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

They — whoever “they” is — say never start an article with a question.

So I’ll wait until the second paragraph to do so: Do Democrats have an enthusiasm problem in their bid to hold onto the Roanoke Valley’s state Senate seat?

I raised this question in the immediate aftermath of the June 20 primary that saw Democrats nominate Roanoke City Council member Trish White-Boyd as their candidate to oppose state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County — that was one of seven takeaways I had from the results across the state. Now the Virginia Public Access Project has crunched some additional numbers that help support this thesis, so let’s take a more in-depth look at this.

Trish White-Boyd. Courtesy of the candidate.
Trish White-Boyd. Courtesy of the candidate.

First, let’s sketch out the political lay of the land — and why this matters not just in the Roanoke Valley but potentially statewide.

For decades, the Roanoke Valley has had a state Senate seat anchored in Democratic-voting Roanoke that included parts of neighboring Republican-voting jurisdictions. For most of that time, this has been a reliably Democratic district. 

In the maps we’ve had for the past decade — maps drawn by Democrats — that district has stretched from Roanoke to Giles County and has been a reliable base for John Edwards, D-Roanoke, because it united the two big Democratic bastions in this part of the state, Roanoke and Blacksburg (while cleverly avoiding Christiansburg and Republican-voting parts of Montgomery County). By geographic necessity, that district picked up part of Roanoke County, but no more than it had to. The rest of Republican-voting Roanoke County became part of an elongated district that stretched from Carroll County to Bedford County and has been represented by Suetterlein. (A tiny sliver of Roanoke County even got drawn into a district that went all the way to Lynchburg and was represented by Steve Newman, R-Bedford County.) In other words, what we had here was a classic case of gerrymandering — strange-looking districts drawn to benefit officeholders. 

State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.

The new redistricting process that voters set in motion through a constitutional amendment in 2020 was aimed at preventing such things. It put a premium on keeping localities intact, where possible. In the end, two mapmakers — one a Democrat, one a Republican — picked by the Virginia Supreme Court drew the maps. Their results, overall, are pretty logical and geographically coherent, although you can always quibble with certain details. Democrats certainly quibble — or even quarrel — with the Roanoke Valley results. They very much wanted to keep Roanoke and Blacksburg connected. Instead, the mapmakers, who paid more attention to geography than politics, united Roanoke with Christiansburg, because it was closer. That means Blacksburg and all its Democratic voters are essentially lost in a state Senate district that’s one of the most Republican in the state and is represented by Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell. Meanwhile, Roanoke is in a district that’s almost the textbook example of compact and contiguous — and is also rated as 54.7% Republican (based on the results of the 2021 governor’s race).

Originally, the district had two incumbents — Edwards and Suetterlein — but Edwards has decided to retire. That leaves White-Boyd trying to carry on his legacy in a district that is technically competitive but begins with a definite Republican tilt. For her to win that district, she’ll need to run up the margins in Roanoke — which accounts for 42.6% of the voters in the district — and then hold down the Republican margins in Montgomery County (18.2% of the district), Roanoke County (27.7%) and Salem (11.5%). Can this be done? Mathematically, yes, but it requires both a big turnout by Democrats in Roanoke and a political environment that dampens enthusiasm for Republicans. Time will tell whether the latter happens but the former can be quantified mathematically.

Here’s what we know so far.

In 2019, the lowest vote total by any winner in a contested state Senate race was 25,772 (Lynwood Lewis in the Norfolk area). The state’s population has grown since then, although the Lewis race wasn’t particularly close and turnout apparently wasn’t that high. The closest race four years ago — where the results were almost 50-50 — was won by a candidate with 29,609 votes. (That was the Jen Kiggans-Cheryl Turpin race in Virginia Beach.)

Based on that, I’d guess that a candidate would need at least 30,000 votes to win a state Senate race, although that’s no guarantee. In 2019, there were six candidates across the state who polled 30,000 votes and still lost. The highest vote total by a losing candidate was 38,401. If you really want to guarantee victory, you might want to look for 40,000 votes.

For context, Edwards polled 26,887 votes four years ago, in a noncompetitive race against an independent. In his last competitive races against a Republican, he polled 20,881 votes in 2015 and 21,259 in 2011. 

For more context, Suetterlein last time polled 20,814 in the portions of his old district that are now in the current district. 

For yet more context, White-Boyd polled 21,892 votes to lead the balloting in the 2020 Roanoke City Council election. 

There’s no guarantee, of course, that any candidate has these votes in their pocket — every election starts from zero. Still, that’s 20,814 people who have already voted for Suetterlein in a state Senate race and 21,892 who have previously voted for White-Boyd, albeit in a different contest. Both candidates have additional voters available in parts of the district that are new to them. The challenge for Democrats is that Suetterlein may have more Republican voters available to him in Roanoke (which voted 41% Republican in 2021) than Democrats do in Montgomery County, Salem and Roanoke County (where the Democratic vote in the portions of those localities in the district are in the 30% range). That underscores why White-Boyd needs a big turnout in Roanoke. 

In any case, to be on the safe side, each candidate really ought to aim for at least 30,000 votes — and potentially as many as 40,000.

Here’s why the early numbers are potentially worrisome for Democrats.

White-Boyd won an impressively broad victory in the primary, but it was also quite shallow. The Democratic primary in this Senate district produced the smallest vote total of any Democratic state Senate primary this year — 7,241 votes. By contrast, the Creigh Deeds-Sally Hudson state Senate primary in the Albemarle County-to-Amherst County district turned out 26,781 voters. 

The new figures from VPAP look at turnout in those primaries in terms of the percentage of voters, which allows us to compare districts of unequal size.

The highest primary turnout in the state was in the Democratic primary in House District 54 in Charlottesville and Albemarle County (won by Katrina Callsen) — 20%. In second place was a tie between that Deeds-Hudson state Senate primary and House District 55 in Albemarle County and parts of Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson counties — both had a 17% turnout.

Meanwhile, the turnout in the Democratic primary Senate District 4 in the Roanoke Valley was just 5%. 

Only two districts had a lower turnout. One was the Republican primary in Senate District 29, a Democratic-leaning district that covers parts of Prince William and Stafford counties, where the turnout was 4%. Another was the Republican primary in House District 50 in Southside, where one of the two candidates dropped out after early voting had begun, so that race may not even count for our comparative purposes here. That turnout was 3%.

Put another way, the Democratic primary in Senate District 4 — and the Republican primary in House District 94 in Hampton Roads — had the lowest turnouts for potentially competitive districts. One difference: That Republican primary in Hampton Roads wasn’t much of a contest. Andy Pittman won that with 74% so Republicans there may not have felt much need to vote in a runaway race. The Democratic Senate primary in the Roanoke Valley was considered more competitive, though — it pitted two members of the Roanoke City Council against each other (plus a third candidate).

This low voter engagement is potentially worrying for Roanoke Valley Democrats — the key word there being potentially. It doesn’t mean that Democrats will be unenthusiastic in the fall; there may be lots of things to inspire them between now and then. It just means they haven’t gotten fired up yet. Republicans, though, have another race to help fire up their base because the Senate district overlaps with part of House District 41, a competitive district that pits Democrat Lily Franklin against Republican Chris Obenshain. We don’t know how that race will go but the most Republican parts of that House district are in the Senate district, the most Democratic parts aren’t, so Obenshain’s campaign may help boost turnout for Suetterlein (and vice versa) in rural precincts in Montgomery and Roanoke counties. Meanwhile, White-Boyd will be on her own to crank up the Democratic base in Roanoke. 

All this has statewide significance because Democratic control of the state Senate hangs in the balance — Democrats currently hold a 22-18 majority. What happens in Roanoke won’t stay in Roanoke, it will matter in Richmond and beyond.

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