A voting sign at Bedford Hills Elementary School in Lynchburg. Photo by Matt Busse.
A voting sign at Bedford Hills Elementary School in Lynchburg. Photo by Matt Busse.

Elections are answers. Now, here are some of the questions. Some of these I’ve seen circulating online, others have come in directly, and a few are my own.

1. How did Virginia’s new redistricting plan impact the election returns?

This comes from Linda Ladas, a reader from Chincoteague, which helps underscore the statewide audience we’ve developed.

These were the first elections under a redistricting plan that wasn’t drawn by the majority party in the legislature. Had Virginia not approved a constitutional amendment taking the power of redistricting away from the General Assembly, Democrats in 2021 would have drawn very different lines — and those districts would have elected a lot more Democrats. Let’s call it what it is: Both parties gerrymander, so Democrats would have drawn gerrymandered districts just as Republicans have drawn gerrymandered districts and Democrats have drawn gerrymandered districts when they were in power before. 

I’ve seen some chatter that Democrats might have been able to draw lines to give them 60 seats in the House, rather than the 51 they appear to have won. By that measure, Republicans wound up benefiting from the new redistricting. They lost control of the legislature, but it would have been a lot worse under a Democratic-drawn plan. The maps drawn by two special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court tilted slightly Democratic and that’s what we got — a legislature that tilts slightly Democratic. As an outside observer, I think the new maps are reasonably fair; they were drawn without regard for where incumbents live (something either party would have paid attention to if they’d drawn the maps) and are generally geographically logical. It also looks like the overall vote statewide will wind up slightly Democratic — again, in line with the actual results.

Also: Some had worried that the redistricting plan would result in a less diverse legislature. These elections have actually provided Virginia’s most diverse group of legislators. Both the House and Senate will have a record number of Black legislators — 24 in the House (up from a high of 18 in 2022) and seven in the Senate (exceeding the high of six in 1869). Tuesday also saw the election of other legislators with diverse backgrounds. Atoosa Reaser was born in Iran and her family fled the revolution there; she’s a new Democratic delegate from Loudoun County. Saddam Azlan Salim, the new Democratic state senator representing Fairfax city, Falls Church, and part of Fairfax County was born in Bangladesh. I can’t attribute all that to redistricting, some of those candidates might have been elected anyway, but the point is that some of the fears about the redistricting plan did not come to pass.

Senate District 4. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
Senate District 4. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

2. Could Democrats have won the Roanoke Valley state Senate race if they’d spent more money there?

This is a question I’ve seen posed online from Dan Smith in Roanoke. It went something like this: In Senate District 17 in Suffolk and eastern Southside, Republican Emily Brewer defeated Democrat Clint Jenkins by a margin of 52.61% to 47.12%. In Senate District 4 in the Roanoke Valley (and part of Montgomery County), Republican David Suetterlein defeated Democrat Trish White-Boyd by a margin of 53.5% to 46.29%. Two very similar results, but the way Democrats approached the two districts was quite different.

State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.

Jenkins spent $1,724,574, of which $1,193,000 came from the Senate Democratic Caucus.

By contrast, White-Boyd spent $388,509, of which her largest donation was $80,000 from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The race in Suffolk/eastern Southside was one that was targeted by both parties, the Roanoke Valley race was not. In hindsight, should Democrats have invested more money in White-Boyd?

You know how they say hindsight scores on eye exams, but here’s what Democrats were looking at going into the campaign. In the 2021 governor’s race, Senate District 17 voted 52.3% Republican while in the 2022 congressional midterms it voted 50.39% Democratic.

Trish White-Boyd. Courtesy of the candidate.
Trish White-Boyd. Courtesy of the candidate.

By contrast, Senate District 4 voted Republican both years: 54.7% in 2021 and 53.9% in 2022.

Put another way, Democrats saw in Senate District 17 a district that had already voted their way once, and might do so again. In Senate District 4, they saw a district that had seemed consistently Republican, albeit by tantalizingly close margins. Senate District 17 was always the better bet for Democrats; whether they could and should have also bet on Senate District 4 is a matter of debate. Did Democrats simply dismiss Senate District 4 because they disregarded the prospect of winning anything west of the Blue Ridge? That’s a legitimate question. However, Democrats certainly did not ignore a candidate slightly farther west — the Democratic Party put $205,724 into Lily Franklin’s House campaign and the House Democratic Caucus put in $132,000 (although I’ll offer some context to this in the next section).

While we’re talking about the Roanoke Valley Senate race, let’s look at how Suetterlein won (and what would have been required for White-Boyd to win). Of the four localities in that district, three (Montgomery County, Roanoke County, Salem) vote Republican, one (Roanoke) votes Democratic. For White-Boyd to win, she would have needed a bigger margin out of Roanoke than Suetterlein polled in the other three localities. That didn’t happen. She carried the city by 4,524 votes but Suetterlein’s margin in Roanoke County alone was bigger than that — 5,211. Salem and Montgomery County just added more.

Could White-Boyd have realistically produced a bigger turnout in Roanoke? Consider this: She polled 12,725 votes in Roanoke; that’s more than the 11,320 votes that Democrat John Edwards received four years ago in a non-competitive race against an independent and more than the 10,178 votes he received in 2015 in a competitive race against a well-funded Republican. For this cycle, White-Boyd exceeded recent Democratic vote totals in the city for this cycle. However, so did Suetterlein: That competitive Republican candidate in 2015, who lived in the city, won 6,588 votes. Suetterlein, who lives in Roanoke County, took 8,201 votes in the city. White-Boyd increased Democratic turnout in the city but Suetterlein increased Republican turnout, negating much of her advantage. 

Suetterlein also had one other structural advantage: The Senate race was the only contested race on the ballot in Democratic-voting Roanoke. Meanwhile, Republican-voting Roanoke County had contested House races, as well as multiple local races for school board and other offices to help drive up the turnout.

The 41st District covers most of Montgomery County (but not Christiansburg), western Roanoke County, and the Bent Mountain area. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

3. Same question, different race: Could Democrats have won the Obenshain-Franklin race if they’d spent more money?

Chris Obenshain. Courtesy of the candidate.
Chris Obenshain. Courtesy of the candidate.

The House District 41 contest between Republican Chris Obenshain and Democrat Lily Franklin wound up being one of the closest races in the state — closer than one of the seven races that the Virginia Public Access Project originally categorized as competitive. For a district that went 55.46% Republican two years ago, that was certainly a surprise. Technically, this race isn’t even over yet. The election night tallies put Obenshain at 12,351 and Franklin at 11,408, a margin of 943. Franklin’s campaign believes there may be as many as 2,000 votes yet to be counted. We know Montgomery County has 955 provisional ballots, mostly from Virginia Tech students who took advantage of Virginia’s same-day registration. The rest are mail ballots that may or may not arrive on time; Monday is the deadline for those. Even if Franklin doesn’t pull this out, she came closer than Democrats in some of the districts that were rated more competitive.

Lily Franklin.
Lily Franklin.

Campaign finance reports show party sources investing far more in those other Democrats than they did in Franklin. The House Democratic Caucus gave $1,044,000 to Karen Jenkins in Suffolk, $890,623 to Travis Nemhard in Prince William County, $737,779 to Kimberly Pope Adams in Petersburg but only $132,000 to Franklin. All of them lost but with roughly the same percentage.

I understand that some of those are more expensive media markets, but still it’s worth asking: What could Franklin have done if she’d had that kind of money? Aside from picking up an additional seat, Democrats could have picked up an additional talking point, about how they were expanding their support in the western part of the state.

Signs at the Bedford Hills Elementary voting precinct in Lynchburg. Photo by Matt Busse.
Signs at the Bedford Hills Elementary voting precinct in Lynchburg. Photo by Matt Busse.

4. Did Democrats miss an opportunity to win a House seat in Lynchburg?

This is a question that came from Lanaux Hailey in Lynchburg who was looking at the results of House District 52, where Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, won reelection over Democrat Jennifer Woofter, 54.79% to 45.12%. That reader considered that pretty close, given the Republican lay of the land, and wondered how much better Woofter might have run if Democrats had invested in her campaign. Woofter’s campaign finance reports don’t show any money from the House Democratic Caucus.

House District 52 puts all of Lynchburg in the same district, with a piece of Campbell County to make the numbers work out.

Here’s the difficulty for Democrats in Lynchburg: That district voted 55.08% Republican in 2022 and 57.47% Republican in 2021, so Tuesday’s results are very much in line with the 2022 numbers. It’s hard to picture either party looking at a district that consistently votes 55% to 57% the other way and thinking that’s a good investment. Both parties are ruthlessly practical when it comes to where they spend their money.

The counterargument here is that House District 41 — the Obenshain-Franklin race — had numbers that weren’t much different and Democrats did make some investment there, although you can make the case that Democrats under-invested in Franklin (or that she overperformed). House District 41 was 53.7% Republican in 2022 and 55.46% Republican in 2021. So there is potentially an argument to be made that if Democrats had invested more in both Franklin and Woofter they might have picked up a seat or two. Of course, remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. If Democrats had spent more money on Woofter, Republicans likely would have, too.

House District 57 covers eastern Goochland County and western Henrico County. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
House District 57 covers eastern Goochland County and western Henrico County. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

5.  Did Susanna Gibson’s sex videos cost the Democrats a seat in the House of Delegates?

You’ll recall that Democratic candidate Susanna Gibson’s campaign took a hit when The Washington Post reported that she had posted sex videos online. After that, Gibson went on to lose her race for a House seat in the Richmond suburbs, just barely. Republican David Owen took 51.16% of the vote to Gibson’s 48.4%. Meanwhile, Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg won the Senate race in an overlapping district, polling 54.3% to Republican Siobhan Dunnavant’s 45.51%.

Naturally, the question is: Did those sex videos cost Gibson the race? After all, this was a narrow race — Owen won 17,878 to 16,912, a margin of just 966 votes.

Here’s how I set out to answer that question: I went through the 16 precincts that the House district and the Senate district have in common to see how Gibson ran compared to VanValkenburg. In those 16 precincts, Gibson polled 188 fewer votes than VanValkenburg did — in 13 precincts she ran behind him, in three she ran ahead. That kind of ballot drop-off isn’t uncommon. Many people don’t complete their ballots. For a rough comparison, I looked at the results from my own county, Botetourt County. Republicans Chris Head and Terry Austin both took about three-quarters of the vote in their respective Senate and House races in the county, but Head polled 120 more votes than Austin did.

In any case, a 188-vote shortfall doesn’t seem that big a deal. Gibson’s bigger problem didn’t seem to be the sex videos but rather that part of the district is in heavily Republican Goochland County. She carried the part of the district that’s in Henrico County, but in Goochland she got wiped out — 3,783 to 1,927. Even if there was no ballot fall-off in Henrico, and Gibson had run even with VanValkenburg, she’d have still lost because of Goochland County.

Unless I see other math, I’m inclined to believe that in these days in which our politics have become tribal, the sex videos didn’t cost Gibson the election — the election map did. It’s possible, of course, that the sex videos cost her fundraising, which could have been used to boost turnout, but it’s not as if the turnout was totally dependent on her campaign. VanValkenburg had a lot more money to drive turnout in their shared districts, and Gibson didn’t run significantly far behind him. In terms of the actual voting results, I see no evidence that the sex videos made a difference.

6. Who was the big winner of Tuesday’s elections? Nikki Haley.

Nikki Haley. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Nikki Haley. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Sure, Democrats were the big winners in Virginia, but nationally it might have been the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador who is now a Republican candidate for president. Here’s my rationale: If Republicans had taken both chambers of the General Assembly, the volume on the Youngkin-for-president chatter would have been turned up to 11. (If you don’t get the reference, see this clip from “This is Spinal Tap.”) Now that’s not happening, and the big donors who were pushing Youngkin to run will have to confront reality: If they want a Republican other than Trump, then they’re going to have to choose from the field they have, not the field they want. Among those Republicans, Haley has emerged, however so slightly, as the candidate most likely to challenge Trump — and also win the general election. Whether she can take advantage of this good fortune, we’ll see. The problem for her, and Republicans in general, is that Trump still dominates the field.

The 5th Congressional District. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

7. What’s the next big thing? A possible Good-McGuire 5th District Republican primary.

Bob Good

I wrote earlier this fall that Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland County (now state Sen.-elect John McGuire), was a potential intra-party threat to Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County. Now Politico, citing “two Republicans with direct knowledge who were granted anonymity,” says that McGuire may soon make his challenge formal. I pointed out that Good has angered some Republicans in Lynchburg, and the intra-party turmoil on the Lynchburg City Council has divided Hill City Republicans into at least two (maybe more) camps. Every politician should have his home area in the bag, but Good has weakened his standing in his base and made himself vulnerable to a poacher.

Politico recently reported even more intrigue. Good last year endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president. “The Virginian’s endorsement of DeSantis came after Good had already received Trump’s endorsement, creating an appearance of disloyalty that has agitated allies of the former president,” Politico reported. By contrast, McGuire includes some positive reference to Trump in almost every newsletter he sends out — and on Thursday formalized his not-so-unexpected endorsement of Trump. Could McGuire outflank Good to the right? I didn’t realize there was room to Good’s right, but perhaps there is.

John McGuire.
John McGuire.

More intriguingly, Politico quoted Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia: “Bob Good took Trump’s endorsement, ran on his name, ran on his policies and got elected. He also took all the fundraising that Kevin McCarthy worked hard to give him, happily took that money. Then he turns his back on everybody and stabs people in the back and the front. And is it a surprise he’s facing a primary challenger? Not at all.”

For good measure, she added: “There’s a lot of people that don’t like him.” If this McGuire challenge really does materialize, it could easily become a national flashpoint for Republican infighting.

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