Senate District 4. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
Senate District 4. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

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One of the most contested state Senate races this year is going to be in the Roanoke Valley and part of the New River Valley.

This will be in the newly drawn Senate District 4, a district where mapmakers drew two incumbents — Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke and Republican Dave Suetterlein of Roanoke County — into the same district. Edwards has since retired, and now there’s a lively contest for the Democratic nomination to succeed him. So far there are three candidates: Roanoke council members Luke Priddy and Trish White-Boyd, along with DeAnthony “DA” Pierce.

I have written before about the history of this district — how Democrats wanted to unite Democratic-voting Roanoke with Democratic-voting Blacksburg, but the mapmakers opted for a more compact district that put Democratic-voting Roanoke in with Republican-voting Roanoke County, Republican-voting Salem and the Republican-voting part of Montgomery County, not the Democratic-voting part. You can read my previous column for more about that, but for those not inclined, here’s the short version: This isn’t gerrymandering, this is the opposite of gerrymandering. This is simply what you get when you try to draw more compact districts without regard for where incumbents live.

With the two court-appointed special masters who drew the lines (one Democratic, one Republican) submitted their maps to the Virginia Supreme Court, they also included a report that has served as a go-to guide for the politics of each district. Based on the 2017 election returns, which is what the special masters used, they estimated that this new district is 52% to 54% Republican. In the 2021 governor’s race, this district voted 54.7% for Republican Glenn Youngkin. Based on that, the Virginia Public Access Project — a nonpartisan site that tracks Virginia politics — has shaded this district pink, for one that leans Republican.

That said, it’s close enough that it’s still considered competitive, so today let’s take a deeper dive into just how competitive this district might be. This is a matter of concern beyond voters in that district; this is a district that will help determine whether the next state Senate is controlled by Democrats or Republicans, so this is a rare instance where something that happens in the Roanoke and New River valleys has statewide implications.

One of the Democratic candidates, White-Boyd, said something that caught my eye. Here’s what Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote when he reported on her entry into the race:

White-Boyd said that she isn’t worried about the slight Republican advantage in the recently redrawn district. 

“The majority of the votes come out of the city, and the last city council election was a Democratic sweep, so he has the uphill battle,” she said, referring to Suetterlein, the Republican incumbent. “We have a very big base here, and he will have the same challenges that I will have in other areas. But I am very confident in my connections in Salem city, and if it wasn’t tenable I wouldn’t have done it yet.”

Now, it’s not my intention to nitpick everything candidates say, but White-Boyd is wrong on one point. The majority of the votes in that district don’t come out of the city — “the city” in Roanoke Valley parlance being Roanoke. A plurality do, but not a majority. That’s an important difference, one that disadvantages Democrats. 

Let’s look at the numbers.

VPAP has already crunched some of them for us. Here’s where the voters in that district are:

Roanoke: 42.6%

Roanoke County (partial): 27.68%

Montgomery County (partial): 18.2%

Salem: 11.5%

Those numbers would seem helpful to Democrats — the biggest jurisdiction in the district is strongly Democratic — but are they?

Here’s one way to look at a campaign, through the margins that each party is able to take out of each locality. In the 2021 governor’s race, Democrats came out of Roanoke with a 4,713-vote margin. That got quickly wiped out in Roanoke County, where just the portion of Roanoke County that’s in this district produced a GOP margin of 6,805 votes. There may be fewer Roanoke County voters than Roanoke voters in this district but they vote overwhelmingly Republican, which accounts for the big margin. After that, Salem produced a Republican margin of 2,700 votes, while the Montgomery County portion of this district had a Republican margin of 3,188 votes. Put another way, the district’s sole Democratic locality produced a 4,713-vote margin while the three Republican ones produced a Republican margin of 12,693. We don’t have to finish the math to see how that works out but we’ll do it anyway: Overall in the district, Youngkin posted a margin of 8,080 votes over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

If you’re a Democrat looking at this district, the challenge is how do you change that? In some ways, the answer is easy: A Democrat needs a bigger margin out of Roanoke — and, ideally, cuts into those Republican margins elsewhere. 

How likely is that? Let’s try to find out. Are there other elections in recent years where Democrats have produced a bigger margin out of Roanoke? That’s really the threshold question. Turning out your own base ought to be easier than reducing the margins in communities that historically vote against your party, so if Democrats can’t generate a bigger margin in Roanoke, nothing else really matters.

So what does history tell us? Here are the Democratic margins in Roanoke over the past five years:

2022 U.S. House: 4,702

2021 governor: 4,713

2020 president: 11,166

2020 U.S. Senate: 13,846

2018 U.S. Senate: 9,640

You’ll see the biggest margins came in 2020, when the presidential election drove up voter participation. Turnout in a state legislative election won’t come anywhere close to that, so we need to discount those 2020 numbers. That leaves us with the 2022 House election, the 2021 governor’s race and the 2018 Senate race. Of those, the 2018 Senate race, which pitted Democrat Tim Kaine against Republican Corey Stewart, offers the most hope to Democrats. So, yes, it’s possible for Democrats to squeeze a 9,640-vote margin out of the city. The problem is that may still not be enough; it wouldn’t have been against Youngkin’s margins in 2021. Kaine also had the advantage of one of the weakest statewide candidates that Republicans have fielded in recent years. Thought experiment: Is Suetterlein as weak as Stewart was? Suetterlein’s previous electoral performance would suggest otherwise.

These also aren’t the most applicable turnout numbers. Turnout in an off-year state election will be lower than in a midterm national election. The only true apples-to-apples comparison is to look at previous state legislative elections in the precincts that make up this district.

Here’s where we run into our first analytical challenge: In the last state Senate race here, in 2019, Edwards didn’t have a Republican challenger, only an independent. That’s not a good comparison. To get a more accurate reading, we need to go back to 2015, when “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars was tearing up the pop charts and Edwards faced a strong Republican challenge from Nancy Dye. Even 2015 isn’t a perfect comparison because that was actually a three-way race: Don Caldwell, Roanoke’s Democratic commonwealth’s attorney, ran as an independent. He took just 6.4% of the vote districtwide, but whose hide did he take it out of? Edwards’, because Caldwell had previously run as a Democrat? Or Dye’s, because they were both challenging the incumbent? Caldwell was running distinctly to the right of Edwards, so I’m inclined to think he hurt Dye more than Edwards, but it’s possible to argue that one either way.

In any case, if we discount that race, we have to go back to 2011, when Edwards faced just a single Republican challenger, David Nutter. That’s a dozen years ago, though, and a lot of things can change in that time. In 2011, Donald Trump was still just some rich celebrity in New York, not a political phenomenon who has helped remake the Republican Party (or at least certain parts of it).

Just to be on the safe side, though, let’s look at both years.

In 2015, Edwards squeezed a 3,590-vote margin out of Roanoke.

In 2011, Edwards pulled a 4,311-vote margin out of Roanoke.

Given what a Democratic candidate would need in the 2023 election, neither of those numbers seems particularly hopeful (well, from a Democratic point of view; Republicans would consider these quite hopeful numbers). These margins are roughly equivalent to what McAuliffe did in 2021 in Roanoke and that wasn’t enough to win the district — not even close. For comparison, Sutterlein ran up a 6,607-vote margin out of the Roanoke County part of his district four years ago. All but three of those precincts are in this year’s district; that would have reduced his margin to 5,949; still more than the Democratic margins out of Roanoke in 2015 and 2011. In 2011, Suetterlein’s margin in Roanoke County was 4,401, which, with those three precincts removed, would be 3,876, still more than Edwards’ margin in 2015 although lower than 2011. That’s more encouraging for Democrats but we haven’t taken into account yet the Republican margins in Salem and Montgomery County, which would more than make up the difference.

To satisfy my curiosity, I went back even further. In 1999, Edwards rolled up a 5,625-vote margin in the city. In 1995, he had a 5,361-vote margin. Those margins are better but still would get wiped out by the standard Republican margins in Roanoke County, Salem and Montgomery County. The fact remains: These other localities are a lot more Republican than Roanoke is Democratic.

Case in point, and for this I’ll switch to percentages to make it easier. In 2021, the Democratic vote in Roanoke was 57.7%; the Republican vote in Roanoke County was 65.7%, in Salem 64.3%. Montgomery County is harder to compute because not only is it split between districts but some precincts are, too, but some of the precincts fully in the district gave Republicans 81.5% of the vote. 

To win, a Democrat first needs to really crank up the margin in Roanoke, and I can’t find any historical examples that match what a Democrat would need here. The best Democratic performance in a state Senate race that I can find came 36 years ago when Democrat Granger Macfarlane rolled up a 7,221-vote margin in the city over Republican William “Ham” Flannagan. Four years later, though, Macfarlane managed just a 532-vote margin in the city against Brandon Bell.

The Democratic candidate in 2023 will need a 1987-style margin out of the city (or better) and then need to figure out how to cut into Republican margins in the rest of the district. Is that possible? Sure. Lots of things are possible. But is it likely?

The problem is that while it’s theoretically possible for Democrats to rev up that kind of margin out of the city, the trend lines in Roanoke County, Salem and that part of Montgomery County are running against them. The Republican vote share in those districts has been increasing as voting patterns become more polarized, which means the margins often are, too. Is there a Democrat in 2023 who can both mobilize the party’s base in the city and win back voters who have been drifting more and more into the Republican column? That’s the strategic challenge for Democrats.

Parties out of power often have more incentive to vote than the parties in power. While Democrats control the state Senate, they are in many ways the party out of power — they don’t control the governorship. That might help Democrats some in 2023. However, another challenge: Democrats may be unhappy with the governor, but the general public doesn’t seem to be. The most recent Roanoke College poll put his favorable rating at 57%. Running against Youngkin may help Democrats increase turnout among their voters, but it seems unlikely to be persuasive with other voters, who generally seem to think Youngkin is an alright guy. True, voters seem to like Youngkin a lot better than they like some of his policies, so that will be the likely Democratic line of attack: If Republicans win control of the state Senate, look at all the terrible things they would be able to do. Can Democrats sufficiently scare voters? We’ll see.

One more consideration: There’s an open House seat in a district that overlaps part of this Senate district and it’s considered competitive. Lily Franklin will be the Democratic candidate in House District 41; Chris Obenshain and Lowell Bowman are seeking the Republican nomination. The problem for Democrats is that the Democratic part of that House district (Blacksburg) isn’t in this Senate district but the most Republican parts (eastern Montgomery County and western Roanoke County) are. That means in those Republican precincts there will be two legislative candidates working to increase turnout (Suetterlein and whoever the House nominee is). There are also constitutional races on the ballot in Montgomery County and Roanoke County. Again, more candidates working to increase turnout in Republican-voting areas. There are no comparable elections in Democratic-voting Roanoke. That gives another slight structural advantage to the Republicans.

I’m not trying to discourage Democrats here, just pointing out the challenging math. Ultimately, though, the math that matters is who votes and who doesn’t. Upsets do happen. Nobody expected Bell to win back in 1991 but he did. If you ask me to predict who will win this race, I’ll be happy to tell you — on election night after the votes have been counted.

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