Glenn Youngkin campaigns in Roanoke County in 2021. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Today we entertain this provocative question: Why do some Republicans want their party to lose this fall’s legislative elections in Virginia?

OK, that may overstate things a bit but my starting point is an interview that former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon gave last week to radio talk show host John Fredericks. Bannon suggested that Trump supporters not vote this fall because if Republicans were to sweep Virginia in November — they currently hold the House but not the Senate — that would boost Gov. Glenn Youngkin as a presidential contender.

“Why should they set up another competitor to Trump?” Bannon asked.

Now, Bannon might be an outlier — he’s a natural provocateur — but he has correctly sketched out what is likely to happen: If Republicans win in November, Youngkin’s national profile will grow even bigger, and the calls for him to enter the presidential race and save the party from Trump will grow even louder and more urgent.

Meanwhile, one big obstacle to a Republican victory in the General Assembly — perhaps even the biggest, although that’s debatable — is whether Youngkin can persuade his party’s base to turn out in sufficient numbers. The Richmond Times-Dispatch touched on this in a story headlined “‘MAGA base’ remains question in push for early, absentee voting.”

I understand why some Republicans are skeptical of early voting, but it’s hard to be skeptical of the basic math: Republicans narrowly won the governorship (and the other two state offices and the House of Delegates) in 2021, in a state that had been trending Democratic, because voter turnout was higher than usual — but it wasn’t uniformly higher, it was distinctly higher in Republican areas than in Democratic areas. In many Democratic areas, turnout barely budged, while in most Republican areas it surged.

For Republicans to replicate that victory, they will need to do the same thing. Can they?

Here’s how unusual that 2021 victory was: Turnout that year was 54.9%. Four years prior, the turnout in the 2017 gubernatorial election was 47.6%. Before that, it was 43.0% in 2013 and 40.4% in 2009. 

Now here’s the challenge: Turnout in these Virginia midterms is always lower than in gubernatorial years. In 2019, the turnout was 42.4%, and that was shockingly high — and was driven by high Democratic turnout in reaction to then-President Donald Trump. Before that, in “normal” years, turnout was 29.1% in 2015 and 28.6% in 2011.

If you’re a strategist for either party looking at this fall’s elections, you want to figure out how you can win in a lower-turnout environment. Midterms typically feature an older, more conservative electorate, which benefits Republicans. Still, Republicans face this challenge: Their voters aren’t nearly as keen on early voting as Democrats are, so, broadly speaking, Democrats have 45 days in which to get their voters to the polls while Republicans have one. 

While Trump disparaged early voting in 2020, Youngkin pushed it in 2021, and state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, filmed a video talking it up in Southwest Virginia. This year, Youngkin is making an even bigger push for early voting — and, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has encountered some resistance from Trump supporters. They may not be thinking the same way that Bannon is — radio host Fredericks called his plan “Machiavellian” — but they’re still not as enthusiastic about early voting as Youngkin is (or Democrats are, for that matter).

I’ve written before that I did not understand the push by some Republicans to restrict early voting, because there’s more upside for Republicans than there is for Democrats. Youngkin’s surely looking at the same math (or even reading my earlier column!) and coming to the same conclusion.

The reason there’s more upside for Republicans than Democrats is that Democrats have come closer to maxing out their potential than Republicans have. Also, the lowest turnout localities in the state are almost evenly divided between Democratic one and Republican ones. Almost all of those low turnout Republican localities are in Southwest Virginia. Raising turnout there via early voting won’t help Republicans in November’s elections — in many of those districts, Republicans are running unopposed — but the party would benefit come 2024 and 2025 if they can raise turnout there. Getting more casual voters in the habit of voting early there would help. Come the 2025 gubernatorial elections, Democrats may be more enthusiastic about their nominee than they were in 2021. If Democratic turnout then goes up in some places, Republicans will need to find a way and place to counter that. They could certainly try restricting early voting, of course, but that runs counter to a fundamental American value: We like convenience, and early voting is convenient. Republicans would be better off in the long run by getting their supporters to adopt early voting than by using the mechanisms of government to shut it down.

Here’s the math that leads me to these conclusions. Let’s look at state Senate District 17 in eastern Southside, where Democrat Clint Jackson and Republican Emily Brewer are running. This is one of the most competitive districts in the state, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In 2021, Youngkin took 52.3% of the vote in the precincts that now comprise this district. In the 2022 congressional races, though, these precincts went Democratic by a margin of 1%. 

The 17th state Senate District. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
The 17th state Senate District. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

Republicans obviously want to duplicate here what Youngkin did; Democrats want to copy those more recent results. How likely is either of those outcomes? Candidates matter, of course. So do campaigns, and so do lots of external factors. For our purposes today, though, let’s just focus on turnout over the past two gubernatorial cycles in the localities that now make up Senate District 17.

Locality% of district’s populationTurnout in 2017Turnout in 2021
Isle of Wight County18.9%51%62%
Portsmouth (partial)9.3%46%44%
Southampton County8.0%51%61%
Brunswick County6.7%45%56%
Greensville County3.9%45%57%
Franklin (city)3.6%46%51%
Chesapeake (partial)0.2%47%53%

Here’s the first thing I’ll call your attention to:

Turnout in Portsmouth — the third-biggest locality in the district, and home of the strongest Democratic vote in this district — actually declined. Meanwhile, notice the big turnouts in Isle of Wight County and Southampton County, two strong Republican counties where turnout rose sharply and wound up topping 60%.  

This is how Youngkin was able to win this district (and ultimately the state) in 2021. In 2017, the variation in turnout between localities in this district ranged from 44% to 51%. In 2021, the variation widened from 47% to 62% and was highest in Republican localities and lowest in Democratic ones. Democrats were lethargic while Republicans were energized.

Here’s how those percentages translated into actual votes:

In Portsmouth, the Democratic vote declined from 20,156 to 19,513, a drop of 643 votes.

In Isle of Wight County, the Republican vote grew from 8,039 to 12,000, an increase of 3,961 votes.

In Southampton County, the Republican vote grew from 3,564 to 5,084, an increase of 1,520 votes.

We can see the big boost in Republican voting in 2021 in another way: Suffolk went Democratic in both 2017 and 2021 and while its turnout went up, it didn’t go up by nearly the same percentage as other localities in the district. Of the 10 localities in the district, its turnout in 2021 was tied for sixth. But look how much the Republican vote went up:

2017: 11,623 Republican votes, 16,621 Democratic votes

2021: 17,351 Republican votes, 19,079 Democratic voters

The Democratic vote went up by 2,458 votes while the Republican vote went up by 5,728 votes.

Was that a one-year fluke? Democrats will hope it is; Republicans face the challenge of trying to sustain that. Because turnout will be lower in these legislative elections than in a gubernatorial election, neither party can hope to achieve the same turnout as two years ago — but Republicans will want to try to replicate the same proportions. That will be a lot easier to do if they use all their early voting days and don’t gamble everything on a one-day get-out-the-vote exercise.

I say this not as a partisan but because Fred Pence did a good job of teaching me math back in the day and I’m sorry he’s no longer around to see me use it. (A personal recollection from those Rockingham County days: Fred Pence coached the boy’s basketball team at my Montevideo High School; his brother, Larry, coached the boy’s team at Turner Ashby High School. It was always a treat to see those two teams go head-to-head.)

Let’s take a quick look at two more swing districts. 

Senate District 27. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
Senate District 27. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

Like the one we just looked at, Senate District 27 in the Fredericksburg area went Republican in 2021 but voted Democratic in the 2022 congressional races. The contest this fall is more complicated because it’s a three-way race between Republican Tara Durant, Democrat Joel Griffin and independent Monica Gray, who seems surprisingly well-funded.

In 2017, the three localities that comprise this district had roughly equal turnouts. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County both had 42% turnout; Stafford County was a little better at 45%. 

In 2021, turnout was up in all three, but it was up more in Republican-voting Spotsylvania and Stafford than it was in Democratic-voting Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg came in at 49%, Stafford and Spotsylvania jumped up to 54%. Once again, Republicans must worry that Democrats will be more motivated this time around — which means they must figure out how to sustain their turnout advantage in their Republican localities.

House District 82. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
House District 82. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

Finally, there’s House District 82 in the Petersburg area. Mathematically, this might be the most competitive district in the state. In the 2021 gubernatorial election, these precincts went Republican by 2.1%; in the 2022 congressional mid-terms, they went Democratic by 1.2%. Let’s look at turnout over the past two gubernatorial cycles:

Locality% of district’s populationTurnout in 2017Turnout in 2021
Dinwiddie County (partial)29.1%44%57%
Prince George (partial)24.9%46%54%
Surry County8.8%54%63%

What we see here is that in the biggest locality, and the only reliable Democratic one, the turnout didn’t change at all. Meanwhile it soared in the three other localities, all of which went Republican. Even with that, this district only narrowly went Republican.

For Del. Kim Taylor, R-Petersburg, to repeat that feat this fall against Democrat Kimberly Pope Adams, she’ll need to do much the same — make sure the turnout in Republican-voting Dinwiddie, Prince George and Surry is a lot higher than it is in Democratic-voting Petersburg. Procedurally speaking, what’s the best way to do that?

You may think Youngkin right or wrong on the issues — that’s a matter of personal taste — but he seems demonstrably right to try to get Republicans comfortable with early voting. Otherwise, they run the risk of having to get comfortable with the prospect of a Democratic General Assembly.

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