When Dutch traders introduced tea to Europe, they inadvertently introduced something else: the superstition of “reading” the tea leaves. The way the leaves settled in the bottom of the cup (this was long before tea bags were invented) was thought by some to predict fortunes. There’s even a name for this — tasseography — and Victorian-era Great Britain was especially entranced by the practice.
Today we will attempt some metaphorical reading of the tea leaves of our own, by looking to see if we can discern any telling patterns from the early voting that’s underway so far in the June 20 legislative primaries.
We don’t know who’s ahead or who’s behind — the votes won’t be counted until June 20 — but we do know how many people have voted early and, perhaps most importantly, where they’re from. Those are the tea leaves we’ll try to read.
Some contests aren’t well-suited for such divination. For instance, the Democratic primary for the state Senate nomination in Senate District 4 involves three candidates, all from Roanoke. What might really be telling there would be to know which precincts those early voters are from; those of us familiar with Roanoke politics could draw some inferences from that. A high turnout in the city’s Black precincts would seem to bode well for Trish White-Boyd, a Black member of the Roanoke City Council who is running against Luke Priddy and DeAnthony “DA” Price; a low turnout there would not. We don’t have the figures at that level, though, so just knowing the overall voting level in Roanoke isn’t particularly useful.
However, there are two primaries where we might be able to learn something: the Democratic primary in Senate District 11, where state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, is running against Del. Sally Hudson, also D-Charlottesville, and the Republican primary in House District 47, where Dels. Marie March, R-Floyd County, and Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, are paired together. (Or, as some prefer to call it, the Blue Ridge Cage Match.)
Let’s look at Senate District 11 first.
According to figures from the State Board of Elections that the Virginia Public Access Project has helpfully compiled, this district has the heaviest early voting turnout of any district in the state.
Here’s where I should offer some context. In general, Democrats are more enthusiastic about early voting than Republicans are. I’ve written in a previous column that Republicans have more to gain than Democrats by embracing early voting but they haven’t taken my advice yet. The highest-voting Republican Senate primary is only the seventh highest-voting Senate primary so far — that would be Senate District 12 south of Richmond, where state Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County is in a three-way race with Tina Rameriz and former state Sen. Glen Sturtevant. The highest-voting Republican House primary is only the eighth highest-voting House primary — that’s the March-Williams showdown.
So just how high-voting is this state Senate district that stretches from Albemarle County to Amherst County? Here’s how high: Through Friday, there were 7,154 early voters in the district. In second place was the Democratic primary in Senate District 13 in the Richmond-Petersburg area, where 5,787 have voted in the contest between Sen. Joe Morrisey and former Del. Lashrecse Aird. By contrast, 4,561 have voted early in the Democratic primary in Senate District 40 (James DeVita vs. state Sen. Barbara Favola of Arlington) and 4,305 in the Democratic primary in Senate District 18, where state Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and state Sen. Lionel Spruill of Chesapeake are locked in their own Hampton Roads Cage Match.
So why is there so much more interest in this primary than any of the others? There are actually three races here driving the turnout. First, there’s the Deeds-Hudson race, a classic contest between a moderate senior legislator and a younger, more liberal challenger. (Fun fact: Hudson wasn’t even born when Deeds was first elected commonwealth’s attorney in Bath County. She was three when he was first elected to the General Assembly.) Second and third, though, are two House districts with Democratic primaries. House District 54 is essentially Hudson’s old district in Charlottesville and a smidge of Albemarle. It’s got three candidates out on the hustings: Bellamy Brown, Dave Norris and Katrina Callsen. House District 55 is everything else in Albemarle, plus little pieces of Fluvanna County, Louisa County and Nelson County. It’s got two candidates: Amy Laufer and Kellen Squire.
These two House primaries are the highest-voting House primaries in the state. Both those House districts are also wholly within the Senate district. Let’s assume that voters cast ballots in both the House and Senate primaries — that seems a reasonable assumption. That means there aren’t just two candidates out working voters in the Senate primary, there are seven candidates in all. In the rest of the Senate district, the more rural parts in Nelson and Amherst County, there are no other primaries — the Senate primary is it.
That means the early voting in this district is heavily weighted toward Charlottesville and Amherst County.
Let’s do the math. Overall, 74.4% of the voters in this district are in Charlottesville and Albemarle.
However, 92% of the early votes have likely been cast by voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle. The true figure may be a wee bit lower, but a small part of House District 55 is in those outlying rural counties. However, the political reality is that the Democratic base in this district is in Charlottesville and Albemarle, not the Republican-voting rural counties; the vote was always going to be weighted that way anyway. However, thanks to these overlapping House and Senate primaries, the vote is a lot more weighted that way.
So what’s that mean for the Deeds-Hudson primary? Ultimately, we can’t really say until we know how people have voted. However, we’ve always assumed that Hudson would do best on her home turf in Charlottesville. Deeds has represented Charlottesville (and Albemarle) longer than she has but until recently he lived in Bath County; she’s lived in Charlottesville. Politically, Deeds’ challenge is to hold down Hudson’s presumed margins in Charlottesville, then try to win in Albemarle — and really run up the score in the rural counties. The problem with that strategy is that those rural counties may not produce many Democratic voters — and now it seems likely they’ll produce even fewer. Through Friday, voters in what amounts to Hudson’s old House district account for 49% of the early voters in the whole district. We don’t know that those voters are also going for Hudson in the Senate primary. If they’re not, then she’s likely not much of a threat to Deeds anyway. But if they are, that becomes a big advantage for her — and a big obstacle for Deeds.
If Deeds wins, none of this will matter. If Hudson wins, though, we might point to these House primaries as a factor in elevating the vote totals from her base.
Now let’s look at House District 47.
This primary is fascinating simply because it’s got two Republican legislators paired together — two Republican legislators who really don’t like each other. March swore out assault charges last year against Williams; he said he merely bumped into her accidentally at a party event. A judge acquitted him. The primary becomes fascinating in other ways, too. Both candidates find themselves before a lot of new voters — 65.3% are new to Williams while 80.6% are new to March.
Given the backstory here, I’m not at all surprised that this is the highest-voting Republican House primary. In fact, the early vote here is higher than in some Republican Senate primaries where the districts are bigger. What I’m curious about, though, is where the vote is coming from. If we assume that each candidate will do best in their home county, does either candidate seem to have an advantage in the early vote? Let’s see.
Patrick County accounts for 21% of the overall vote in the district. In the early voting through Friday, Patrick accounted for 28.2% of the early votes so far.
Henry County accounts for 18% of the overall vote; that’s not Williams’ home county but it’s territory he’s represented, so these are voters who know him. So far they account for 8.1% of the early vote.
If you add those two together, Patrick and Henry constitute 39% of the district and 36.3% of the early vote.
Meanwhile Floyd County accounts for 19.47% of the district and 18% of the early vote.
This may be like the famous dog that didn’t bark. What’s important here is what we’re not seeing. We’re not seeing an early vote in the candidates’ home counties that is out of proportion to the population. The Patrick vote is out of proportion, on the high side, and that would seem good for Williams. However, the Henry vote is out of proportion, on the low side, and that would seem not so good for him. Together, they even out. Williams still has a larger geographical base than March does but so far his Patrick-Henry base is voting at about the same rate as March’s Floyd County.
The biggest share of the early vote is coming from Carroll County, which is new territory for both candidates — and the largest locality in the district. Carroll comprises 34.6% of the redrawn district, and so far 41.2% of the early vote. That’s where the early vote in this district is out of proportion to the population. Just as other races are helping drive the turnout in Charlottesville, so, too are other primaries elevating the vote in Carroll. The county has three other Republican primaries going on — a two-way race for at-large supervisor, a three-way race for treasurer and a two-way race for sheriff. That means there are nine different candidates working to drive turnout among Carroll County Republicans.
So who does that elevated early vote in Carroll help — March or Williams?
I’m prepared to tell you … once I see the returns on June 20.