Unhappy about losing her recent Republican primary, State Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County — Virginia’s so-called “Trump in heels” — now says she may run as a write-in this fall.
The Richmond suburbs aren’t our coverage area, but everything is connected: Democrats currently hold a 22-18 majority in the state Senate. The entire General Assembly is on the ballot in November and I haven’t heard strategists on either side claim with certainty that their side will win. In other words, both chambers are up for grabs. This district is considered a pretty sure bet for Republicans. Could a Chase write-in campaign split the Republican vote enough that a Democrat could win? If so, that has statewide implications.
Let’s see what the math shows.
First, we’ll survey the lay of the land: 92% of Senate District 12 is in Chesterfield County, the remaining 8% in Colonial Heights.
In 2021, this district voted 56.7% for Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor.
In the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race, this district voted 56.6% for Republican Jill Vogel.
In the 2017 attorney general’s race, this district voted 56.8% for Republican John Adams.
Call me crazy, but this looks like a pretty consistent Republican district. What’s particularly notable about this consistency is that it covers both good Republicans years (2021) and not-so-good ones (2017). Maybe something will happen this year that nudges this district either more Republican or less so, but it seems to me that the smart thing is to assume that the default in this district is just shy of 57% Republican.
Now, onto this year’s campaign: In their recent primary, Republicans nominated former state Sen. Glenn Sturtevant. The Democratic candidate is Natan McKenzie. And now, apparently, Chase will be in the race, too.
Write-in campaigns aren’t impossible, but they are difficult. In theory, a write-in campaign should be much easier today in an era of scanned ballots rather than the old pull-the-lever voting machines. (Personally, I trust today’s method a lot more than I ever did those Rube Goldberg contraptions.) Still, they do require an organizational effort to persuade people to take the extra effort.
The two victorious write-in campaigns for the General Assembly that I’m most familiar with both came under unusual circumstances.
In 1989, the United Mine Workers strike against Pittston Coal had brought the coalfields to a boil. Russell County Circuit Court Judge Donald McGlothlin Jr. had levied $64 million in fines against the union for various strike-related activities that he called “contemptuous acts” against the community, such as sit-down strikes and blockades against non-union coal trucks. His father was Del. Donald McGlothlin Sr., D-Buchanan County. The union couldn’t do much about the judge but they could do something about his father. The UMW organized a last-minute write-in campaign for union leader Jackie Stump. To simplify things and guard against spelling errors that might disqualify ballots, the union pushed a vote for “Jack Stump.” To cast a write-in ballot, voters would have to push up lever 7 on the machine, which made for a catchy “7-Up” campaign slogan.
To the amazement of perhaps everyone, Stump won in a landslide, collecting 7,981 votes for 67% of the total. (This being the 1980s, there was no Republican nominee in that district. Times have changed a bit since then.)
In 2019, a paperwork error left Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper County, off the ballot. He ran as a write-in and was reelected with 56.2% of the vote.
Stump and Freitas had something going for them that Chase does not — a formal organization. In Stump’s case, that was the United Mine Workers, which was stronger then than it is now. In Freitas’ case, that was the Republican Party in a strongly Republican district.
Chase certainly has her fans but here she’ll be going up against the formal Republican Party. If she can’t poll enough votes to win her party’s nomination in a primary, I’m skeptical whether she can produce enough write-in votes to win in the much larger electorate of the general election. But could she pull enough otherwise Republican votes from Sturtevant that the election tips to McKenzie?
Based on the history above, we might well expect McKenzie to poll about 43% of the vote under normal circumstances. If the default expectation for Sturtevant (or any Republican nominee) is just under 57%, then Chase would need to take 15% of the vote — and take it all from Sturtevant — to drop him to 42% and give McKenzie the seat.
That seems a doable figure, although it would be more doable if Chase’s name were actually on the ballot. She needs voters to take the trouble to write in her name, something they’re probably not accustomed to doing, and to do so knowing that they might be enabling a Democrat to win. Some hard-core supporters may not believe that; they may believe she could really win, but I prefer not to live in a fantasy world. Chase will be setting in motion the same dynamic that dooms most third-party bids: They often do well initially but in the end, enough voters understand that by splitting the vote they may make it possible for someone they really don’t like to win. Many Republicans may not want Sturtevant — after all, most Republicans voted for someone else in the primary (he won a three-way race with 39.5% of the vote) — but I suspect most of those Republicans would still prefer him to a Democrat.
Maybe Chase’s supporters are so die-hard, though, that they really do believe she could get more write-ins than either the Republican or Democratic nominees — or maybe they’re so mad at what they consider the Republican “establishment” that they don’t care whether a Democrat wins. Maybe they somehow believe that would teach the party a lesson. This is basically a form of political chaos theory; I’ve heard it before from those on the left who don’t care if, say, a vote for Ralph Nader rather than Al Gore results in President George W. Bush (or, next year, a vote for Cornel West rather than Joe Biden resulting in a Republican president). They somehow believe that will “purify” the Democratic Party and push it further to the left. Likewise, some Chase supporters might believe that a Democratic victory would “purify” Republicans to rid the party of all those center-right establishment types. I suspect most Republicans in that district would prefer a Republican senator — and maybe even a Republican majority in the state Senate — even if he’s not exactly the Republican they prefer. But hey, that’s just me.
There’s another way to look at this, though: Forget percentages. How many actual votes are we potentially talking about?
In the June primary, Chase received 8,203 votes (good enough for 37.8% of the vote and second place behind Sturtevant, who won 8,578 votes, or 39.5%). I suspect some of those 8,203 voters will wind up supporting Sturtevant, or perhaps not voting. But, for the sake of argument, let’s be generous and assume that Chase could convert all of those into write-in votes in November. What percentage would that work out to?
That depends, of course, on how many ballots in all are cast but we can make some rough guesses.
The districts this year are different from what they were four years ago, so we can’t make precise comparisons. However, the Richmond suburbs have traditionally seen high voter turnout. In 2019, what was then Chase’s district saw 81,187 voters (she won) and what was then Sturtevant’s district saw 82,381 voters (he lost). By contrast, the closest Senate race in the state (the Jenn Kiggans-Cynthia Turpin race in Virginia Beach) produced just 58,804 voters.
The state’s population has grown since then so we might reasonably expect more voters, depending on the political climate. To make the math easier, let’s say there are 80,000 votes in Senate District 12 this fall, slightly fewer than this area saw four years ago, and that 8,203 of them are write-ins for Chase. In that scenario, she’d have 10.2% of the vote. Not a bad percentage for a write-in candidate, but not the 15% that I predicted earlier would be necessary to tip things to the Democrat.
If the total turnout was 60,000 votes, then Chase’s 8,203 would be 13.6% — close but still not enough under my scenario.
However, if turnout were to be just 52,000, then Chase’s 8,203 would account for 15.7% of the vote — and if the Democratic candidate polled the traditional Democratic share of the vote, then Chase could tip the election his way.
How likely is it that turnout in this district would be that low?
That’s less than the 59,963 people who cast ballots in a non-competitive race four years ago won by state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg; the 57,824 people who cast ballots in a non-competitive state Senate race that same year won by state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County; or the 56,331 people who cast ballots in 2019 in a non-competitive race won by state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County.
In fact, four years ago only one state Senate race that involved both a Democrat and a Republican involved less than 52,000 voters — that was in the Norfolk-Eastern Shore area, where the race won by Democrat Lynwood Lewis turned out just 43,205 voters.
Most Senate elections that pitted a Democrat against a Republican produced more than 60,000 voters — sometimes more than 70,000 or even 80,000.
Here we’re envisioning a three-way race: a Democrat, a Republican and a sitting Republican senator with a polarizing political profile. It’s hard to envision that combination resulting in a low turnout. Unfortunately for Chase (and for Democrats hoping she’s a spoiler), the more exciting this race becomes, the harder it becomes for her to win — because the higher the turnout, the more write-ins she’ll need to produce, far more votes than she was able to get in the primary. Four years ago Chase won 44,245 votes; redistricting left her with about two-thirds of her previous constituents, but only 8,203 people voted for her in June when it mattered. How many Chase supporters are out there who want her enough to take the time to write in her name in the fall but didn’t bother to vote in the primary? That’s the big question.
Chase might make this race more interesting — she makes many things more interesting — but count me as a skeptic that she makes a difference.