Well, that was fast.
On Nov. 8, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, won reelection with a record share of the vote in a contested election. Less than two weeks later, a Republican state legislator in his district said it was time for a change, possibly signaling a primary challenge in 2024.
On the same day that Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt was breaking that news, another longtime incumbent – this one a Democrat – found he’d get a primary challenge, too. Earlier this year, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, said he’d be moving to the Charlottesville area following a redistricting plan that put him in the same district as two Republican senators. Not so fast, says Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. She’s announced her intention to run for the same seat, setting off a different kind of primary battle.
Different offices, different parties, but these political contests are similar in one way: both involve incumbents facing challengers to their left (in Deeds’ case) or their right (in Griffith’s). That’s long been a recipe for some incumbents getting toppled. That’s how Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, became famous, and how, closer to home, Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, initially won his seat. Both Deeds and Griffith have reason to be less comfortable today than they were before all this news broke last week.
As we move closer to the 2023 General Assembly elections – the first under new redistricting maps – we’ll see other nomination battles start to shape up. Already we have one in eastern Southside, where Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler of Emporia are pitted against each other for the Republican nomination for a state Senate seat in a district that has no incumbent. We may have another in a state Senate district that stretches from Roanoke County to Augusta County and that has no incumbent – Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, has already declared his intention to run; state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, is contemplating a move into the district to avoid being paired with state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County. A House district that covers parts of the Roanoke and New River valleys lacks an incumbent but has two Republican contenders, Chris Obenshain and Lowell Bowman.
Elsewhere, we’re still waiting on some legislators to decide what they’re going to do. For now, both Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, and Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, are paired in the same state Senate district. Farther east, so are Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, and Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover County. In the House, Deputy House Majority Leader Israel O’Quinn and William Wampler III, both R-Washington County, have been paired. Other House pairings include Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, and Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg; Danny Marshall, R-Danville, and Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County; John Avioli, R-Staunton, and Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge County. And then there’s the already infamous pairing of March with Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County. We used to think of a Texas Cage Match as the ultimate in no-holds-barred fighting. The upcoming Blue Ridge Cage Match may make Texas look mild.
That’s just one of the many things that makes March’s attack on Griffith so fascinating. Technically, she didn’t say she’d run against Griffith – she just said someone should. Historically, though, that’s typically the precursor to an actual declaration. You’d think she might want to take care of her own General Assembly renomination for 2023 first, rather than raising the prospect she might run for Congress in 2024, but March is not one to adhere to political norms. (She attended the Stop the Steal rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.) Let’s take a look at both these contests.
March vs. Griffith
First, let’s do some fact-checking. In speaking to Floyd County Republicans, March suggested that Griffith was not inspiring the Republican base. “I want to tell you guys, I knew he was going to have a lot of voter apathy,” she said. “When we worked the flea market in Hillsville, every other person came by and said, ‘I dread that we have to vote for Morgan – there no one’s running against him.’ … We heard it the entire time in Carroll County, that’s a solid red county in deep red Southwest Virginia. So I could have told y’all months ago, this wasn’t going to shape up like Morgan would have liked it to.”
So, is any of that true?
One thing certainly isn’t: Griffith did have an opponent this fall, Democrat Taysha DeVaughan, so voters did have a choice. Although let’s let that slide; March’s point seems to be that Republicans aren’t enthusiastic about Griffith, so let’s probe deeper.
- Griffith took 73.24% of the vote this year, his highest vote share yet except in years where he didn’t have an opponent. Griffith was elected with 51.2% of the vote in 2010 – Barack Obama’s first midterms – and then was reelected with 61.3% of the vote in 2012. His vote share has risen over time, which would suggest that 9th District voters sure aren’t “dreading” voting for him.
- March singled out the response in Carroll County, which she correctly calls a “solid red county.” As I’ve documented before, Carroll is one of the most Republican counties in Virginia. Other counties (such as the coal counties) may now give Republicans a bigger share of the vote, but Carroll is a county that’s been reliably Republican, with only a few exceptions, since the end of the Civil War. So let’s look at Griffith’s vote share in what amounts to the Republican heartland. In 2010, Griffith took 57.2% of the vote in Carroll County. This year he took 83.21% in Carroll County, the first time he’s topped the 80% mark there. In fact, Griffith never surpassed the 80% mark in any county until this year; this time he did it in 14 localities. Once again, if we’re going by the share of the vote, Griffith seems to be becoming more popular, not less so.
This, though, may still not address March’s point. Vote share is not the only way to measure election returns; we can look at raw numbers. Here’s an absurd example: If voters were so apathetic that only one of them turned out, a candidate could claim a 100% vote share but that would hardly mean everyone was enthusiastic. If there’s truly voter apathy, as March suggests, then we’d expect to see fewer voters overall turn out. So let’s take a look – and since she singled out Carroll County, let’s do the same. Looking at a single county also has the advantage of looking at a territory that hasn’t been changed by redistricting. Carroll County has lost 2.95% of its population over the past decade so we might logically expect to find that the number of voters has gone down slightly, too. Further, to get a fair comparison with this year, we should only look at other midterm elections; the higher turnout of a presidential year wouldn’t be a comparable measure.
Here are Griffith’s vote totals in Carroll County in midterm elections:
2010: 4,917 (vs. Democrat Rick Boucher)
2014: 5,096 (vs. independent William Carr)
2018: 8,052 (vs. Democrat Anthony Flaccovento)
2022: 8,496 (vs. Democrat Taysha DeVaughn)
Umm, I’m sure not seeing any lack of enthusiasm for Griffith here. His vote totals in Carroll County – the place where March said there was apathy – have risen each year, even though the county has been losing population. In fact, Griffith’s vote total in Carroll this year – 8,496 – is almost what the combined vote in the county was in 2010 for Griffith and Boucher together – 8,589. So yes, the total vote in Carroll County this year for Joe Biden’s midterms (10,210) was higher than the total vote in the county for Obama’s first midterm. Someone wiser than me will have to explain what’s going on there but it sure looks to me that voters in Carroll County – who are overwhelmingly Republican voters – weren’t apathetic this year. I can’t say who was motivating them – be it pro-Griffith or anti-Biden – but something sure was. Maybe those voters reluctantly filled in the bubble by Griffith’s name – we have no way to measure that — but the fact is that a record number still did so.
To me, that math is persuasive, but I’m sure it won’t be to March. Here’s the important thing to know and it has nothing to do with whether Griffith’s vote share and vote totals are up or down: He won’t be able to control his method of renomination in 2024. State law lets incumbents in certain offices decide whether they want a primary or a convention, but that state law omits House members from the list. That means it’s up to the 9th District Republicans to decide how to pick their candidate. The danger for Griffith: March and her supporters seize control of the district committee and call for a convention rather than a primary. Historically, challengers from the furthest end of the party are most potent in a convention – they need fewer people to muscle out an incumbent. Former Rep. Denver Riggleman can testify to this; that’s how Good defeated him for the Republican nomination in the 5th District in 2020.
Even if March isn’t the challenger, it’s possible someone else could be. That’s the problem with districts such as the 9th that are so lopsided in favor of one party. A small group can get control of the district committee, set up a convention, nominate their preferred candidate – and then be guaranteed victory. That’s as true in a deep blue district as it is in a deep red one, except that Democrats seem congenitally inclined toward primaries rather than conventions.
Hudson vs. Deeds
With that, we now turn our attention to the Hudson-Deeds showdown. The dynamics here are different but the bottom line is the same: An incumbent could get tossed out.
Let’s set the stage: Deeds is from Bath County, one of the last rural Democrats left in the General Assembly. As rural Virginia has realigned, his political base in the Alleghany Highlands has disappeared, so a decade ago Democrats drew him a district that stretched all the way to Charlottesville – a prime example of gerrymandering. By 2019, Deeds was no longer able to win on his home turf – he lost Bath County – but was able to win overall because of massive Democratic margins in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
The new redistricting maps – drawn by special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court, the first not drawn by the majority party in the legislature – created more logically shaped districts. That’s probably great for voters but not for Deeds. He was drawn into a strongly Republican district west of the Blue Ridge with two GOP incumbents, Hanger and Obenshain. Deeds’ response? He announced he’d move to Charlottesville, to follow his constituents.
Hudson, though, already lives there and has her own plans. For the record, she says she’s not running against Deeds, she’s running for the seat, but that doesn’t change the political realities: Here we have a Democratic delegate, a longtime resident of Charlottesville, running against a Democratic senator who may have represented the area but is just now moving there. Deeds is also considered something of a centrist, while Hudson comes from further left, the part of the Democratic Party that likes to call itself “progressive.” That’s also where the energy in the Democratic Party is right now. Based on those two things alone – residency and the activist base – Hudson could well knock off a senior Democratic senator, one who was his party’s nominee for governor in 2009 and has gone on, through personal tragedy, to become the preeminent voice on mental health issues in the state. Deeds’ long list of credentials – co-chair of Senate Judiciary, a member of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, plus not one, not two but three other powerful committees (Privileges and Elections, Commerce and Labor, and Rules) – may mean nothing to such party activists. Joe Crowley was a powerful Democratic figure in the House of Representatives, and that meant little to the New York primary voters who turned him out in favor of Ocasio-Cortez.
Let’s look at the math in this district. First, it’s a solidly Democratic district; the Virginia Public Access Project says that in 2021, a Republican year statewide, it still voted 58% Democratic. Whoever gets the Democratic nomination here is almost certain to win the general election.
This district now stretches from Charlottesville down to the outskirts of Lynchburg in Amherst County. Don’t be fooled by the map that shows an elongated district. Almost three-quarters of the political weight in the district is in and around Charlottesville – 51.7% of the voters are in Albemarle, 22.47% in Charlottesville. (The rest: 14.4% in Amherst County, 7.1% in Nelson County, 4.29% in Louisa County.)
Here’s one way to look at this: Let’s assume that Deeds runs stronger than Hudson in the one-quarter of the district that’s more rural. How much of a margin will that give him? He won’t have to win Charlottesville and Albemarle but he’ll have to hang close enough that his presumed margins in the rural areas make up the difference. For Hudson to win, she’ll just need to run up the score in Charlottesville and Albemarle. Which of those is the more likely scenario?
One danger for Deeds: He’s run before in Nelson County, and Hudson hasn’t, but he’s never had to run in Amherst and Louisa (except for his campaign for governor) so we can’t necessarily assume that Deeds has an automatic advantage in those places. Further, in Charlottesville and Albemarle, Deeds will be running on familiar turf, but Hudson will be running on home turf.
I first met Deeds in 1991 when he was running for a House of Delegates seat. The incumbent then was Emmett Hanger but Democrats had drawn the district in such a way as to put Hanger at a disadvantage. Hanger lost but later resurfaced in the state Senate. More than three decades later, Deeds and Hanger are both now in the Senate, and redistricting has put both of them at a disadvantage. Irony is often on the ballot, too.