Elections provide answers. But what are the questions?
Here are some of the questions that voters will be asked to answer in next week’s primary elections for General Assembly nominations:
1. How far left do Democrats want to go and how far right do Republicans want to go?
Voters today aren’t simply polarized in general, they’re polarized — and effectively segregated — geographically. Even a redistricting plan that didn’t rely on gerrymandering has produced mostly districts that go one way or another; that’s simply a reflection of voting trends on the ground. The consequence is that neither party faces much punishment at the polls if it nominates candidates that stray far from the center. These are districts that will vote Democratic, or Republican, no matter what.
We see this question most clearly on the Democratic side, where multiple incumbents face challenges from their left. State Sen. Creigh Deeds of Charlottesville faces Del. Sally Hudson, also of Charlottesville. State Sen. Jeremy McPike of Prince William County faces Del. Elizabeth Guzman, also from Prince William County. State Sen. George Barker of Fairfax County faces Stella Pekarsky. State Sen. Dave Marsden of Fairfax County faces Heidi Drauschak. State Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax faces Saddam Salim. State Sen. Joe Morrissey of Richmond faces former Del. Laschrecse Aird of Petersburg. All those challengers would pull the legislature a bit further to the left, or at least the Democratic caucus.
Republicans tend to favor mass meetings and conventions over primaries, but we’ll see that question posed in the Senate primary where Del. Tara Durant of Fredericksburg is seeking a Senate nomination against Matt Strickland, who says he’s out to “beat the establishment.” That’s often a Republican code phrase for being more conservative. Another anti-establishment candidate is Hermie Sadler of Emporia, who is seeking a Republican state Senate nomination against Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk, and has now opened a line of attack accusing her of being a moderate and a “never Trumper.” And then there’s state Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County, who is so “anti-establishment” that she’s not even part of the Senate Republican Caucus, and who faces two challengers: Tina Rameriz and former state Sen. Glen Sturtevant.
The early returns from Republican nominating events are mixed. In the New River Valley, two candidates who might be considered establishment candidates won: Del. Jason Ballard of Giles County was renominated with 91% of the vote, Chris Obenshain of Montgomery County won a contested nomination for an open seat. State Sen. Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania County turned back a candidate who billed himself as “MAGA Mike.” On the other hand, Del. John McGuire of Goochland County, who attended the “Stop The Steal” rally, won a Senate nomination, and neither candidate seeking the Republican House nomination in a district that runs from Bedford County to Nelson County — won by Eric Griffin — seemed to be in the mountain-valley Republican tradition.
We’ll also get some sense of where Republicans are in some local primaries, where incumbent supervisors are being challenged by from the right. In Roanoke County, Catawba District Supervisor Martha Hooker faces Tom McCracken. In Botetourt County, Blue Ridge District Supervisor Billy Martin faces Walt Michael and Valley District Supervisor Mac Scothorn faces Robert Young.
We’ll see June 20 what kind of mood both parties are in.
2. Are voters in a mood for generational change?
Those Democratic contests I mention above also include another factor: younger challengers taking on longtime incumbents. Hudson has been particularly vocal about the case for generational change. Depending on how some of those primaries go, we could have a distinctly younger set of legislators in Richmond. We have fewer opportunities to see this on the Republican side. The clearest one we had dematerialized — John Marsden withdrew from his challenge against Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg County and a 22-year incumbent.
3. What will voters make of the most polarizing candidates?
Three stand out in particular. On the Democratic side, there’s Morrissey, for whom the words “controversial” and “colorful” seem woefully insufficient. On the Republican side, there’s Chase, who at least has the advantage of two opponents who might split the vote. And then there’s Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, who swore out an assault warrant against opponent Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, with whom she’s paired in redistricting (he was acquitted) and who took to Facebook to complain that Republican leaders are out to “humiliate” her by not passing any of her bills. The loss of any of those candidates — Morrissey, Chase, March — would remove an irritant that has troubled their own party more than the other side of the aisle.
4. How much will endorsements matter?
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s endorsement of McGuire is thought to have been a persuasive factor with Republican delegates at that state Senate convention. His power of persuasion will be tested in a Southside primary, where he’s endorsed Brewer over Sadler (and apparently tried to arrange a convention that might have benefitted her). Curiously, Youngkin hasn’t made an endorsement in the Chase-Rameriz-Sturtevent contest or the March-Williams contest. He did endorse Wright — after Marsden had left the race.
Meanwhile, retiring state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has endorsed his chief of staff, Luke Priddy, to be his replacement over Trish White-Boyd and DeAnthony “DA” Price. And Deeds has been touting a long list of endorsements in his campaign against Hudson: the National Organization for Women, U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, former Govs. Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe, former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, and more members of the General Assembly than I care to count. Hudson has her own list of endorsements, of a different variety: Indivisible Charlottesville, the National Women’s Political Caucus, Vote Pro Choice and various labor groups. Likely the longest list of endorsements, though, belongs to Aird; Democratic leaders have lined up behind her bid to oust Morrissey.
Likewise, do old-fashioned newspaper endorsements matter? The Washington Post has endorsed a whole slate of candidates, mostly those Democratic incumbents above who are facing challenges. “Northern Virginia is poised to lose enormous clout in the General Assembly next year because of retirements and redistricting,” the Post said. “These incumbents are effective lawmakers with deep institutional knowledge and seniority that give them clout in a body where that matters enormously.” A newspaper endorsement once was something candidates sought; how much do these still matter in a social media age?
5. How much will redistricting affect outcomes?
This is the only question I’m prepared to answer now. That answer is “probably a good bit.” We’ve already seen redistricting impacts in some way with a wave of retirements, most notably state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, who got drawn into a district with two other legislators. I used a recent column to point out how many legislators are now running in districts where most of the voters are new to them — up to 93% in the case of George Barker in Senate District 36 in Fairfax County. By now, you may have noticed how a lot of the same districts come up in multiple ways. If Barker loses, for instance, will it be because a) the Democratic base is moving left, b) Democrats were in a mood for generational change, or c) redistricting put him on nearly a level playing field with his opponent? The answer would probably be “yes” to all three; the question will be apportioning the credit, or the blame, depending on your point of view.
6. How much will other elections influence some of these primaries?
I looked more deeply into this in Monday’s column. In Senate District 11 — Deeds vs. Hudson — there are also two House primaries that are turning out voters. Both those House districts are in Charlottesville-Albemarle County. Those two localities were already the biggest localities in the district, and the source of most Democratic voters, but now they’ll be an even bigger source. Likewise, House District 47, March vs. Williams. The biggest locality in that district is now Carroll County; multiple Republican primaries for local offices are driving up the vote there. Who will that benefit in the House race? This is another district where there are multiple factors at play. March is a polarizing figure. Redistricting means 63% of the voters are new to Williams while 80% are new to March. Carroll County is new to both legislators, and now local races will help give Carroll County an outsized proportion of the vote in their House primary. I suspect as goes Carroll, so goes that district.
7. Do voters care more about results or rhetoric?
Deeds has tried to raise this in his campaign, calling himself a “workhorse” and suggesting that Hudson is a “showhorse.” Much of that deals with the nature of the bills they’ve passed; her pass rate has been much higher when Democrats were in charge — and she’s hardly alone among Democrats in that regard. This goes back to the question of what flavor of Democrats voters in that district prefer.
Objectively speaking, the state’s least effective legislator is March: She’s gotten no bills through the House this year and just one last year, even though her own party now runs the chamber. There are other Republican legislators who got no bills passed this year, but they, at least, got them passed by the House; their bills got killed by Democrats in the state Senate. And there are Democratic delegates who didn’t get bills passed through the House, but that’s more understandable given that Republicans control the chamber. March stands out because she hasn’t gotten bills past her own party; she contends that Republican leaders have been out to “humiliate” her. Will voters care about March’s record? Or care more that she proclaims herself “a fighter”?
8. Will celebrity matter?
This is a question that applies in just one contest, the Brewer-Sadler primary in eastern Southside. Sadler is running his first political race but has run 347 NASCAR races. It’s fair to say that more voters in that district know him than know Brewer. How much will that celebrity status help him in the campaign?
You’ll notice there’s one primary I haven’t mentioned — that’s the knock-down, drag-out fight between Democrats Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Lionel Spruill of Chesapeake, who have been paired in the same district. It doesn’t fit neatly under any of these questions. Both candidates are septuagenarians, so this hardly is a contest where a desire for generational change is a factor. Likewise, it’s not a clear-cut case of a more liberal candidate against a more moderate one. Lucas has tried to make it that, but it seems a much more traditional slugfest between two candidates trying to occupy the same space.
Of course, there’s always a chance the primaries will answer a question I haven’t asked, so perhaps I should add one more: What else do voters want to tell us next week? If you have a message to send, here’s your chance to send it.