One of the most memorable lines from the movie version of “Lord of Rings” — the scene that has launched a thousand memes — comes when King Theodon looks out on the vast army coming to assault his mountain fortress.
“And so it begins,” the grim Theodon says.
Today, it’s time to repurpose that clip: The 2025 race for governor has begun. Of course, it really began a long time ago, but Monday saw the first formal announcement: To no one’s surprise, 7th District Rep. Abigail Spanberger will forgo seeking reelection next year to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. By the end of the year, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is expected to announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares are both expected to run.
There will be time enough later to handicap all that, but for now let’s look at a more immediate question: With Spanberger not running again, will her 7th District seat be vulnerable to Republicans in 2024?
Republicans certainly think so.
Thirteen minutes after Spanberger sent out her 6:55 a.m. email, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out its own, almost claiming victory in the 7th District next year:
This district is trending toward Republicans. A proprietary NRCC analysis of the 2023 Virginia legislative elections shows a trend in three underlying competitive state legislative races overlapping with the 7th Congressional District:
Senate District 27: Biden won Senate District 27 by 5.8% in 2020, but last week Republicans earned a 2.2% victory, an 8.0% GOP swing.
House District 22: Biden won House District 22 by 5.3% in 2020, but last week Republicans earned a 5.4% victory, a 10.7% GOP swing.
House District 65: Biden won House District 65 by 11.6% in 2020, but last week Democrats earned only a 5.5% victory, a 6.1% GOP swing.
The average Republican swing in this district is 8.3%, well more than Biden’s 6.8% margin in 2020, and Spanberger’s 4.6% margin in 2022.
Ah, numbers! I’m not much on people arguing ideology, but math is something I can get into, so let’s see what the math really looks like in this district.
First, the NRCC math is correct: Republicans last week did win those two districts that had been previously won by Biden — Tara Durant in Senate District 27 around Fredericksburg and Ian Lovejoy in House District 22 in Prince William County — while Democrat Joshua Cole did win by a close margin in House District 65 around Fredericksburg.
That’s why I wrote last week — much to the consternation of some Democrats — that the Democratic victory in the General Assembly represented an incremental shift their way, not a seismic one. While Democrats picked up seats, it was the smallest pickup by any party in Virginia in eight years. Democrats won the bare minimum of seats that needed to take a majority — they needed three seats in the House and that’s what they won. In the Senate, they actually lost a seat. Out of 140 General Assembly seats, Democrats saw a net gain of precisely two. That’s why Democrats run the risk of reading too much into their new majorities. If this were really a blue wave, they’d have won more seats. In all, there were at least six House seats that Democrats could conceivably have won where they didn’t — the ones that went to Amanda Batten in James City County, Baxter Ennis in Suffolk, Lovejoy in Prince William County, Chris Obenshain in Montgomery County/Roanoke County, David Owen in Henrico County and Kim Taylor in Petersburg. All those were quite close (Taylor won by just 74 votes). In the Senate, I count at least three Senate seats that Democrats might have won with a bigger vote — the one that went to Durant, plus Emily Brewer in Suffolk and eastern Southside and Danny Diggs on the Peninsula.
We can look at the 2023 results and draw some conclusions for 2024 — abortion helps Democrats motivate suburban women, in particular — but we should be careful about drawing too many. Here’s why we shouldn’t look at these 2023 General Assembly results that happen to be in the 7th Congressional District and conclude that because Republicans won those legislative seats this year that they’ll win the congressional seat next year: We’re talking two different electorates.
Last week, we saw 39% of Virginia voters cast ballots. That’s high for a General Assembly cycle; it appears to be the second-highest since the Motor Voter Law expanded registration in the 1990s, but it’s still the lowest cycle we have. In 2020, a presidential year, the turnout was 75.08%, up from 72.05% in 2016, and there’s no reason to think next year will be appreciably different.
Put another way, we’re going to see a lot more voters next year — which side will they benefit? We can make some guesses — young voters, who lately have favored Democrats, tend to skip off-year elections — but ultimately we don’t know. Those “extra” voters in Prince William County may be a lot different from the ones in, say, Greene County.
That’s why we can’t look at these results and say much of anything about how the 7th District will turn next year — other than it will be competitive. It was competitive last year when Spanberger sought reelection — she won with 52.21% of the vote — and will be competitive next year, whether Spanberger is the Democratic candidate or not.
Spanberger’s departure does hurt Democrats and help Republicans — she’s a known quantity who has proven to be a good campaigner in a swing district. However, even with her gubernatorial bid opening the way for a different Democratic candidate, the fundamentals in that district favor the Democrats. J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has run the numbers on the precincts in the 7th (which was dramatically reconfigured in the most recent redistricting) and finds that it’s consistently voted Democratic in presidential years, albeit by single-digit margins:
2008: Obama +6%
2012: Obama +4%
2016: Clinton +2%
2020: Biden +7%
That’s why the center has downgraded Democratic prospects in that district but still has them on the plus side. The center’s Kyle Kondik posted on Twitter/X: “Crystal Ball House rating change: VA-7 goes from Likely to Leans Democratic as an open seat. Could make a reasonable argument for toss-up but the district does have a Dem lean at the federal level. Still, this is a better target for Rs as an open seat, clearly.” The Cook Political Report also moved it from Likely D to Lean D.
Chaz Nuttycombe of CNalysis.com, who picked every single General Assembly race correctly, thinks the numbers above understate the Democratic vote because of the way some votes in Prince William County have been compiled in the past. He posts: “It’s bluer than Biden +7 because of the PWC data error (also VA-10 is more R-leaning as a result).” He thinks those precincts were at least +8 for Biden in 2020.
Much will depend on who both parties nominate. Both are looking at multicandidate primaries, which increases the possibility of a candidate on one extreme or another winning. Both parties would be better off if they nominated candidates closer to the center, but that’s good advice for any district — and obviously both parties often have difficulty following it. The Democratic candidate there will also have the presumed advantage of running on the same ticket as U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, who is up for reelection next year and so far has drawn only unknown Republican challengers.
Ultimately, what matters is the race that will dominate next year — the presidential race. If we have a rerun of Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump, that district (and the state) can likely be counted on to go for Biden again. If Republicans come to their senses and nominate someone other than Trump, then all bets are off — and I’d expect Virginia to be quite competitive. Polls consistently show how unpopular Biden is but the one thing that makes him look instantly better is the prospect of Trump getting back in the White House and instituting an American autocracy. If Republicans nominated, say, Nikki Haley, I would not be surprised to see Haley win Virginia — and the presidency.
Now, that’s my opinion, but math doesn’t have an opinion and the math here shows the 7th District leans Democratic, whether Spanberger is on the ticket or not. Here’s some more math: In 2020, there were 14 congressional districts that voted for Biden over Trump but still elected a Republican to Congress. Republicans would be smart to err on the side of trying to figure out how to be one of those in the 7th District next year.