State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. Courtesy of McClellan.

One week ago today, Jennifer McClellan made history.

She won the special election for the 4th Congressional District seat, becoming the first Black woman that Virginia has ever sent to Congress. Her name will be forever etched in history alongside other significant “firsts.”

She also won it in impressive fashion, taking 71% of the vote. This was, admittedly, a strongly Democratic district — her win was quite expected — but she still polled a higher percentage of the vote than her predecessor, the late Don McEachin, had ever received (he topped out at 65% last November, not long before he passed away). This was the largest vote share any candidate in the 4th has received since Republican Randy Forbes took 76% in 2006 in a district whose map looked quite different than it does now.

Along the way, McClellan carried some counties that had voted Republican in recent elections.

Both Dinwiddie County and Southampton County voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and Glenn Youngkin in 2021 — as well as for McEachin’s Republican opponent in 2022 — but swung to McClellan in 2023. Southampton’s switch was particularly big: Here’s a county that voted 58.5% for Trump and 64.9% for Youngkin and 59% for Leon Benjamin in November — and that went almost 57% for McClellan against the same Leon Benjamin. This is the first time that those two counties have voted for a Democrat in a contested congressional election since Norman Sisisky carried them back in 1996. 

Meanwhile, Surry County went for Joe Biden by a slim margin in 2020, flipped to Youngkin in 2021 by an even slimmer margin, flipped back to McEachin in 2022 but then went to McClellan by landslide margins in 2023. She took 59.7% of the vote there.

Who carried which localities in last week's 4th Congressional District special election. Note: For coloring purposes, the map colors in an entire locality even if it's split between congressional districts. Data source: State Board of Elections.
Who carried which localities in last week’s 4th Congressional District special election. Democrat Jennifer McClellen carried every locality except Colonial Heights and Prince George County. Note: For coloring purposes, the map colors in an entire locality even if it’s split between congressional districts. Data source: State Board of Elections.

It’s always tempting — and sometimes useful — to parse the numbers in special elections to see if they contain some glimmers of a changing electoral mood that might materialize in greater force in the next regular election. Furthermore, Democrats — some of them, anyway — have been agonizing over their party’s collapse in rural areas, warning that wipeouts in the countryside make it harder for the party to win statewide elections. (See Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 governor’s race.) Here are three rural counties that McClellan flipped, two of them in dramatic fashion. Does this portend the R word — realignment?

Umm, no. In looking more deeply at the numbers, it’s clear that these results happened simply because many Republicans in those localities just didn’t bother to vote. Maybe they weren’t enamored of their candidate, an election denier who had already lost twice before. Maybe they just assumed (correctly) that McClellan was going to win anyway, so why bother? It’s one thing to turn out in November as part of a nationwide series of elections that are billed as a referendum on one party or the other, even if you’re in a predictable district. It’s quite another to trudge to the polls in February when the outcome is already known in advance. 

None of this is meant to take anything away from McClellan’s history-making election, but it is meant to temper some Democratic enthusiasm about what her victory might portend for future elections because there’s nothing here to suggest that some fundamental shift is at hand.

Here are the relevant numbers. 

The Virginia Public Access Project has done election nerds everywhere a favor by crunching the turnout numbers.

In November’s general election, 244,972 voters cast ballots. In February’s special election, only 109,195 did (not counting some late-arriving mail ballots and some provisional ballots). 

The shape of that turnout was wildly uneven across the district, in ways that boosted the Democratic share and dampened the Republican share. In Greensville County, 62.7% of those who voted in November voted in February. By contrast, in Southampton County, only 31.1% of those who voted in November bothered to cast ballots in February. 

Here’s how that shook out: 

The nine localities with the highest turnout all voted Democratic both in 2020 and 2021 — as well as 2023. 

The two localities with the lowest turnout were ones that voted Republican in 2020 and 2021 — but went for McClellan this time. Those two were Dinwiddie and Southampton, the two biggest localities that switched sides.

McClellan, who had a political operation already put together from her unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2021, did a good job of turning out the Democratic vote, particularly in Democratic localities. Republicans simply didn’t show up, even in the most Republican parts of the district.

Here are the actual numbers for the three counties that McClellan flipped:

Dinwiddie County

Trump   5,730 or 58.6%       
Youngkin      5,084 or 64.9%   Benjamin 5,582 or 59.1%        Benjamin   373 or 43.0%

Biden     3,969 or 40.6%      

McAuliffe    2,717 or   34.7%  
McEachin 3,864 or 40.9%   
McClellan 494  or 56.9%
Southampton County

Trump   2,025  or 45.5%         
Youngkin 1,768 or 50.0%  
Benjamin 1,970 or   45.6%       

Benjamin 653 or 40.2%

Biden     3,969 or 40.6%      

McAuliffe    2,717 or   34.7%    
McEachin 3,864 or 40.9%   
McClellan 494  or 56.9%
Surry County

Trump       2,025  or 45.5%         
Youngkin 1,768 or 50.0%            
Benjamin 1,654 or 49.8%
Benjamin 653 or 40.2%

Biden       2,397   or 53.6%         
  McAuliffe 1,756 or 49.7%   
McEachin 1,659 or  50.0%      

McClellan 968 or 59.7%

When we isolate the vote this way, we can see several things more clearly:

  • We see again just how Youngkin won in 2021. He did a better job at getting close to the Republican presidential vote in a non-presidential year, while Terry McAuliffe did not. Perhaps a different Democratic candidate for governor would have excited Democratic voters more, perhaps not. In any case, the numbers are the numbers: Youngkin did a lot better job motivating Republican voters than McAuliffe did Democratic ones.
  • We see just how low the vote in the special election was and how percentages can be both true and misleading at the same time. In Dinwiddie, McClellan took less than half of McAuliffe’s vote and less than one-third of Biden’s vote — but still wound up with a majority of the vote, because Benjamin’s vote was down even more. We see similar trends in Southampton and Surry counties — and other localities, for that matter.

McClellan will doubtless have a long career in Congress if she wants one and, if her service is Richmond is any indication, she’ll be a serious-minded legislator, something Washington could surely use more of, regardless of party affiliation. But her election, while historic, does not signal some fundamental shift in the state’s political landscape.

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