A voting sign in Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
A voting sign in Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Other election analysis:

Four takeaways from Election 2022

Trump, abortion, cannabis: Three questions from Election 2022

Here’s my election analysis on Blue Ridge PBS.

The reelection – by wide margins – of Reps. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, last week was as predictable as the sunrise and was greeted about the same way.

Yawn.

All the election excitement in Virginia, as far as the congressional races went, was on the other side of the state. Republican challenger Jen Kiggans ousted Democrat Elaine Luria in Hampton Roads. Democrat Abigail Spanberger held on against Republican Yesli Vega in a newly configured district sandwiched between Richmond and Northern Virginia. Democrat Jennifer Wexton had a close call against Republican Hung Cao in Northern Virginia.

Political analysts, and political operatives from both sides, will be studying those numbers for a long time to come. But what could we possibly learn from further inquiry into the Cline and Griffith victories? Republicans in Republican districts won big. So what, right?

Here’s what lies beneath the surface of those victories, though: the continuing collapse of the Democratic Party in rural Virginia.

This is hardly new, but the data that Election 2022 gives us is new. I touched on some of this in my election night analysis but now let’s dig deeper. Here’s why all this matters: Democrats are not going to be competitive again in the 6th and 9th districts. In the words of the great philosopher Taylor Swift, “we are never ever getting back together.” But the continuing decline of the Democratic base in rural Virginia endangers the party’s ability to win statewide elections if those numbers are not offset by gains in more metro parts of the state.

The 2021 election shows those trends in action: Democrats did not see any significant gains in their vote share in the urban crescent. Indeed, in some places, it fell. Republicans, though, did see an increase in their vote share in rural areas – plus an increase in rural turnout, as well. That’s why Glenn Youngkin is sitting in the third floor of the state Capitol and Terry McAuliffe is hoping President Joe Biden will call him about a cabinet position. And that’s why these numbers in the 6th and 9th districts matter: The declining Democratic numbers in the western part of the state make it harder for a Democrat to win the governorship in 2025. That’s not to say a Democrat won’t win, just that whoever that nominee is begins with a somewhat bigger deficit to overcome (or, if you want to frame it the other way around, whoever that Republican nominee is will begin with a somewhat bigger floor of votes).

So, let’s look at the numbers.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem. Official portrait.

The 9th is the congressional district that has seen the most dramatic realignment. Much of that is well-known, so we won’t belabor it here, other than to set the stage: For nearly three decades, the district was represented by a Democrat, Rick Boucher. He was a victim of Barack Obama’s first midterms, when Republicans picked up 63 seats, the biggest midterm congressional shift since 1948. That 2010 race against Griffith was close. Subsequent elections in the 9th District haven’t been; 2010 is the bright line that runs through history here – so let’s just look at Griffith’s reelection campaigns.

In five of six reelection campaigns, Griffith has faced opposition. One year the only opponent was an independent, so four of six times Griffith has faced a Democrat. His vote share in those contested elections has, over time, risen from 61% in 2012 to 73.48% this year. As I pointed out on election night, even that figure masks the shape of the vote in the 9th. His Democratic challenger won in Martinsville (a city with a large Black majority) and the university community of Montgomery County. But across the rest of the district, Griffith won with thundering majorities.

In 2012, Griffith’s first reelection, his best locality was Tazewell County, where he took 73.3% of the vote.

In 2014, his only opponent was an independent, so I’m skipping over that year to get the most apples-to-apples comparisons.

In 2016, Griffith’s best locality was again Tazewell County at 76.8%.

In 2018, his best locality was – yes, you guessed it – Tazewell County again, at 79.5%.

In 2020, Griffith was unopposed, so that brings us to 2022.

This year, surprise, Griffith’s best locality wasn’t Tazewell County, it was Bland County, one county over. But that’s not the important part. Here’s the important part: Griffith took 86.44% in Bland County – and that wasn’t the only locality where his vote share topped 80%.

Until this year, when facing a Democrat, Griffith had never topped 80% in a locality. This year, he passed that mark in 14 localities: the counties of Bedford, Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Grayson, Lee, Patrick, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Wise and Wythe.

In 2012, just two localities in the 9th District saw the Republican vote top 70% – Tazewell and Bland. In this year’s election, 23 localities topped that mark.

Now, those numbers chart the Republican rise, but our main theme here today is the Democratic decline, so let’s look at the flip side of these numbers.

Let’s do this through Russell County as a representative locality:

2012: Griffith 57.6%, Anthony Flaccovento 42.3%

2016: Griffith 73.1%, Derek Kitts 24.5%

2018: Griffith 69.9%, Anthony Flaccovento 30.0%

2022: Griffith 82.68%, Taysha DeVaughan, 17.05%

In a decade’s time, we’ve seen the Democratic vote share in Russell County cut by more than half, falling from a respectable 42.3% to 17.05%.

Now, maybe Griffith is unusually popular and this year’s Democratic nominee was unusually weak, so let’s look at a broader swath of elections.

2012 House: Griffith 57.6%, Anthony Flaccovento 42.3%

2012: Senate: George Allen 64.5%, Tim Kaine 35.5%

2012 President: Mitt Romney 67.7%, Barack Obama 30.8%

2013 Governor: Ken Cuccinelli 64.8%, Terry McAuliffe 31.6%

2013 Lieutenant governor: Earl Jackson 66.1%, Ralph Northam 33.7%

2013 Attorney general: Mark Obenshain 68.9%, Mark Herring 31.0%

2014 Senate: Ed Gillepsie 60.7%, Mark Warner 37.6%

2016 House: Griffith 73.1%, Derek Kitts 24.5%

2016 President: Donald Trump 77.7%, Hillary Clinton 19%

2017 Governor: Ed Gillespie 76.7%, Ralph Northam 22.4%

2017 Lieutenant governor: Jill Vogel 76.6%, Justin Fairfax 23.3%

2017 Attorney general: John Adams 77.6%, Mark Herring 22.3%

2018 House: Griffith 69.9%, Anthony Flaccovento 30.0%

2018 Senate: Corey Stewart 71.3%, Tim Kaine 27.6%

2020 Senate: Daniel Gade 75.1%, Mark Warner 24.8%

2020 President: Donald Trump 81.3%, Joe Biden 17.7%

2021 Governor: Glenn Youngkin 84.8%, Terry McAuliffe 14.97%

2021: Lieutenant governor: Winsome Earle-Sears 84.6%, Hala Ayla 15.3%

2021 Attorney general: Jason Miyares 84.4%, Mark Herring 15.5%

2022 House: Griffith 82.68%, Taysha DeVaughan 17.05%

What we see more clearly now is that this year wasn’t an aberration, nor is Griffith especially unusual. What we see is a pretty consistent decline to the point where three years in a row now Democrats have polled in the teens where once they polled more than twice that (or more). If you want to go even further back, in 2001, just over two decades ago, Democrat Mark Warner carried Russell County in his campaign for governor – with 60.4% of the vote. From 60.4% in 2001 to 17.05% in 2022, that’s how much the Democratic vote has collapsed in Russell County.

We could do this for every other rural county and, while the numbers might differ, the directional trends are all the same.

In the 5th District, Republican Bob Good flipped three counties he lost two years ago: Fluvanna, Nelson, Prince Edward. Elsewhere he goosed his numbers: Two years ago he took 67% in Pittsylvania County, this time he took almost 75%, a shift of 8 percentage points. Two years ago he took 70% of the vote in Appomattox County; this year he took 79%, a shift of 9 percentage points. In Charlotte County, his numbers went from 59.7% to 69.4%, a shift of just under 10%. This map shows the biggest pro-Republican shifts in the state from the 2020 presidential election to this year’s mid-terms are in Southside and the Northern Neck (and Essex County across the river).

In the 6th District, we have the advantage of a rematch so we can compare this year’s Ben Cline-Jennifer Lewis race with the first one in 2018. Cline’s vote share rose in every locality that was in the district then, sometimes by significant margins. In 2018, he took 60.7% in Roanoke County. This time he took 68.1%, a shift of 7.4 percentage points. Bath County went from 69.5% to 78.5%, a shift of 9 percentage points.

This is all part of a growing geographical divide in the country, and while this year’s election may have been closer than expected nationally, beneath the surface, that rural-urban divide appeared to widen in many places, Virginia being one of them.

I’ve seen some chatter nationally that John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania (and now senator-elect), was the rare Democrat who could appeal to rural voters. It’s true that for a guy with a master’s in public policy from Harvard, Fetterman exuded a different blue-collar vibe that sells well in rural areas. And it’s true that Fetterman made a rhetorical point of running on “every county, every vote.” Whether Fetterman did well in rural Pennsylvania is a matter of perspective.

On the one hand, his numbers in rural Pennsylvania were low – generally in the 20% range or 30% range, and bottoming out at 15.2% in Fulton County along the state’s southern border. On the other hand, Fetterman ran better in rural Pennsylvania than “Joe from Scranton” did two years ago. In virtually all rural counties, Fetterman topped Biden’s vote share, often by as much as 5%. (The Washington Post has a good analysis, and a nifty map, on this.) That’s considered one of the reasons Fetterman held off a late charge by Republican Mehmet Oz. “His success,” the Post writes, “was in increasing margins in conservative areas that Biden failed to convince.” Biden lost rural Pennsylvania by 645,000 votes; Fetterman only lost there by 390,000 votes. That’s a good thing, from his perspective: “If Fetterman had performed as badly as Biden did in the rest of the state, he would have lost the election,” the Post writes. Pennsylvania proves my point above: Biden was able to overcome that rural deficit in 2020 and win, but not every Democrat will be so lucky. Fetterman put himself at an advantage by paying at least some attention to rural communities.

“I never expected that we were going to turn these red counties blue,” he told The Washington Post. “But we did what we needed to do and we had that conversation across every one of those counties.”

It’s a mystery to me why many Virginia Democrats ignore the math of rural Virginia. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine sure understand it and spend time in this part of the state, but the party’s statewide candidates last year sure didn’t – and I’ve not seen much evidence that their likely candidates in the future (other than Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County) do. If Democrats are really intent on winning back the governorship in 2025, they need to pull a Fetterman. The 2022 results should be a warning to them: How low can the party go in rural Virginia? Absent some special effort, lower than it has been. It’s not hard to imagine some counties in the 90% range for Republicans and in the single-digit range for Democrats.

Now this may seem cheerleading for the Democrats, but it’s really meant to be cheerleading for rural Virginia. Rural Republicans may gloat at the other party’s demise in their counties, but this is short-sighted. At some point, a Democrat will win the governorship again. Whether that’s 2025 or 2029 or when, I have no idea, but history suggests at some point it will happen. Whenever it does, it would be better for us if that governor owed at least a little bit of debt to the state’s rural areas.

Dwayne Yancey

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