An early voting sign in Wythe County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Tuesday is Election Day. Polls open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Want election info? See our Voter Guide.

One of the great things about Virginia – at least if you’re a political junkie – is that it’s always election year.

Nationally, we talk about “off-year” elections. We in Virginia never take a year off, although our election schedule sometimes is different from the rest of the country. Nationally, the big deal this year is which party wins control of Congress in the midterms. We also have some municipal elections that are in November for the first time, the result of a recent change in Virginia law aimed at boosting participation in local elections (or helping Democrats, depending on your point of view).

Here at Cardinal, we’ll be “all hands on deck” as the election returns start coming in Tuesday night – and thanks to generous donors, we have more than twice as many reporting hands to put on that deck than we did last year when we had our first election night. (We interrupt this column for the obligatory pitch: You can help us produce even more journalism for and about Southwest and Southside with a budget-friendly monthly donation. You’ll also see that from now until the end of the year, NewsMatch will double your donation up to $1,000 and that we’re using our year-end campaign to raise money to fund an education reporter. Here’s how to make that happen.)

Now back to the elections. Here’s some of what we’ll be looking for Tuesday night:

Congressional races

The two most tightly contested races in Virginia are on the other side of the state: In Hampton Roads’ 2nd District, Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria faces a strong challenge from Republican Jen Kiggans, and in the 7th District between Richmond and Northern Virginia, Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger faces a hot race against Republican Yesli Vega. Both those races have national implications: Can Democrats hold the House or will Republicans win it back? The route to either of those outcomes runs through those two districts (and lots of others around the country).

Both parties also have districts that might get classified as “stretch goals.” In Northern Virginia’s 10th District, Republican challenger Hung Cao is taking on Democratic incumbent Jennifer Wexton and in Southside’s 5th District, Democrat Josh Throneburg is trying to unseat Republican Bob Good.

We also have the 6th District from Roanoke to Winchester and the 9th District in Southwest Virginia (plus some other places, thanks to redistricting). They’re the two most Republican districts in the state but both have contests: Republican Ben Cline faces a rematch with Democrat Jennifer Lewis in the 6th and Republican Morgan Griffith faces Democrat Taysha DeVaughn in the 9th. We’ll have numbers on both.

Local Elections: Council seats

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list – for that, you should consult the State Board of Elections – but here are some of the major ones in our part of the state.

Roanoke

Four of the seven seats on the Roanoke City Council will be on the ballot. This will come in the form of two separate elections: Three seats are available in the regular election; the fourth is a special election to fill the unexpired term of a council member who was disqualified after being convicted of a felony (unrelated to his council service). This means there are nine candidates running for the three regular at-large seats (Democrats Joe Cobb, Vivian Sanchez-Jones and Peter Volosin; Republicans Dalton Baugess, Nic Hagan and Maynard Keller; independents David Bowers, Jamaal Jackson and Preston Tyler) and two in the special election (Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire) – in all, 11 candidates for four seats. Democracy seems to be flourishing in Roanoke. (For those following from afar, Priddy is an aide to state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.)

There are several storylines we’ll be following here:

  • Will Democrats sweep again?
  • Will Republicans score a breakthrough?
  • Will Bowers stage a comeback and frustrate both parties?

All seven council members are Democrats. Roanoke hasn’t elected a Republican to the council since 2000. Many years, Republicans haven’t even fielded a full slate of candidates. This year they have, and the GOP is running the most spirited campaign I’ve seen in years with an emphasis on crime and schools. A spirited campaign doesn’t always translate into votes, of course, but an unspirited one certainly doesn’t. Republicans face an uphill fight since Roanoke trends strongly Democratic and all council seats are elected at large. They’d be better off with a ward system. On the other hand, two of the Democrats are incumbents – Cobb and Sanchez-Jones – but only Cobb has run before. Sanchez-Jones was appointed to fill the term of a council member who resigned, so her electability is untested. Cobb led the balloting last time, and led it again during this year’s Democratic primary, so presumably is the strongest Democratic candidate. Volosin, who ran and lost two years ago, is probably the weakest, so the question is whether he’s still strong enough to win.

Democrats may be hampered by the lack of a Black candidate; if the absence of a Black Democrat depresses Black voter turnout, that would help other candidates. There are two Black independents; will they draw away votes that might otherwise have gone to Democrats? The wild card is Bowers, a former Democratic mayor who is running as an independent and in recent years seems to be positioned to the right of other Democrats, who have tacked left. Is his time past? Or does he retain enough popularity to win while Republicans can’t? Will he wind up blocking Republicans, and therefore helping Democrats, by splitting any anti-incumbent vote? In recent years, Roanoke voters have seemed quite pleased with the direction of the city. A Democratic sweep would reaffirm that. A vote for any of the other candidates would suggest some level of discontent.

Now here’s the bad news for Republicans: By moving council elections to November, all these candidates are now on the same ballot as the candidates for the 6th District congressional seat — Republican incumbent Ben Cline against Democrat Jennifer Lewis. That’s a rematch of their 2018 race. Then, only four localities voted for Lewis but one of those was Roanoke, where she took 63% of the vote. Two years ago when Democrats fielded a different candidate, that Democrat still took 58.6% of the vote in Roanoke. If nothing changes from those races, Cline would easily win the district but Lewis would carry Roanoke — so any non-Democrats hoping to win council seats have to hope that some Lewis voters don’t vote a straight Democratic ballot. How likely or unlikely is that? Or have the dynamics changed so much that Cline might win Roanoke? The better Cline does in Roanoke, the more that would seem to help the Republicans running for council. The better Lewis does, the more that would seem to help the Democrats. These are all some of the factors at play.

One historical note: If all four Democrats win, Roanoke would have a council where a) three members are gay and b) there’s not a straight white male on the body. Want more on the Roanoke council elections? See the story that Ralph Berrier, who once covered city hall for The Roanoke Times, wrote for Cardinal.

Lynchburg

The Hill City is electing three at-large members of the council. As in Roanoke, Republicans are mounting a strong campaign. Because Lynchburg’s politics are different from Roanoke – a more even party split – they stand a better chance of winning. A Republican victory would give the party control of the Lynchburg City Council for the first time in about two decades. Since candidates often run without party affiliation, the exact date is hard to pin down, although some people tell me 1998 was the last time the city had a Republican-leaning mayor (and Lynchburg’s mayors are elected by council). Most cities tend to be Democratic; if Republicans prevail here, Lynchburg would stand as a notable exception. The Democrats: Patrick Earl, Treney Tweedy, Beau Wright. The Republicans: Martin Misjuns, Stephanie Reed, Larry Taylor. An independent: Walter Virgil Jr.

When Democrats controlled the General Assembly, they moved all municipal elections from May to November — ostensibily so more people could participate, although there was a nice political side effect in that they thought the higher turnout would benefit them. In Roanoke and other cities, it might well help Democrats even in what seems like a Republican year. However, Lynchburg is a city where November elections might help Republicans. Two years ago, when Lynchburg was in the 6th District, it voted 53.3% for Ben Cline. Now it’s in the 5th District, but the point is there’s a Republican tilt here that could benefit the party in this year’s council election if voter preferences in the congressional race carry over down ballot to the council seats.

Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote more about the Hill City elections.

Danville

Six candidates are seeking four seats. Incumbents James Buckner, Bryant Hood, Alonzo Jones (the mayor) and Gary Miller face challenges Maureen Belko and Petrina Carter. Danville’s council is currently all-male. If either Belko or Carter won, that would change. Cardinal’s Grace Mamon wrote more about this.

Martinsville

This city is holding what might be the most consequential municipal election in this part of the state. At issue is the process of reversion. Martinsville has been trying to revert to town status, by giving up its city charter and becoming a town within Henry County. Reversion proponents say this will save money in a city that’s been losing population since 1970. Opponents say it’s a loss of stature and control. Reversion proponents currently hold a 4-1 advantage on the council. If incumbents Jennifer Bowles and Danny Turner win, the count will stay that way. If challengers L.C. Jones and Aaron Rowles win, then reversion opponents will hold a 3-2 advantage and the process dies. If there’s a split, then reversion continues, but with a larger minority opposition.

Salem

Four candidates are seeking two seats – incumbents Randy Foley and John Saunders against challengers Anne Marie Green and Hunter Holliday. Salem’s council campaign is notable because candidates here typically run as independents, but Holliday is running as a Republican. That means there are at least two currents flowing through this election: Are voters happy with the incumbents or not? And which will prevail: Salem’s independent tradition or its Republican instincts in other elections? Here’s a potential third current: Holliday recently revealed he attended the Stop the Steal Rally on January 6, 2021 and isn’t sure whether the 2020 election was legitimate. How will Salem voters feel about that?

Two town council elections catch my eye for very different reasons:

In Rocky Mount, council candidate Phillip Bane has filed an assault and battery charge against the assistant town manager. The Roanoke Times has video of their encounter. Bane is one of six candidates seeking three seats.

In Ridgeway, six candidates are seeking three seats. One of those is 18-year-old Maeve McCulloch, who was appointed to the council this summer after her mother resigned for business reasons. She’s a student at Patrick & Henry Community College.

Finally, one election outside our coverage area is of interest to us: The contest for mayor of Fairfax city between Catherine Read and Sang Yi, who are officially running as independents although Read is a Democrat and Yi is a Republican. This race has attracted attention for its potential to make history: Read would be the city’s first female mayor; Yi would be its first Korean-American mayor. But that’s not why we’re interested in this race. Rather, it’s a more parochial interest: Read was born in Galax and grew up in Roanoke County, where she went to William Byrd High School. (Are there other Southwest or Southside ex-pats running elsewhere? Let us know).

Local elections: Referenda

The biggest is in Pittsylvania County, where for the second year in a row the county is voting on whether to raise taxes with the revenue going to schools. Only a select number of localities in Virginia have the power to do this (that’s a sore subject with the ones who don’t; state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, tried to change this earlier this year but Republicans weren’t interested). Last year, nine localities vested with this power held referenda, and eight saw the measure passed. The only place it failed was in Pittsylvania County, although not by much. This year, Pittsylvania is trying again. Cardinal’s Grace Mamon wrote more about this.

Four localities – Alleghany County, Covington, Lexington and Southampton County – are voting on whether to elect their school boards. These measures almost always pass so I’d be surprised if any of those fail.

Augusta County is voting on whether to move its courthouse to Verona or build a new one in downtown Staunton. The Verona facility would cost just over $80 million; the Staunton version would cost just under $104 million – so for some it’s a vote between cost savings in the county and tradition in downtown.

Nationally, the big stories will be about on Congress and governorships. Our focus will be closer to home.

Come back Tuesday and I’ll write about the process of “calling” elections, and then come back Tuesday night for actual results.

Dwayne Yancey

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