I get a lot of invitations to speak these days, which is an odd experience for an old-school scribbler like me. I tell all the politicians I know that now I’m just like them — out hustling for exposure and sometimes money. (That’s a gentle reminder that we’re a nonprofit that depends on your donations, so if you like what we’re doing and want to see more of it, here’s how you can help.) In Cardinal’s two-year existence, I’ve spoken to groups from Abingdon to Virginia Beach, so almost from one end of the state to another (there’s a lot of Virginia west of Abingdon).
I was recently invited to speak to a group in Blacksburg, and was asked to address this topic: “10 Interesting Things About This Fall’s Election.”
That assumes, of course, that there are 10 interesting things about the election. Since I had to come up with that list for my talk, I’ll share it with you as today’s column. I will suggest, though, that these aren’t just interesting, they’re important.
1. Our first nonpartisan redistricting.
This year’s election is the first we’ve ever had where the legislative districts weren’t drawn by the majority party in the General Assembly. You can thank the unique politics that led to voters approving a constitutional amendment in 2020 to take the power of redistricting away from the General Assembly. That duty was first handed to a bipartisan commission, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Not surprisingly, that commission deadlocked. That kicked the duty to the Virginia Supreme Court, which promptly appointed two special masters, one nominated by each party, to draw the lines.
Many Democrats are regretting this amendment; when they backed it, they hadn’t foreseen that they’d win the 2019 legislative elections and have full control of the General Assembly. Without this amendment, they could have drawn lines more to their liking. Oh, well. Personally, I think the special masters did a darned good job. When a political party draws the lines, it has two goals in mind: Draw lines that protect its own incumbents and draw lines that inconvenience the other side’s incumbents. The special masters drew lines without regard to where incumbents lived. Instead, they put a priority on drawing geographically coherent lines. You can always quibble with particular lines, but overall, most districts seem to me to be about as logical as any jigsaw puzzle can be. One question for the future: Will there be a push to tinker with this system before the next redistricting?
2. We have an unprecedented amount of turnover.
Every election year brings some retirements and every redistricting year brings some more because some legislators look at the new lines and think, “Nah.” This time, we have more legislators than ever who decided not to run. Primary defeats in newly drawn districts sent some more legislators packing, and some have given up seats to run for other offices. In all, at least 16 of the 40 senators in January will be new and at least 33 of the 100 delegates will be new. Put another way, that’s at least 40% of the Senate and at least 33% of the House. Election results in November could add more casualties to the list. We’ve never had this kind of turnover before. For all those who believe in term limits, you’re getting your wish. (I am not among them because I believe in the importance of institutional knowledge.) Here’s how sweeping this turnover will be. The Senate will be under new management no matter who wins; both the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders (Richard Saslaw and Tommy Norment) are retiring. Only six members of the 16-member Senate Finance Committee are expected back. Both its co-chairs are gone, one to retirement (Janet Howell), another to a primary loss (George Barker). Come January, Richmond is going to be full of a lot of new legislators. Freshmen of both parties are usually told to sit down and keep their mouths shut. I’m guessing that may not be the case this time, simply because there are going to be so many newcomers.
3. Some big issues are on the ballot, at least indirectly.
Not literally, but effectively. If Republicans win both houses they’ll have the power to restrict abortion. If Democrats win at least one, they’d be able to block that. If Republicans win both houses, they’ll have the power to pass permanent tax cuts. If Democrats win at least one, they’d be able to block that. If Republicans win both houses, they’ll have the power to undo some of the restrictions Democrats passed on gun ownership when they were in power. If Democrats win at least one, they’d be able to block that. So, which will it be?
4. This election will shift power geographically.
Those two departing Senate Finance co-chairs were both from Northern Virginia. If Democrats win, Louise Lucas of Portsmouth is expected to take the gavel. If Republicans win, Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg County seems to be in line to chair that budget-writing committee. Either way, that’s a big geographic shift. In the House, Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, chairs the budget-writing House Appropriations, so if Democrats retain the Senate and Republicans hold the House, Hampton Roads will consolidate a lot of budgetary influence.
Depending on the results, we might see a geographic shift of power in the House. Right now in the Republican-controlled chamber the top leaders are from rural areas west of the Blue Ridge: House Speaker Todd Gilbert is from Shenandoah County, House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore is from Scott County, Deputy House Majority Leader Israel O’Quinn is from Washington County. If Democrats win back the House, presumably the next speaker would be current House Minority Leader Don Scott of Portsmouth with Charniele Herring of Alexandria in line to become House majority leader. That would be a big shift from rural to urban, from west to east.
5. A record number of Black candidates are running.
In the House, 38 of the 100 districts involve Black candidates. “With 13 Black candidates unopposed and another nine expected to prevail in districts that are rated as being favorable to them, the House is virtually assured of having a record 23 Black members, up from the previous peak of 18 in 2022,” the Richmond Free Press reports. “In the 40 Senate districts, there are 12 Black candidates running for seats, with at least six assured of winning either because they are unopposed or face opponents with less funding and name recognition.” The last time there were six Black senators? 1869, during Reconstruction. Democrats had complained that lines drawn by Virginia’s conservative-leaning Supreme Court would make it more difficult for Black candidates to win, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. On the contrary, it looks as if we’ll have our most diverse legislature ever, no matter which party wins. Also of note: Many of these Black candidates are running in white-majority districts.
6. Republicans have embraced early voting.
Republicans have been more suspicious of early voting than Democrats, but Gov. Glenn Youngkin has tried to change that this year. He pushed early voting with great enthusiasm and some clever wordsmithing aimed at reassuring Republicans that it’s OK: “Secure your vote.” Youngkin’s goal isn’t simply to get more Republicans to vote early, it’s to get more Republicans to vote, period. He won in 2021 thanks to a large Republican turnout; he’s hoping to duplicate that this time around. I’ve made the statistical case before that Republicans have more to gain from early voting than Democrats. If Republicans win, will they proceed to restrict early voting, or will they come to recognize that it’s part of what gave them a majority?
7. Virginia’s elections have national implications.
It’s not just that a Republican sweep of both chambers would be seen as a rebuke to President Joe Biden and a great victory for Youngkin (which might propel him into a presidential race), it’s how unusual that win would be. Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a weekly political newsletter from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, explained it this way: “The stakes for this November’s state legislative elections in Virginia are probably the highest of any state-level election being conducted this year, because the election has the potential to create something that is relatively unusual in today’s nationalized politics: A one-party state government that is different from the party that won the state in the most recent presidential election.”
8. Some write-in campaigns could make a difference.
Virginia has what’s commonly called a “sore loser” law: If you run in a party primary and lose, you can’t get on the ballot in November. (For one thing, the deadline has passed by then.) But that hasn’t stopped two June primary losers from mounting write-in campaigns. In Senate District 1 in the northern Shenandoah Valley, Republican David LaRock complains that GOP nominee Timmy French is insufficiently conservative. (To be fair, LaRock thinks much of the Republican Party is insufficiently conservative.) His campaign won’t make much of a difference: That’s a strongly Republican district. However, Matt Strickland’s write-in campaign in Senate District 27 in the Fredericksburg area could be more consequential. This is a very competitive district: It voted 50.9% Democratic in the 2022 midterms and 53.8% Republican in 2021. That district already has a three-way race that makes it unpredictable, between Republican Tara Durant, Democrat Joel Griffin and independent Monica Gary. Maybe Strickland only gets the votes of disgruntled Republicans who wouldn’t have voted anyway, but in theory all those votes ought to be going to Durant. This is a potential majority-making district for both parties, so Strickland’s campaign presents a wild card.
9. We’ll find out how voters feel about candidates who have made the news in unflattering ways.
The Washington Post revealed that Susanna Gibson, the Democratic candidate in a closely contested House race in the Richmond suburbs, and her husband had been performing sex online for tips. Meanwhile, Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County, is under indictment for felonies stemming from allegations that he intentionally hit a woman with his truck. He’s now running as an independent but has far more money than his Republican opponent, Eric Zehr. What will voters make of all this? If Republican David Owens wins in that Henrico-Goochland House district, we won’t know whether that means voters objected to Gibson’s internet activities or her policy positions, but if she wins, we’ll know for sure that voters didn’t care enough about her videos to keep her from office. Likewise, if Fariss loses, maybe it will simply be because he wasn’t running as the Republican candidate, but if he wins, it’ll be because voters liked him enough to overlook his criminal charges.
10. We have some contentious school board races.
School board elections used to be somnolent affairs. No more. True, most school board seats in the state remain unopposed, particularly in rural areas. But where they’re contested, they are often quite contentious. In Montgomery County, former superintendent Mark Miear, who was fired last year following what he said was a heated conversation about his transgender child, is running for the school board. (The issue is whether schools could use a different name for the child without Miear’s permission; he had joint custody of the child.) In Pulaski County, challenger Gina Paine has filed suit against incumbent Penny Golden, alleging she’s made false and defamatory statements about Paine. Here’s another measure of how contentious school board races have become: The Virginia Public Access Project reports that fundraising in school board races across the state is up 66% from where it was this time four years ago. So far, school board candidates have raised nearly $2.8 million. So much for the idea that school board races are simple things.
For a full list of who’s running for office this year, see our election page.
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