We are now less than a week into Virginia’s 45-day election period. If we still had a single, old-fashioned Election Day, it would now be about 7:45 a.m.
We don’t know who’s ahead — although we could make some guesses — but we do know enough to ask some questions. Here are seven of them, the answers to which will help determine who comes out on top when the votes are counted on the night of Nov. 7.
1. What effect would a government shutdown have?
We can debate who would really be hurt politically by a government shutdown but some Republican leaders are certainly acting as if they would be. Some of the key swing districts in both the state Senate and the House of Delegates are on the outer edges of Northern Virginia, so shutting down the government means putting a lot of voters there out of work. That’s not likely to endear them to the Republican hardliners who are making it difficult to pass spending bills, no matter how much those Republicans make the case that we need deeper spending cuts.
The subject of Virginia’s elections even came up in a conference call among Republican House members on Saturday. Jake Sherman, founder of Punchbowl News, which covers Congress, posted a series of tweets on the meeting, which he had access to, particularly an exchange between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County.
“McCarthy says Virginia has an election and a shutdown could play into that,” Sherman tweeted. “McCarthy then pitched a 45-day CR [continuing resolution] to avoid the VA election from being politicized.” (A continuing resolution of that length would keep the government open until after Virginia’s elections.)
Sherman later tweeted: “Good signaled he’d support 30 days, not 45.” That would still leave time for a government shutdown before Virginia’s traditional Election Day. If McCarthy’s political calculus is right, then Democrats should secretly want a government shutdown, because they could then blame Republicans for it. I suspect Gov. Glenn Youngkin would prefer not to have a shutdown, because that just complicates things — and distracts from the Republican message.
2. How successful will Youngkin’s push to encourage Republicans to vote early be?
Republicans have generally been more reluctant to embrace early voting than Democrats have been, but Youngkin is trying hard to change that. His pitch to “secure your vote” is some top-level political wordsmithing because “secure” presumably helps assuage some Republicans’ concern about this innovation. Ultimately, Youngkin’s goal isn’t simply to get more Republicans to vote early, it’s to get more Republicans to vote, period. Having a 45-day voting window gives both parties more opportunities to get their voters out than on a single day.
We can see from the numbers that early voting is up — and it’s up strongest in competitive districts — but we don’t know whether these are primarily from Republicans, primarily from Democrats, or an even mix of the two. I’m sure both parties would say they’re the ones driving this.
All we can say for certain is what the Virginia Public Access Project reports: Of the 10 House districts with the most early votes through Monday, five are strong Republican, two lean Republican, two are considered competitive and one leans Democratic. Furthermore, three of those five strong Republican districts are ones in which the Republican is unopposed — Tom Garrett of Buckingham County in House District 56, Israel O’Quinn of Washington County in House District 44 and Jason Ballard of Giles County in House District 42.
We see similar trends in the Senate races. Of the 10 districts with the heaviest early voting, four are considered strongly Republican, three lean Democratic, two are competitive and one leans Republican. The Senate district with the most early votes is Senate District 10, from Appomattox County to Hanover County, where Republican John McGuire is unopposed.
What all this tells me is that if voters in strongly Republican counties counties are showing up heavy to vote in an unopposed race (or whatever local elections might be on the ballot), then the Republicans “secure your vote” message is probably sinking in — because it’s sure not Democrats driving the turnout there.
Curiously, the first numbers for early voting showed a different result: The ones through Saturday showed more competitive districts in the Top 10 and out of the Top 10 in both House and Senate — so 20 in all — only one strongly Republican district made the list. The numbers VPAP posted Monday evening were quite different. That means the surge of early votes since then has come in Republican districts, which lends further creedence to the notion that right now Republicans are doing a better job at getting out the vote. Ultimately, though, the question isn’t whether Republicans are doing a better job in strongly Republican districts, but whether they’re doing a better job in those swing districts. Those could be two different trends; we just don’t know yet.
Updated, 5 pm. Sept. 26: VPAP has now updated the early voting numbers and they show different rankings. These rankings will change every day. I plan to address them on Friday in my weekly West of the Capital newsletter; you can sign up free here. For what it’s worth, as of Tuesday afternoon, the heaviest early voting Senate district is now Senate District 4 in the Roanoke Valley between state Sen. David Suetterlein (R) and city council member Trish White-Boyd (D). I also see where the second heaviest voting House district is now the Roanoke House district where Del. Sam Rasoul (D) is unopposed. That suggests over the past day we’ve seen a lot of Democratic voters there, in contrast to the early tide of Republican voters. Statewide, the second-heaviest voting district is Senate District 10 where Republican John McGuire is unopposed.
3. How much will Youngkin’s popularity help Republicans?
Democrats blanch whenever I mention this, but polls consistently show Youngkin’s approval on the 50%-plus side. The Morning Consult Poll puts it at 57%. I prefer the Roanoke College poll because I’m more familiar with its track record; it most recently said 51% of Virginians approve of Youngkin’s handling of the job. That didn’t stop one reader who wrote to us recently to say “Your polling article on Youngkin is BS. … We can’t stand him in my family and my circle of friends.” I am reminded of the famous quote by New York Times film critic Pauline Kael, who said in 1972 after Richard Nixon’s landslide win over George McGovern: “I only know one person who voted for Nixon.”
Youngkin’s popularity is certainly an asset for Republicans; we just don’t know how much of an asset. It’s possible that Youngkin is personally popular, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with him, or want Republicans to have unchecked power on what they could pass in Richmond. The polling I’ve seen can’t help us much on that.
4. How much will President Joe Biden’s lack of popularity hurt Democrats?
This is the flip side of the question above. While Youngkin’s approval ratings in the Roanoke College poll have consistently been at 50% or higher, Joe Biden has been consistently underwater since fall 2021. His disapproval rating in Virginia — a state that voted for him — is now 57%, the highest it’s ever been, and his approval rating just 40%.
The Roanoke College poll showed Biden getting high marks from Democrats but independents were breaking against him. That means Biden won’t be much of an asset for Democrats in Virginia this fall. Democrats, though, do have one big energizer going for them:
5. How much will the Dobbs decision energize Democratic voters?
This falls under the heading of “be careful what you wish for,” at least politically. When the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights, it handed Democrats a powerful talking point with which to motivate their supporters — and potentially attract new ones. In three state referendums in Republican-voting states so far — Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio — we’ve seen voters come down against more restrictions on terminating a pregnancy. Youngkin has backed a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In our current political alignment — a Republican House, a Democratic Senate — that measure has stood no chance. If Republicans won control of the legislature, it would — and Democrats have repeatedly raised the specter that Republicans might go further. I’ve seen Republicans complain that Democrats have only this one issue — Democrats would dispute that — but for some voters, this might be the only one that Democrats need. Democrats would probably love a single-issue campaign; Republicans are likely better off with the focus on other issues, as many as possible.
6. What local factors will influence campaigns in swing districts?
Remember the famous phrase (popularized by Tip O’Neill but really dating back to the 1930s): “All politics is local.” We’ve already seen some examples of local events that might (or might not) make a difference. Earlier this year, state Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, was caught on a hot mic calling age verification for pornographic sites as “that online parental garbage” and “it’s all part of this parental crap that they are selling.” And then there’s the disclosure that Democratic House candidate Susanna Gibson and her husband had performed sex videos online for tips. Meanwhile, in the Fredericksburg area, the candidate who lost the Republican primary for the state Senate is now running a write-in campaign, complaining that Republican nominee Tara Durant is part of “the establishment.” It’s often hard to tell how serious write-in campaigns are, but if Matt Strickland gained any traction, that would obviously not be helpful to Durant — who is already in a multi-candidate race with Democrat Joel Griffin and independent Monica Gary. How much will any of these things matter? We simply have no idea.
7. What will happen that we don’t yet know about?
This is the old “October Surprise” question, although with early voting we might need to expand it to a “September Surprise” or “Autumn Surprise.” Lots of things — most of them bad — can happen between now and November. One advantage of early voting for both parties is that they can lock in votes before something goes wrong. One disadvantage is voters who cast early ballots are locked in if they find out something about a candidate they didn’t already know.
So, here are seven questions. We won’t have seven answers until Nov. 7.