We journalists spend a lot of time telling readers that elections matter.
Today I’m here to tell you just the opposite: Some elections don’t matter.
We talk about how this fall’s General Assembly elections — all 140 seats will be on the ballot — are so critical because they will determine which party controls the legislature during the final two years of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s term.
However, most of those elections this November simply don’t matter. Our society is so sharply segregated, politically speaking, that the outcome in most districts is already known: They are either overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican. Oh, there may be two (or more) candidates on the ballot in November, but most of these are simply not competitive elections and both parties know that.
In the past, we could blame gerrymandering for that, but we can’t blame gerrymandering anymore. The districts that candidates are running in this year were the first ones ever drawn not by the majority party in the General Assembly, but by court-appointed mapmakers. When the state’s bipartisan redistricting deadlocked (as we all knew it would), the task fell to the Virginia Supreme Court, which appointed two “special masters,” one a Democrat, the other a Republican. The maps they came up with are, for the most part, geographically logical and, most importantly, were drawn without regard for where incumbents lived or to favor any one party. When we wind up with many noncompetitive districts out of this, the problem isn’t with gerrymandering — it’s with us. Southwest Virginia is so overwhelmingly Republican that it’s impossible to draw a Democratic district except in a few places (such as Roanoke). Likewise, Northern Virginia is so overwhelmingly Democratic that you can’t draw a Republican district there until you get to the outer suburbs.
Those two mapmaking special masters produced a report on the partisan lean of each district, using the 2017 lieutenant governor and attorney general races as the baseline. By their measure, only eight of the state’s 40 state Senate districts are competitive, meaning the winning party polled between 50% and 55% in that set of precincts in 2017. In the 100-member House of Delegates, only 17 districts fall within that range (although there are six other districts where the winning candidate polled between 55% and 56%). Even with the most generous interpretation, though, more than three-quarters of the state’s districts aren’t competitive. More likely, that number is higher.
In all of those other districts, the only real competition is within the dominant party for the party nomination. That means the real competition — where there is competition — is happening now, not in the fall.
Democrats prefer primaries, so those Democratic nomination contests will be settled in the June 20 state-run primary. Republicans are philosophically divided between whether party-run mass meetings/conventions/firehouse primaries are the way to go or whether a state-run primary is best. In some districts, Republicans have opted for primaries. In others, they’ve chosen party-run processes, which start Thursday with a mass meeting in Christiansburg to choose between Lowell Bowman and Chris Obenshain for the GOP nomination in a House district that covers parts of Montgomery County and Roanoke County.
In two districts, new legislators have effectively already been chosen without a single vote being cast.
In House District 51, which covers most of Campbell County, southern Bedford County and a small part of Pittsylvania County, Republican Eric Zehr will almost certainly be the next legislator. Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County, didn’t file for reelection (he’s facing felony charges stemming from a traffic incident). Zehr was the only one to file for the Republican nomination and so won the nomination by default. This is a district that’s 75% to 77% Republican based on those 2017 returns. In the 2021 governor’s race, it was 79% Republican. Fariss could still file to run as an independent and Democrats could yet come up with a candidate; June 20 is the deadline for getting on the ballot. But realistically, it doesn’t matter. Zehr will be the new delegate there unless space aliens swoop in and beam him up to their mothership. Voters in that district don’t really need to bother showing up unless there’s some local election on the ballot they care about.
Likewise in House District 46, which covers Grayson County, Smyth County, Wythe County and part of Pulaski County, the November election doesn’t matter. Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth County, announced his retirement about a week before the deadline to get on the primary ballot; Jed Arnold immediately announced and was the only Republican candidate to file. Like Zehr, he won the nomination by default and now simply has to go through the motions of running in a district that voted 75% to 76% Republican in 2017, and 81% Republican in 2021. So far, he’s unopposed and probably will stay that way.
In some other strongly Republican districts, the next legislator will get chosen in party events that can often be pretty arcane if you don’t know the rules. (Quick, define “slating.”) The public won’t be voting in these, party activists will be, and even if it’s a large gathering by party standards, the actual percentage of voters represented will be small. Given how Republican these districts are, general election voters won’t really have a say in who their next legislator will be, other than to ratify what party activists decided months earlier.
That Thursday mass meeting I mentioned, where Bowman and Obenshain are competing in Christiansburg, is an exception because that is a competitive district this fall. In fact, it’s the only House district in this part of the state that will be competitive in November. Just how competitive it is may be a matter of debate. In 2017, it was 51.2% Republican in the lieutenant governor’s race and 50.6% Democratic in the attorney general’s race. However, in 2021, the district swung 55.46% Republican. Here’s one place where the November election really will matter, no matter who Republicans pick on Thursday. (The latest momentum would seem to be with Obenshain, who has picked up recent endorsements from Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares, but mass meetings are inherently unpredictable.)
Other districts aren’t competitive in November, though. On Saturday, Republicans in House District 53, which covers part of Bedford County, Amherst County and part of Nelson County, will choose between Tim Griffin and Sarah Mays. Yes, there will be a Democrat on the ballot in November, Sam Soghor. But this is a district where the Republican vote is, depending on the election you choose, 69%, 70% or 73%. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to call that one.
Other Republican conventions unfold through the rest of May and into early June with the same theme: Whomever party activists choose will almost certainly be the next delegate or senator from that district. If you want to be “in the room where it happens,” as the musical “Hamilton” puts it, then you’d best be a Republican convention delegate.
Even for those races where nominations are being decided in primaries, a fairly small percentage of voters will decide the outcome — yet these will be big decisions. Will the co-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Democrats’ 2009 standard-bearer for governor be turned out? It could happen: Democrats in the state Senate district from Amherst County to Albemarle County will be choosing between Del. Sally Hudson and state Sen. Creigh Deeds, both D-Charlottesville. What about the president pro tem of the state Senate? She could get turned out, too — not by November voters but by June primary voters who will decide between state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and state Sen. Lionel Spruill, also D-Portsmouth, who were paired together in redistricting.
It’s not just legislative races, either. In some counties there are party primaries for local offices where winning the primary is tantamount to winning the general election. That’s true in my home county, Botetourt County, where two Republican county supervisors (Billy Martin and Mac Scothorn) face nomination challenges. It’s also true in Roanoke County, where another county supervisor and the clerk of court face primary challenges. Ditto some other primaries for local offices in Buchanan County, Carroll County and Galax. You can find the full list of races in Southwest and Southside in our election guide.
All these decisions are happening now. The Republicans kick off the nominating season on Thursday, then on Friday early voting opens for all those June 20 primaries. If you want to have a say, you’d best participate now because in most districts, November will be too late.