Technically, Roanoke’s Black majority won’t disappear with these three council seats, but with the special election for a fourth seat that will be on the ballot in November. Robert Jeffrey forfeited his council seat when he was convicted of embezzlement. He was replaced by former Vice Mayor Anita Price, who isn’t running again. Instead, there will be a special election that looks like it will be between Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire – the same Peg McGuire who came surprisingly close for a Republican two years ago. Both are white, so whoever wins that race, Roanoke’s Black majority on council will come to an end (unless one of those independents surprises).

    It’s hard to know how the absence of a Black candidate will change the dynamics. Often there have been formal or informal alliances between candidates in multi-candidate, at-large elections in which white candidates vouch for Black candidates with white voters and Black candidates vouch for white candidates with Black voters – creating strong citywide tickets. Looking further ahead, this November’s elections are likely to be low turnout affairs. There’s not much else on the ballot to drive voter turnout. Will the absence of a Black candidate depress Black turnout further? If so, will that benefit the Republican candidates?

    One final question: Did Peg McGuire make a mistake running in the special election for the Jeffrey/Price seat as opposed to seeking one of the other three seats? In the special election, she’ll have to get 50% of the vote plus one – something no Republican has done in Roanoke since Octavia Johnson was elected sheriff in 2005 under unusual circumstances (the Democratic incumbent faced allegations of sexual harassment). In a multi-candidate race for three slots, McGuire wouldn’t need an outright majority, just one more vote than the weakest Democrat. Will a one-on-one race help showcase her strengths? Or underscore why it’s so hard for Republicans to win in a city that usually votes 60% or more Democratic?

    These are questions for which we won’t know the answers until November. For now, the question is who will win on Tuesday.   

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.