If you were to drive through some parts of Virginia this fall, you could be forgiven for not realizing that a climactic General Assembly election that will decide which party controls the state legislature is underway.
That’s because most General Assembly districts this fall aren’t particularly competitive — the Virginia Public Access Project estimates that no more than four of 40 Senate races and no more than seven of 100 House races are competitive. Some may quibble with that and add a few more races, but the point is, most seats aren’t competitive. In many localities, though, the top races are those at the bottom of the ballot, so to speak. This election cycle is actually our biggest one in terms of the number of offices on the ballot — many boards of supervisors, school boards and the so-called constitutional offices of sheriff, commonwealth’s attorney, treasurer, commissioner of the revenue and clerk.
It’s impossible to do justice to all of these contests, but here are some of the more interesting ones. You’ll notice that many of these involve schools in some way.
1. Richmond casino referendum: Rolling the dice again
For the second time, Richmond voters are being asked whether to approve a casino in the city. In 2020, voters in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth overwhelmingly approved casinos. In 2021, Richmond voters narrowly said no. The casinos in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth are already open; the one in Norfolk has been held up by various delays. If Richmond votes no again, casino advocates may turn their attention to Petersburg instead.
2. Montgomery County School Board: Conservative candidates vs. teacher-backed candidates.
Cardinal education reporter Lisa Rowan wrote about how school board elections, once local affairs, have become politicized and nationalized. One of the best examples of that (or worst, depending on your point of view) is Montgomery County. The county has four school board seats on the ballot, three of them contested. All three involve candidates endorsed by the Montgomery County Education Association running against more conservative candidates.
- In District B, former superintendent Mark Miear, who was fired after a verbal altercation with a staff member over transgender issues, is running against incumbent Penny Franklin. She’s backed by the MCEA, he’s backed by the conservative Moms for Liberty group.
- In District E, Lindsay Rich is running against Derek Rountree. She says she attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, but did not take part in the storming of the Capitol. Rountree has been endorsed by the MCEA.
- In District G, Edward Gitre is running against Jason Massie. Gitre has been endorsed by the MCEA; Massie says his goal is “making a change in the school board status quo.”
3. Pulaski County School Board: Republican-backed candidates challenge incumbents.
All five seats are contested. Republicans have endorsed candidates in all five, including four challengers. The most contentious race is in the Ingles District, where Republican-backed Gina Paine is challenging incumbent Penny Golden. Paine has filed suit against Golden, accusing Golden of saying Paine is a convicted felon; Paine says she has only a misdemeanor conviction from 20 years ago. A judge last week dismissed the suit on the grounds that as a candidate, she is a public figure and the legal bar for defamation against a public figure is higher. There are other school board contests around Southwest and Southside, but these are the most interesting ones.
4. Write-in candidates for school board challenge incumbents.
In many localities, late-starting candidates are waging write-in campaigns for school board seats. Some are from the left (Samantha Newell, who is challenging Brent Hudson in Roanoke County), others are from the right (Tom Adams, who is challenging Jason Wells in Appomattox County). Write-in candidates rarely win — in the past four years, only one write-in school board candidate in Virginia has defeated an incumbent — but school boards have now been politicized in a way they never have been before. Will that make a difference this year?
5. Hanover County votes on an elected school board.
Yet another school-related ballot issue. Only 12 localities in the state don’t have elected school boards. The most populous of those is Hanover County, just north of Richmond. Historically, when voters are asked whether they want an elected school board, they’ve said yes, overwhelmingly. (Danville initially said no, but later changed its mind. Salem said no, and hasn’t changed its mind.) There seems some doubt about the outcome in Hanover, which elevates this local decision into something with statewide implications. The push for an elected school board has come from those unhappy with the conservative bent of the Hanover County School Board. Axios recently published a good summary of recent events: A few years ago, the board only reluctantly changed the names of schools named for Confederate figures. More recently, the board banned 19 books, many with LGBTQ+ themes, and assumed authority for what’s on the shelves of school libraries. One school board member called the local NAACP president “an angry African American lady.” Opponents of the push for an elected school board are largely funded by Republicans. That makes the politics in Hanover a curious role reversal from elsewhere: In Lynchburg, it’s Republicans who have pushed for an elected school board. Hanover is also a strongly Republican county — it voted almost 68% for Glenn Youngkin two years ago — so those on the left pushing for an elected school board will only succeed if there’s a lot of Republican support.
6. Washington County commissioner of the revenue and clerk of court races show off Republican split.
Washington County offers a fascinating look at splits within the Republican Party. In the commissioner of the revenue’s race, incumbent Republican Mark Matney is running as an independent, although his signs advertise him as a “Trump Republican.” (They also advertise “Christ First.”) There’s an actual Republican nominee, April Crabtree, plus a Democrat, Christina Rehfuss, and another independent, David Henry. A four-way race makes this completely unpredictable. Will Washington County’s Republican vote be big enough for the party’s nominee to win in a multi-candidate race? Or will the vote split enough to allow a Democrat, or an independent, to win?
In the clerk’s race, independent Greg Mullins is running as a “Tea Party” candidate — keep in mind there is no formal party by that name — against Republican incumbent Patricia Moore.
7. Will a California murder case complicate Washington County sheriff’s race?
We have lots of sheriff’s races but the most interesting might be this one, where incumbent Blake Andis, a Republican, is being challenged by independent Rex Carter. Andis ought to be an easy winner, but the complicating factor is that one of his deputies was the “catfishing deputy” who drove cross-country, killed three members of a California family and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl. After a police pursuit, Austin Edwards killed himself and the girl was rescued. Edwards had previously worked for Virginia State Police but a state investigation into Edwards’ hiring as a trooper ended with no official report filed. Andis says there were no red flags when Edwards was interviewing with Washington County, although the Los Angeles Times reported that he used his father as a job reference.
8. Longtime Democrats in Republican counties are on the ballot.
At one time, local elections were just that — local. Now, even local politics have become more nationalized. That’s a challenge for Democratic incumbents in many counties that have trended sharply Republican. One of those is Washington County Treasurer Fred Parker, a Democrat who’s been in office since 1985. In the past five elections, he’s only faced opposition twice, and took 68% and 77% of the vote. Now he faces Republican Derek Webb. In Roanoke County, Commissioner of the Revenue Nancy Horn, a Democrat, was elected in 2001. Since that initial election, she’s only faced opposition once — in 2011, when she took 59% of the vote. This year she faces Republican Jason Peters, a three-term county supervisor. The county’s longtime clerk, Steve McGraw, a Democrat, retired earlier this year; Republican Michael Galliher is the only candidate on the ballot there. That means Horn is the only Democratic officeholder in the county. A Peters victory would complete the Republican domination of Roanoke County. There may well be other examples of Democratic holdovers from a more competitive era but these seem the most notable.
9. How will candidates under indictment fare in Buchanan and Culpeper counties?
In Buchanan County, Knox District Supervisor Trey Adkins faces 74 felony counts related to alleged election fraud; a jury trial is scheduled for next month. Adkins faces independent Jerry Scarberry. In Culpeper County, Sheriff Scott Jenkins has been indicted on 13 counts covering bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy; he’s alleged to have taken bribes in the form of campaign contributions from supporters in return for appointing them as auxiliary deputies. Jenkins is a Republican; he faces two independents, Timothy Chilton and Joseph Watson. Despite their legal issues, both incumbents have the advantage of friendly districts: Buchanan County voted 84.7% Republican in the last governor’s race, Culpeper voted 66.5% Republicans so these incumbents will only lose if Republicans turn against them. (There’s a third candidate under indictment, Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County, who is now running as an independent in a three-way race. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote about that race.)
10. How do Pittsylvania County voters really feel about the 1,900-unit housing project in Axton?
The county was roiled this summer by a proposal to build a new housing development in the southwestern corner of the county. Proponents said the housing was necessary to not only ease a current housing shortage but also accommodate the future growth that will come from development of the Southern Virginia Mega Site. Opponents said it would introduce too much development into a rural part of the county. The board of supervisors ultimately voted 5-2 in favor of the rezoning. Six of those seven supervisors (four who voted in favor, two who voted against) are on the ballot this fall and all have opponents. There are other issues involved, but if the incumbents win — particularly those who voted in favor of rezoning — then we’ll know the controversy over the housing project didn’t make much of a difference, after all.
11. A sleeper race in Washington County?
In the District C supervisors race, Democrat Julianne Johnson Miles is distributing literature that shows Republican incumbent Charles Hargis appearing to nod off during a meeting. The flier says: “Julianne Miles will stay awake in the meetings! (OK, that one is a pretty low bar, but important nonetheless.” The kicker is the disclaimer: “This Advertisement was not approved by Mr. Hargis.” (The more formal, legally required disclosure is on the other side of the flier with more traditional campaign messaging.)
12. What’s the smallest percentage someone can win with?
In a two-way race, that’s 50% plus one. In a multi-candidate contest, the percentage drops. Pittsylvania County may test the limits this year. Incumbent Clerk of Court Mark Scarce is retiring and there are no fewer than six candidates running to succeed him — one of them being his son, Seth. If all the candidates split the vote evenly, they’d each get 16.6% of the vote. Next door in Henry County, there are five candidates for commissioner of the revenue, so in theory a candidate there might need just 20% plus one to win.
For a full list of who’s on the ballot, see our election page.