I also have a bonus column today: “Why the newest revelations about House candidate Griffin won’t matter and other late-breaking campaign developments.”
The 1980s new wave band The Waitresses may have risen and fallen like the fizz on a glass of soda pop but they left behind one profound lyric: “I don’t want to be somebody else’s learning experience.”
Just a hunch, but singer Patty Donahue probably wasn’t referring to election returns.
It’s an all-purpose lyric, though, and at the moment, it applies quite well to Virginia’s legislative elections. Whether we like it or not, our elections will be a learning experience for both parties nationally as they look ahead to 2024.
When the numbers start coming in Tuesday night, we’ll be looking to see who won and who lost, but national analysts, and strategists for both parties, will be looking at some things that aren’t directly on the ballot. Among them:
1. How much does the Dobbs decision energize Democratic voters?
To be fair, Virginia won’t be the first place people will be looking for this. In Ohio, voters are being asked in a referendum whether the state should enshrine access to abortion in the state constitution. If Ohio — a state that’s been trending Republican — votes “yes,” this will be trumpeted as a sign that Republicans pushing restrictions on abortion are out of step with many of their own voters. In terms of policy, a constitutional amendment is a big deal. In political terms, however, what really matters is whether the Dobbs decision, and voter reaction to it, cost Republicans seats. For that, we’ll find out in Virginia, in suburban districts.
Probably the first place to look is Senate District 16 in the Richmond suburbs, where state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico County, is being challenged by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico County. While Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, Dunnavant, emphasizing her background as an OB-GYN, has supported some exceptions beyond that. The Washington Post says Dunnavant’s proposal “defies easy comparisons to the anti-abortion legislation that her fellow Republicans have recently proposed in the state — more permissive in some aspects, less so in others.” She’s also running in a district that voted almost 55% Democratic in the 2022 midterms and almost 53% Democratic in the 2021 governor’s race. A Dunnavant defeat might show that this is simply a Democratic district — or it might show that there’s not any room for Republican nuance.
Another place to look is House District 21 in Prince William County, where Republican John Stirrup earlier this year said “I would support a 100% ban” and said the governor’s proposal to ban abortion after 15 weeks is “a place to start.” He’s running in what might be the ultimate swing district: It voted 51.4% Republican in 2021 and 50.8% Democratic in 2022. A Stirrup defeat might suggest that abortion is a losing issue for Republicans — or maybe it doesn’t suggest anything at all except that a close race could go either way. A Stirrup victory, though, would show that a Republican can stake out a more conservative position on abortion and still win in the suburbs.
Of course, if there’s a wave one way or another, we won’t need to parse the results from individual contests. If Democrats see that abortion is a winning issue for them in Virginia in 2023, you can bet they’ll play that up big in 2024. If it doesn’t come through for them, Republicans will be relieved — and Democrats will be perplexed.
2. How much does parental rights energize Republicans?
While Democrats are talking abortion, Republicans are talking parental rights. If Republicans prevail in some of those tight races in suburban districts, they’ll point to how their parental rights issue topped the Democrats’ abortion issue. In that case, you can bet Republicans will try to take that issue national. It’s unclear how well they can do that — not because the issue doesn’t matter but because it seems hard to run a national campaign on what Republicans are saying should be a local issue — but there are certainly ways to do that.
3. How many parental rights-focused school board candidates will win?
This is a subset of the question above. School board elections in Virginia have typically been low-key affairs focused on local issues, when there have been contested races at all. Even this year, with elevated interest in school board issues, most school board seats in Virginia are unopposed. Where there are races, though, how many will see conservative candidates focused on parental rights issues win seats? If we see an unusual amount of turnover on local school boards, that will give Republicans yet another reason to incorporate those issues into national races next year.
4. How much does early voting help Republicans?
Republicans have generally been more reluctant to embrace early voting than Democrats, with former President Donald Trump occasionally bashing the idea. Youngkin, though, has pushed hard for Virginia Republicans to vote early. Whatever you think of Youngkin, the man can count. He won in 2021 because Democrats voted at gubernatorial levels but Republicans voted at gubernatorial-plus levels. For Republicans to win this year, he’s trying to replicate that kind of GOP enthusiasm and sees early voting as a vehicle to do that — it’s easier to generate turnover over 45 days than in just one day. If Republicans win big, then part of the reason may be Youngkin’s push for early voting — would that cause Republicans nationally to rethink the question? And would it lead Virginia Republicans to drop the idea of reducing the early voting window? Or would they try to throw away one of the tools that helped them? (I’ve made the case before that Republicans have more to gain from early voting than Democrats do.)
5. Will young voters show up in unusual numbers?
The electorate in off-year elections tends to be older (and whiter, and more conservative) than in presidential years. If Democrats fail to mobilize young adults, well, that’s just par for the course in a state legislative election. If young adults turn out in bigger-than-usual numbers, then we’ll all want to know why. Democrats are certainly hoping that young adults, motivated by the abortion issue, will turn out in bigger numbers — we’ll see.
6. Do Democrats continue to lose ground in rural areas?
The collapse of Democrats in rural areas is one of the party’s biggest strategic challenges — that makes it harder for them to win statewide elections (and keep in mind that the presidential race is really a series of 50 statewide elections). Every Democratic leader in Virginia that I’ve talked to has acknowledged that this is a problem, but 2023 won’t give them a chance to test proposed solutions because there are no seriously contested races in rural districts. There are some hotly contested districts that include rural areas, such as the Lily Franklin (D)-Chris Obenshain (R) race in House District 41 in Montgomery and Roanoke counties. But that’s not a purely rural district. The real place to watch may be across the state line in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is seeking reelection. He was elected four years ago with a surprisingly strong vote in rural areas, particularly the Appalachian counties — even though the Appalachian counties in Virginia are the ones that have broken most heavily against Democrats. Can he repeat that? If so, national Democrats might do well to study his example to see what they can learn from it.
7. Will Republican voters embrace legalized cannabis?
OK, this isn’t a question people nationally will be looking to Virginia for. Instead, they’ll be looking to Ohio, which holds a vote on whether to legalize marijuana and set up a retail market for it. We’ve seen states that are more conservative than Ohio vote yes on this question (Missouri and Montana come to mind), so I would not be surprised to see this measure pass in Ohio. I do wonder at what point Republicans reach a tipping point and realize that many of their own voters support legal weed. For instance, many of the “adult share” stores that have popped up in Virginia — and that were recently raided by law enforcement — were in Southwest Virginia, now the most Republican part of the state. They wouldn’t have been there if there wasn’t a market. If Ohio passes legal cannabis, will that have any effect on Republicans in Virginia? When Democrats last controlled the General Assembly, they legalized personal possession of small amounts of cannabis and intended to come back and create a legal retail market. Instead, they lost the House in 2021 and since then nothing has happened, so we’re in a gray area where you can possess weed but you can’t buy it, which is what led to those “adult share” stores. I went into one, bought a pair of pruning shears and was “gifted” with a free joint. We sent it off to the forensic science lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, which a) verified that it was marijuana but b) also found that it contained unhealthy amounts of mold and yeast, at levels that could cause bad things to happen to your lungs. Democrats and Republicans seem to agree we have a bad situation, but can they agree on what to do about it? Would a “yes” vote in Ohio persuade reluctant Republicans to embrace a legal, but regulated, market as a public health measure?
Those are seven lessons we might draw from the election results. I don’t dare predict who will win on Tuesday but I can safely predict that there will be other things we learn that we haven’t thought of yet.
On Tuesday night I’ll be posting live analysis of the returns as they come in.