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And now, onto the business:
Was what happened in Virginia on Tuesday a red wave, or just a normal red tide?
That depends on where you look.
Republicans scored some victories, but not all the ones they hoped for. Clearly the underlying trends were in favor of Republicans but they weren’t strong enough to dislodge some vulnerable Democrats. This may be one of those elections that gives both sides talking points. The Republican victories clearly give them something to talk about; Democrats can talk about how they really should have done much worse than they did, given how midterms typically break against the president’s party. Democrats should worry about President Joe Biden’s unpopularity – he remains “underwater,” as they say, in the approval polls. But Republicans might want to ponder whether they could have done better if they didn’t have the shadow of Donald Trump looming over them. That brings us to the first of several lessons from Election Night 2022:
1. Republicans won but underperformed. Was Trump to blame?
Virginia had two congressional districts that were truly up for grabs. Republicans won one – Jennifer Kiggans edged out incumbent Elaine Luria in the 2nd District in Hampton Roads. But Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger appears to have held on in the 7th despite a strong challenge by Republican Yesli Vega. Republicans had held out hope of upsetting Democrat Jennifer Wexton in the 10th District; Republican Hung Cao made it close – just not close enough.
It should not go unnoted that Vega was more closely identified with Trump than Kiggans was. Trump surely helps Republicans in some districts – the more rural ones – but he remains anathema to many suburban voters. Could Republicans have defeated Spanberger if they had fielded a different candidate, one less tied to Trump? Quite possibly. Will Republicans look at the midterms and think they now have a clear shot at defeating Biden in 2024? Or will they look at these results and think they might want to hedge their bets and nominate someone other than Trump? These returns are the equivalent of Full Employment Act for political commentators.
Full disclosure: While I am not here to advocate for one party over another in 2024, I do think, objectively speaking, that Republicans have a much better chance without Trump on their ticket. Given all the things that Republicans had going in their favor and Democrats had going against them – inflation, crime, Biden’s unfavorables – they probably should have won more than they did. I can only think of one reason they didn’t and it starts with a capital T. Trump has besmirched the Republican brand enough with certain voters that he may have cost them the bigger victory that, based on the fundamentals of the election, they probably deserved. As I write this, the national picture is still unclear, but it does look as if many of the Trump-aligned candidates are running behind in races that otherwise ought to be more competitive. If those trends hold, then the Virginia results fit squarely within them. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report writes: “In the last four midterm elections, the ‘out’ party has won independent voters by double digits. Exit polls show Democrats winning indies by 1 pt. 49/48. This is why things are so close.” Trump may be great for parts of the Republican base, but not with independents, and even in these polarizing times – perhaps especially in these polarizing times – independents do matter.
- The rural-urban divide widened. The districts I’ve just talked about all have one thing in common: lots of suburban voters (more so in the 2nd, less so in the 7th). The picture is very different in rural districts. There, Republican candidates ran well ahead of previous years. If there was a red wave in Virginia, it showed up mostly in rural areas that were already going to go Republican.
Take the 5th District. Two years ago Republican Bob Good won that with 52.4% of the vote. This year, he won it with 58.2%. Redistricting has reshaped that district some but not that much. Three localities that Good lost in 2020 flipped to his column in 2022: Fluvanna County, Nelson County and Prince Edward County. And some counties where he won big in 2020 he won even bigger this time. For instance, two years ago Good took 70% of the vote in Appomattox County; this year he took 79%. Pittsylvania County moved from 67% in his favor two years ago to almost 75% this time.
In the 6th District, Republican Ben Cline took 59.7% of the vote against Jennifer Lewis in his initial race in 2018. This year, in a rematch, he took 64.55%. Granted, redistricting has made that district more Republican by adding the northern Shenandoah Valley, but we still see Republican gains when we look at individual localities that haven’t budged, district-wise. In 2018, Roanoke County voted 60.7% for Cline; this time it voted 68.1% for him. Warren County went 64% for Cline two years ago; this year it went 70%.
In the 9th District, we see even more dramatic numbers. After winning his seat in a close race in 2010, Republican Morgan Griffith has averaged 66.75% when he’s had an opponent. This year he pulled 73.72%, his highest vote share in a contested election yet. That number, as big as it is, still masks the shape of the returns in the 9th District. Democrat Taysha DeVaughan won in Martinsville (a city with a large Black minority), and in Montgomery County, a university community. Beyond those places, though, she bombed. Griffith topped 80% of the vote in 14 localities: the counties of Bedford, Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Grayson, Lee, Patrick, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Wise and Wythe. Four years ago, the last time Griffith had opposition, he didn’t hit 80% in any of them. Some localities have seen particularly big shifts in that time. Russell County has gone from 69.9% Republican to 82.68% Republican, Buchanan County has gone from 69.4% Republican to 83.7%.
Add all this up and what do you see? You see the continuing collapse of the Democratic Party in rural Virginia – and rural America beyond it, once all the numbers are in. Democrats may not think this matters and in these congressional races, it may not. The 6th and 9th will be Republican districts no matter what; the percentages seem irrelevant. But the 5th once was considered competitive; now it’s not. And all these numbers feed into statewide totals. Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governorship last year for two basic reasons – he restored the Republican vote share in Northern Virginia to pre-Trump levels and he ratcheted up the vote in rural Virginia. Had he not done the latter, his Northern Virginia numbers would have still left him short. My point: This utter collapse in rural communities endangers the ability of Democrats to win statewide elections, and it gives a boost to Republicans. Republicans are well aware of this; Democrats seem completely oblivious – or at least incapable of devising a solution.
- A tale of two cities: Republicans sweep Lynchburg; Democrats sweep Roanoke. Roanoke and Lynchburg have had a rivalry ever since a strange new metropolis rose out of the marshlands of Big Lick and challenged Lynchburg’s position as the largest city west of Richmond. Tuesday’s election underscored just how different those two cities are. In Lynchburg, Republicans swept the three city council seats to gain a majority for the first time since maybe 1998. (I’m hedging this because over the years not all Lynchburg council members have identified with a party.) However you measure it, this was a stunning win for Republicans. In Roanoke, Republicans – who hadn’t won a council seat in the Star City since 2000 – mounted a spirited campaign but fell short. Not only did Democrats sweep – again – they did so with a ticket that many would not expect to see in a city on the edge of Appalachia. The four Democratic winners included three gay men and one Latina. As a result, Roanoke’s next council will not have a straight white male; the lone one on council now (Bill Bestpitch) is retiring.
Some additional words about Roanoke’s council election: The strongest Republican candidate may have been running in the wrong race. Technically, Roanoke had two council elections. In one election were the three seats regularly on the ballot. Then there was a separate special election to fill the unexpired term of a council member who had to forfeit his seat after being convicted of a felony (unrelated to city business). Peg McGuire, a Republican who finished just out of the money in council elections two years ago, ran against Democrat Luke Priddy in that special election. She lost but ran stronger than some of the Democrats who won in the regular election. It’s somewhat apples-and-oranges to compare votes from one to the other – voters had one vote to spend in the special election, three in the regular election. Still, I can’t help but notice this: In the special election, Priddy took 13,749 votes, McGuire 10,906. In the regular election, those 10,906 votes would have been good enough for third place – and a seat on the council. Voters in Roanoke clearly weren’t as happy with things as they have been – Peter Volosin trailed his Democratic ticketmates by 2,117 votes. If McGuire had been running for one of the three seats, rather than the one, might she have won? We’ll never know but I’m thinking she might have.
Another observation: Former Mayor David Bowers, who was attempting a comeback for a council seat as an independent, finished seventh in a nine-way race – behind three winning Democrats and three runners-up Republicans. Bowers ran strongest in the more blue-collar precincts where Republicans ran best; did he effectively pull votes away from Republicans and cost them a council seat? If he hadn’t been on the ballot, where would those votes have gone? Or would those voters have stayed home?
- Some voters were in a disruptive mood. We see that in otherwise different results in Salem and Martinsville. Salem has long prided itself on having nonpartisan elections where candidates run as independents. Hunter Holliday bucked that trend this year, running as a Republican. (He’s also a 2020 election skeptic, although maybe not an outright denier.) Two years ago he ran and lost. This year he ran and led the balloting, with former Mayor Randy Foley getting pushed off council. (Incumbent John Saunders was reelected to the other seat.) Salem once prided itself on its council’s unanimity; is that about to change?
Meanwhile, we’ll definitely see some changes in Martinsville, where voters appear to have tossed out two incumbents and installed two challengers who oppose the city’s attempt to give up its charter and revert to town status. If that election holds – and late-arriving mail ballots could potentially make the difference in one race – that means the Martinsville council will now have an anti-reversion majority. Martinsville, as I’ve written in a previous column, is a city primed for an economic rebirth if it has the right leadership. Will this new council help that or hinder that?
Combined with the Republican sweep in Lynchburg, the strong (although ultimately losing) Republican effort in Roanoke, the Republican victory in the 2nd Congressional District and the strong (but losing) Republican campaigns in the 7th and 10th Congressional Districts, it’s fair to say that many voters were in an unhappy mood Tuesday. How long is that unhappiness going to continue? Republicans likely hope it lasts long enough to help them in next year’s General Assembly elections and the 2024 presidential election. If that voter unhappiness is specifically directed at Democrats, then Republicans will benefit. If, however, it’s more generally directed at incumbents and the status quo, then some Republicans now have as much to worry about voter discontent as Democrats do. Sometimes elections have a “be careful what you wish for” element to them. A party that wins partial power when voters are unhappy now has to figure out how to make sure those unhappy voters blame the other party and not them. Those are my initial takeaways from Election 2022. We’ll see what others might emerge in the days ahead.