The Roanoke regisrtar's office. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
Hazel revels in her scientific experiments with gravity. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Hazel, my scientist-cat, recently conducted one of her periodic experiments in gravity. Her object of study was a cup of water that had been placed provocatively on a table in such a way as to offend feline feng shui – and arouse feline curiosity about physics. Hazel is pleased to report that Sir Isaac Newton’s theory still holds but she plans additional tests just to make sure.

Her human lab assistant had to clean up the results. Fortified that experience, I shall now attempt to clean up the results of some recent political action, which wasn’t nearly so messy.

Rep. Ben Cline. Courtesy of Cline campaign.
  1. The 6th District is inCLINED toward Ben Cline. Hat tip to Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt for that word play gem. Actually, the 6th Congressional District seems a lot more than inclined toward the Republican incumbent. The big debate is which verb to use to describe Cline’s primary victory over challenger Merritt Hale. Stomp? Crush? Pulverize? Those are sports page words! Let’s go with numbers instead.

Cline took 82.24% of the vote. That’s the biggest vote share in a congressional primary in Virginia since Ella Ward took 85.2% in winning the 2012 Democratic primary in the 4th District. She went on to lose the general election to Republican incumbent Randy Forbes. It’s the biggest vote share by an incumbent in a congressional primary since Forbes took 89.7% that same year in his primary.

How extensive was Cline’s win? His best locality was Buena Vista, where he took 93.75% of the vote. He ran weakest – weakest is a relative term here – in the northern parts of the district that were just added to the 6th through redistricting and where he had never run before (and where his challenger was from). Cline took 65.43% in Winchester, 70.43% in Clarke County, 70.76% in Frederick County. Normally, those are considered landslide numbers. I suspect it will be a long time before Cline sees another primary challenge.

Just because we’re political junkies and I know some of you like this sort of thing, here’s some more: Count 14 precincts where Hale didn’t get a single vote. The two most lopsided were with early votes in Page County (which Cline won 79-0) and the absentee votes in Page (which Cline won 65-0), followed by Hollins Road in Roanoke (Cline 28-0). On the other end was the Lincoln Terrace precinct in Roanoke, where the vote was 2-0 for Cline and the South East Central precinct in Harrisonburg, where the vote was 1-0 for Cline. Both of those are strongly Democratic precincts so the low vote doesn’t surprise me.

Two precincts require some explanation because neither saw a single voter. One was an oddity in Bedford County that I wrote about earlier where, due to an unexplainable mapping glitch, a single house in Bedford wound up in the 6th. I’m still surprised that Attorney General Jason Miyares didn’t try to intervene here: These two voters, who chose not to vote in the primary, wouldn’t have had a secret ballot if they had. I don’t know the law but that sure seems wrong to me. Will anyone try to fix this before the general election?

The other 0-0 precinct was Green Hill in Roanoke County. This is odder still, because this is a strong Republican precinct (Glenn Youngkin won it with 78.28% last fall). However, this is also a precinct that was previously in the 9th District but was moved into the 6th through redistricting, so Cline hasn’t run here, either. Still, it seems odd to me that not a single voter showed up.

Hale carried just one of the 324 precincts in the district: He carried Forest Park in Roanoke by 3 to 2 over Cline. That’s not a ratio, that’s the actual vote count. He came close in Harrisonburg in the Northeast precinct: Cline 31, Hale 30. Otherwise it was almost all Cline all the time.

2. Lucky 7th. The most exciting primary contest was in the 7th District, which now covers the Upper Piedmont, roughly from Lake Anna to southern Prince William County north-to-south, from Greene County and Madison County to King George County and Caroline County east-to-west. Six Republicans were running for the right to run against Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger, and four of them wound up bunched pretty close together. The winner was Yesli Vega – who benefited from a last-minute endorsement and rally from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. That’s the big chatter there but here’s what I notice: Vega’s 28.95% vote share is the smallest vote share of any winning congressional primary candidate in the entire State Board of Elections database, which goes back to 1948. The only thing close was the 1992 Republican primary in the 11th District, where Henry Butler won with 31.8% in a five-way race. When we look more broadly at all types of primaries, Vega’s win is the smallest winning vote share since Mark Levine won the Democratic primary for a House of Delegates seat in Northern Virginia in 2015 with 27.8% of the vote in a five-way race.

3. Voter turnout was light. There have been 28 Republican congressional primaries in Virginia since 2000. According to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, this year’s 7th District primary ranked 14th for turnout with just 7.01% of registered voters bothering to vote. Turnout in the 6th was lower yet – 4.4%. That doesn’t surprise me, but such a low turnout for a wide-open nomination in the 7th – a district that’s considered a swing district – does catch my eye. Maybe Vega will unite her party and voters in November will be more enthusiastic than voters in June were, but Republicans might wonder why interest in the 7th was so low when the overall political environment seems so much in their favor.

4. Lies, damned lies and statistics. That’s one of those great lines whose origin is unclear. It’s often attributed to Mark Twain. He supposedly attributed it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, but may have really been uttered by Leonard Courtney, a British parliamentarian. In any case, it’s a useful way to think about Roanoke’s Democratic primary for city council. Roanoke elects all members of the council at large, so voters on Tuesday had three votes to use. That makes the percentages displayed on the State Board of Elections site somewhat misleading. Here’s a better way to view the results. Roanoke saw 4,319 people vote in the Democratic primary. These figures reflect what percentage of ballots recorded a vote for each of the four candidates:

Joe Cobb 72%

Vivian Sanchez-Jones 62.7%

Peter Volosin 59.8%

Terry McGuire 53.4%

So yes, McGuire, who finished fourth, and out of the money, was favored by a majority of voters but still lost. That’s just a statistical oddity when you have an election where people have more than one vote to spend. By that measure, McGuire’s showing was quite respectable – he didn’t so much lose as he just didn’t win. As I noted in my election night analysis, he ran well in more affluent districts such as South Roanoke and Raleigh Court, but didn’t run nearly so well in the city’s Black precincts or blue-collar precincts. This election helps illustrate why it’s so difficult to win a citywide election in Roanoke in a multi-candidate, multi-vote race: It’s easy to run well in one part of town. It’s harder to run more consistently citywide, especially for a first-time candidate, yet these elections reward those who can do so.

From time to time, we hear people advocate a ward system in Roanoke. Those calls usually come from the left – although the candidates who would most benefit would be Republicans. No Republican has won a council seat in Democratic Roanoke since 2000; if there were a ward system, Republicans might be able to elect some council members.

5. Two Roanoke landmarks are in danger in November’s election. No, not the famous star but two other types of landmarks. Right now, Roanoke enjoys two distinctions: Here’s a majority-white city with a Black majority city council. And here’s also a city council with a female majority. Both those things are in jeopardy in November’s election for the same reason: Anita Price will be leaving the council. There are no Black candidates on either the Democratic or Republican tickets. There are two Black independents but historically the only independents who have won council elections have been those who were well-known citywide – such as former city clerk Stephanie Moon-Reynolds, who won in 2020.

For Roanoke to maintain its female majority on council, both Democrat Vivian Sanchez-Jones and Republican Peg McGuire would have to win. As a Democrat, Sanchez-Jones is a likely winner for the historical reasons cited above – Roanoke is a Democratic city where Democrats usually win. McGuire has a tougher road. She’s a Republican in a city where, as previously noted, no Republican has won a council race in 22 years. She ran well but came up short two years ago, but that was in a multi-candidate, multi-vote field. This time she’s running in a special election for an unexpired term. (Price is a temporary appointee after Robert Jeffrey forfeited his seat through a felony conviction.) That means she’s running head-to-head against Democrat Luke Priddy and will have to get 50% plus one. That’s obviously a much harder threshold. Republicans aren’t keen on identity politics but I have to wonder if McGuire might benefit from some here by emphasizing her gender?

Roanoke could establish another landmark in this election, though. Right now, there’s only one straight white male on council – Bill Bestpich – and he’s retiring. If Democrats win all four seats (three in the regular election, plus the special election), there would be three openly gay men on council – and no straight white men. That would be a record for any Virginia locality and certainly not what people would expect of a small city on the edge of Appalachia. Roanoke can be a surprising place. The Roanoke Rambler explores this more here.

Screenshot of Del.-elect Marie March, R-Floyd County, during the Scott Bunn podcast.

6. Marching to her own drummer. Let’s move on from this week’s elections to check off some other political happenings. Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, this week sent out an email blast announcing her priorities for next year’s General Assembly session. In her words:

  • Red Flag Gun Confiscation Repeal
  • Ending Gun Free Murder Zones in Virginia
  • Constitutional Carry
  • Protecting Life at Conception
  • Gas Tax Suspension
  • Protecting Women’s Sports
  • Fireworks Legalization

March says in the email that she “looks forward to championing the most conservative legislative agenda in recent Virginia history.” What I notice is not how conservative this is – I suspect lots of Republicans would look at this list and say “heck yeah” – but how generic it is. You’d never know from this list that March represents a district where all but one locality (her home in Floyd County) lost population in the 2020 census and median household incomes rank below both the state and national averages. Is there no economic development intitiative in her district that March wants to champion? March’s agenda contrasts with most other Republican legislators in Southwest Virginia – most of them seem laser-focused on economic development. They might share March’s social views, I don’t know, but their public personas are very much identified with the economy. March’s agenda may well be popular with her constituents but her focus on social issues seems more in line with Republican legislators from more affluent, suburban communities who don’t have to worry about economic development.

7. Regional disparities. I pointed out recently how Southwest and Southside are under-represented in many parts of state government – from college boards of visitors to a long list of other state boards, panels and commissions. One exception is the Virginia Supreme Court, which has regularly had a Southwest Virginia justice (although at present there’s no one from Southside). It was pointed out to me that the General Assembly has elected only six women to the state’s highest court and three of those – half – are from Southwest Virginia. All were Republican choices: Cynthia Kinser of Lee County, Elizabeth McClanahan of Buchanan County and now Teresa Chafin of Russell County. You don’t have to look far in Southwest Virginia politics to find the hand of Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, now the House majority leader. I’m told by St. Paul lawyer Frank Kilgore — no relation — that over the course of his career the delegate from Scott County has backed more than 10 women for judgeships in that corner of the state. You’d think Kilgore would get more credit for ensuring this kind of gender diversity on the bench but, alas, we live in cynical times.

Since I wrote those columns, the General Assembly elected two new Supreme Court justices – one from the Richmond area, one from Northern Virginia, so the Southside under-representation remains. To be fair, Northern Virginia was also without a justice, so at least one regional imbalance got corrected.

The General Assembly did elect a Southside judge – Kimberly Slayton White of Halifax County – to the Virginia Court of Appeals. She’s the only Southside judge on that 17-judge panel. And, as I previously pointed out, there’s only one appeals court judge just west of Charlottesville: Frank Friedman of Roanoke. Imbalances like this take a long time to correct.

Finally, there is one high-profile Virginia board that does have quite a bit of Roanoke representation (although Southside and Southwest continue to get short shrift). The Virginia Lottery Board has seven members: two from Roanoke (Cynthia Lawrence and J.P. Powell), plus two from Northern Virginia, two from the Richmond area and one from Hampton Roads.

So, that’s seven political observations. Seven is considered by some a lucky number, so, even without advice from the Virginia Lottery Board, I’ll stop there. Now it’s the other cat – Billy – who has conducted an experiment with gravity. This one involves a cup of iced tea and, as all Southerners know, that means this is serious.

Dwayne Yancey

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