Sabato's Crystal Ball

Underneath It All: Elections for the Virginia House of Delegates

The General Assembly’s lower chamber is also up for election on Nov. 7

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 19th, 2017


While November’s political spotlight will shine brightest on the gubernatorial contest at the top of the Virginia ticket between former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (R) and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), there will also be many interesting races down-ballot in the Old Dominion on Election Day. Not only will there be elections for the commonwealth’s two other statewide offices — lieutenant governor and attorney general — but all 100 House of Delegates seats will also be up for grabs. The General Assembly’s lower house will probably look a little different after Nov. 7, but the question is, how different?

As things stand, the Republicans hold a 66-34 edge over the Democrats in the House of Delegates, meaning that the Democrats must win 17 net seats to retake it. Not shockingly, the Crystal Ball can confidently say that the GOP will maintain control of the chamber. In fact, Northam admitted just as much at a dinner recently where he said he looked forward to current House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R) becoming speaker of the House (current Speaker Bill Howell is retiring and Cox is the presumptive replacement). Still, the partisan makeup of the House could change quite a bit — or not much at all. Such are the vagaries of races where there is little information to go on beyond intelligence gathered from in-the-know sources and finance reports, as well as a close contest at the top of the ticket between Gillespie and Northam that might limit the potential for a wave election to wash out one side or the other in the House.

Before delving into the seats that are competitive (or potentially so), let’s first take a look at some fundamentals and environmental factors that are important to keep in mind when looking at these state legislative races.

Incumbents’ cash rules everything around them

Like the Wu Tang Clan, incumbents seemingly hold onto office in part because of their large campaign war chests. But there is a chicken-and-egg question regarding the power of campaign cash in elections: Does campaign money actually cause election outcomes, or does the money just flow to candidates who were already more popular and would win anyway? And do incumbents benefit from having more money available to them through connections or do they get more because they have been good representatives of their constituents, earning them popularity and nearly assuring them reelection regardless of the money spent in a race? These questions can’t be answered with certainty, but what we do know is that incumbents tend to win reelection, and they tend to raise and spend more money than their challengers.

Using data from the Virginia Department of Elections and the Virginia Public Access Project, I looked at election and campaign finance data for the 1997 to 2015 period. The data reiterate the point that incumbents typically win and outspend their opponents. In the 10 regular election cycles in that time period, 1,000 House of Delegates elections took place. In those, 891 incumbents ran in the general election and 863 of them won (97%).[1]

In terms of campaign finance, we can use VPAP’s data for the 380 Democrat-versus-Republican contests in the House of Delegates in this period to see how having more campaign cash connects to winning. Of course, strong fundraising is a vital part of most elections in the United States, but it’s worth reiterating the traditional importance of it in Virginia politics. Remember, Virginia really has no campaign finance limitations — a donor can give as much as he or she pleases and all the candidate has to do is report it. We can see the potential impact of money on House of Delegates contests by looking at these major-party contests. Take a look at Chart 1, which presents the winning percentages for candidates who outspent the opposition in Democrat-versus-Republican races in different electoral situations from 1997 to 2015, the period for which we have available campaign finance data.

Chart 1: Electoral performance of candidates in major-party elections who outspent opponents, 1997-2015

Notes: 379 cases are included in this chart (83 for open seats, 296 for seats with incumbents). One Democrat-versus-Republican election is not included — the only incumbent-versus-incumbent contest in the 1997-2015 period, which occurred in 2011 following redistricting. It should be noted that in that case, the candidate who spent more did not win, though it was a Democrat (former House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong) running in a fairly Republican district.

Source: Virginia Public Access Project

Incumbents who outspent their opponents in the general election — which happened in 248 of the 296 contests (84%) that featured an incumbent — won 93% of the time. Only eight times (17%) did challengers who managed to outspend incumbents actually win in the other 48 races. Those eight cases included three Democratic wins (two in Democratic-trending Northern Virginia) and five GOP wins (two in Republican-trending Southwest Virginia and two in 2011 that happened in part because redistricting hampered the Democratic incumbents). But a cash advantage is connected to success in open-seat elections, too. The candidate who spent more won 71% of the open-seat matchups between 1997 and 2015.

Another advantage of incumbency may also be a tendency for potential challengers to opt against challenging a sitting office-holder. You’ll notice that just 380 of the 1,000 races in the past 10 cycles featured major-party clashes. Remarkably, 585 incumbents who sought reelection from 1997 to 2015 faced either no opposition or only third-party/independent opposition. This obviously helped with the high incumbent reelection rate!

However, as Chart 2 illustrates, the 2017 cycle has shaped up a bit differently from any recent House of Delegates election year in terms of contested seats. Overall, there are 60 major-party contests this cycle in the House of Delegates, which is the most since 1995, when there were 66. The 60-seat mark is the second-highest total since 1983, which marked the first regular election cycle where all seats were single-member districts. As Chart 2 also shows, gubernatorial cycles have recently had more contested seats, which makes sense: There is more attention being placed on elections and more people are likely to be engaged, which means candidates are more interested in running and voters are more interested in voting than in a General Assembly midterm year.

Chart 2: Democrat-versus-Republican elections in the House of Delegates, 1983-2017

Source: Virginia Department of Elections

A principal reason why there are more contested races than in recent cycles is the fact that Democrats are running in 88 seats, which is far more than in the past two gubernatorial cycles (67 in 2013 and 70 in 2009). Clearly, this connects to the broader political environment, where many Democrats and liberals are up in arms over the election of Donald Trump and the actions of his administration. In some ways, this is only natural — the out-of-White House party tends to be more engaged and energized in non-presidential years because of their dissatisfaction with the status quo. The environment has proven to be quite the spark for Democratic candidate recruitment, whether in Virginia House of Delegates elections or at the national level for U.S. House elections in 2018. To some extent, Democrats have already taken advantage of these national conditions at the ballot box: In 41 Democrat-versus-Republican races in federal and state legislative special elections since Trump’s victory last November, Democratic candidates have out-performed Hillary Clinton’s margin in their district by an average of 11 percentage points and have won eight of the 28 GOP-held seats that were up for grabs while not losing a single Democratic-controlled seat.

Because Democrats need to win 17 seats in the House of Delegates, another statistic related to the 2016 presidential contest provides symmetry with the needs of the minority party: Clinton carried 17 districts that are currently occupied by GOP incumbents in the House. Now, Democrats will not win all 17 of those seats. In fact, a fantastic cycle for them might mean winning roughly half of Republican-held Clinton seats, a result that doesn’t seem particularly likely at this juncture. But the shifts that we saw in the 2016 cycle, particularly in Democratic-trending Northern Virginia, have raised Democrats’ hopes of winning back a fair number of districts, changing the drought conditions they’ve suffered ever since they were hit hard in the 2009 Republican wave. Going into the 2009 cycle, the Republicans held a 53-45 advantage in the House of Delegates (with two independents who caucused with the GOP), but they won six net seats, and then consolidated those gains with a GOP-drawn district map that helped them net another eight seats in the 2011 cycle (including taking over a retiring independent’s seat). Since then, the Democrats have tried to make inroads, but with little success. Even though current Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) won the 2013 gubernatorial election, there was almost no change in the makeup of the House, with the Democrats improving from 32 to 33 seats but with the Republicans remaining at 67 after gaining another retiring independent’s seat. The Democrats won one net seat in 2015, so they remain deeply in the minority with just 34 seats.

As the analysis below will show, the majority party is very unlikely to change after the 2017 cycle, though there are a number of opportunities for Democrats to make a bigger dent in the GOP majority than they did in 2015.

Breaking down the House

As stated above, Republicans control 66 of the 100 seats in the lower chamber of the General Assembly (all 40 Virginia Senate seats are up for election in 2019). Of those 66 GOP incumbents, 60 are seeking reelection, while 33 of 34 Democratic incumbents are also trying to retain their seats. Just like elections in the U.S. House, some of the seven open House of Delegates seats have attracted a great deal of notice. In fact, the Democrats’ two best pick-up opportunities are open seats in the Northern Virginia suburbs. But the Republicans continue to be formidable because of the large number of incumbents they have seeking reelection in seats that are marginally Democratic, particularly just outside of the nation’s capital. A seat-by-seat review suggests that Democrats will probably gain at least two net seats, and could possibly gain a few more than that. Rating the most reasonably cheery scenarios for both parties, the Republicans would love to come close to holding serve by limiting Democratic gains to just a couple of seats. Meanwhile, the Democrats have an outside shot of gains in the high single digits, but probably need a wave to make such a result happen. The actual result will probably fall somewhere in between.

Before breaking down each race, here are some maps and tables to help the reader better understand the state of affairs. In total, there are 22 seats worth mentioning to some extent, and they are presented in Map 1 and its insets below. Most of the action is centered in Northern Virginia.

Map 1: Competitive and potentially competitive House seats in 2017

Table 1 lays out campaign finance data, Clinton’s 2016 percentage in each district, and the average percentage performance of the three statewide Democratic candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general in the 2013 cycle. To be clear, these are the percentages based on all votes, not the two-party vote. These data help provide a fairly good outline for the competitiveness or potential competitiveness of each contest.

Table 1: Campaign finance and district partisanship data for potentially competitive seats

Notes: The monetary and percentage categories are shaded for effect. That is, the more money someone had raised or had on hand as of Oct. 1, the darker the shade of green, and the more Democratic a district is based on the 2016 and 2013 elections, the darker the shade of blue.

Source: Virginia Public Access Project

Lastly, Table 2 presents the overall campaign finance data for candidates in each party. It shows just how much of a financial edge the GOP has overall — roughly two-to-one in cash-on-hand. Despite fairly strong fundraising from Democratic candidates, the Republicans have still outraised them. Largely because of the GOP’s sizable incumbency advantage, Republicans had much more cash-on-hand to begin with, and this total includes big war chests held by safe GOP incumbents who can potentially inject cash into tough races down the stretch.

Table 2: Party campaign finance situations as of Oct. 1

Note: One low-level Democratic challenger had not submitted an updated campaign finance report as of this writing. He had almost $0 in cash-on-hand at the end of the previous reporting period, so the missing data would not substantively alter the totals.

Source: Virginia Public Access Project

Democrats’ principal targets

There are four first-tier targets for the Democrats. The top two are probably the aforementioned open seats in Northern Virginia that sit along the I-95 corridor, stretching from eastern Fairfax and Prince William counties down into Stafford County: HD-2 and HD-42.

Since it was created in the redistricting process prior to the 2011 cycle, HD-2 has switched party hands every election. In 2011, Del. Mark Dudenhefer (R) won the new seat. He then narrowly lost it to ex-Del. Michael Futrell (D) in 2013, only to win the seat back in 2015 while Futrell launched a failed state senate bid. Dudenhefer isn’t running again, so it lacks an incumbent for the second-straight cycle. Initially, the general election matchup appeared to be between Jennifer Carroll Foy (D) and Laquan Austion (R). However, Austion was forced out of the race after it was revealed that he claimed to have received college degrees that he hadn’t completed. Republicans chose Mike Makee (R) to replace Austion, setting up the November pairing. Because of the trouble on the GOP side, Foy has a notable fundraising advantage. She had about three times as much cash-on-hand as Makee as of Oct. 1, and in a district where the 2013 Democratic statewide average was 56%, Makee has a challenging path to victory. Still, Republicans view Makee as possibly a stronger candidate than Austion, and the GOP war chest advantage could allow the Republican Party of Virginia to boost Makee down the stretch if it feels his chances have improved. Nonetheless, this is a seat that Clinton carried by 20 points in 2016, and the improved turnout in this district with statewide races at the top of the ticket will likely help Foy get over the top, just as it did Futrell in 2013.

In HD-42, long-time Del. Dave Albo (R) opted against a reelection bid. His reasoning for stepping away may have included the fact that the district went from being a district Barack Obama won by about seven points in 2012 to one that Clinton carried by 23 points in 2016. How much of that shift may be preserved by the statewide races in 2017 is unknowable, but given Northern Virginia’s views of President Trump, it seems likely that some of that shift will re-appear in 2017 as well. Kathy Tran (D) won a competitive primary for the Democratic nomination in HD-42, but despite having to spend a fair amount of money to win that contest, she has a very large cash-on-hand advantage in the general. Her opponent, Lolita Mancheno-Smoak (R), has about one-sixth as many dollars in her war chest as Tran. A Republican hold here would be fairly surprising.

Moving onto highly-ranked Democratic targets in seats where Republican incumbents are running, there are two such districts that rise above the others: HD-67 and HD-32.

HD-67 is the most Democratic-leaning seat that a GOP incumbent is defending in 2017, having gone for Clinton by 27 points in 2016 and averaging 55% for Democratic statewide candidates in 2013. Del. Jim LeMunyon (R) has held the seat since beating a Democratic incumbent in 2009. Since redistricting, he has carried it by nine or more points in both 2011 and 2013, and he was unopposed in 2015. So he clearly has some crossover appeal, which has kept him in the race despite the district’s fundamental partisanship. LeMunyon understands he needs Democratic votes to win: He’s even sent out mailers to voters emphasizing his work with Gov. McAuliffe. His opponent is a former Republican, Karrie Delaney (D), who is running ads in the expensive Washington, DC market talking up job creation and attacking LeMunyon for his vote against Medicaid expansion. As of Oct. 1, both candidates had about the same cash-on-hand. While Delaney has outraised LeMunyon, about $130,000 of that went to her primary bid for the Democratic nomination. Unusually for an incumbent, LeMunyon wants to debate Delaney, but so far she has declined. Given the makeup of the district, if Delaney can’t win this seat, the Democrats are probably headed for a bad night on Nov. 7.

Just after HD-67, HD-32 is the second-most Democratic-leaning seat with a Republican incumbent trying to hold on — Clinton won it by 21 points, and statewide Democrats won 54% of the vote there in 2013. Del. Tag Greason (R) won reelection by six points in 2015, which was the smallest margin for any GOP incumbent that cycle. That fact, plus the district’s lean, makes HD-32 a priority for the Democrats. Greason’s opponent in 2017 is David Reid (D). Unlike Democratic candidates in HD-2, HD-42, and HD-67, Reid didn’t have any primary opposition, meaning he didn’t have to expend money to win his party’s nod. As of Oct. 1, he had surpassed Greason in total money raised and in cash-on-hand. The Democrats have been hitting Greason on a large number of missed votes, and Republicans are concerned because they’re having a tough time finding effective attacks on Reid. Just like HD-67, if the Democrats want to have a decent night down-ballot, they need to win HD-32.

Having looked at the four most endangered Republican-held seats, two of which are open, we can move on to the second tier of Democratic targets. The GOP is in a better position to retain each of these districts.

Democrats are very excited about the race in HD-12, a seat down in Southwest Virginia. It’s the only Republican-held seat west of Richmond that Democrats really have a chance of winning on Nov. 7. The Democratic nominee is Chris Hurst, a former Roanoke newscaster who has proven to be a strong fundraiser — he currently holds a 3:2 cash-on-hand edge over Del. Joseph Yost (R), who has held the seat since 2011. Yost has been a difficult mark for Democrats: Since he won the seat, they’ve routinely viewed the GOP incumbent as a top target, but he only had a tough time in 2013, when Yost won by five points. One of Yost’s strengths is his relative moderation in a purple seat (2013 Democratic statewide candidates won an average of 52% in HD-12). For example, he was endorsed by the Virginia Education Association, which almost always endorses Democrats. Hurst is trying to play for the middle as well. The Democrat is most well-known, however, for the tragic death of his girlfriend, who was murdered on live television while reporting in 2015. This seat is the definition of toss-up, but one wonders if the southwest’s shift toward Trump might affect things here enough to help Yost hold onto his seat.

Meanwhile, in Northern Virginia, the House race that is getting the most national attention is HD-13, where a transgender woman is challenging a social conservative. Defending the seat is long-time Del. Bob Marshall (R), who co-sponsored the Marshall-Newman Amendment, which banned gay marriage in Virginia in 2006 after 57% of voters backed it. More recently, Marshall introduced a “bathroom bill” aimed at preventing transgender individuals from using the public restroom of their choice. The legislation failed, but the nature of the bill became meaningful after the June 13 Democratic primary, where Danica Roem (D), a transgender woman, won her party’s nomination to face Marshall. Given Roem’s profile, her candidacy has received a great deal of coverage and her campaign has received a very large number of small-dollar donations. While Marshall has long been a thorn in the side of his own party — note that Virginia Republican committees have not given him any money — he has proven to be impossible to beat. While Clinton won HD-13 by 15 points (compared to Obama’s 11 in 2012), HD-13 is similar to other increasingly diverse suburban/exurban districts in Northern Virginia in that the electorate changes a great deal in off-year cycles. As such, Marshall should not be discounted. After all, he now finds himself in a strong financial position, with nearly $100,000 more cash-on-hand than Roem even though Roem has significantly outraised him overall (she did spend about $80,000 in her primary). At least one outside group has weighed in on Marshall’s side: A conservative think tank recently robo-called voters in the district on the issue of gender identity. The margin in this race will probably be quite close, one way or the other.

Two other Northern Virginia seats of note are HD-31 and HD-51. In the former, Elizabeth Guzman (D) is taking on Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R). Now-state Sen. Jeremy McPike (D) only lost to Lingamfelter by one point in the 2013 cycle, so Democrats view this as winnable territory. Guzman is certainly fundraising with an eye on victory: She held about a $40,000 advantage in cash-on-hand as of Oct. 1. But it’s possible that Guzman is a little too far to the left for the district. Still, the district averaged 51% for statewide Democrats in 2013, when Lingamfelter nearly lost, so Guzman might be able to win. In HD-51, Democrats are quite pleased to have recruited Hala Ayala (D) to run. She is challenging Del. Rich Anderson (R), who both sides say is strong because he’s “a nice guy.” While Clinton won HD-51 by nine points in 2016, 51%-42%, the Democratic average in 2013 was just shy of 50%, speaking to its baseline competitiveness. As the incumbent, Anderson may only need to run a little ahead of Gillespie to carry the day in a district like this one. However, as of Oct. 1, Ayala had more cash-on-hand than Anderson and the most among all Democratic challengers. This could be an easier hold for the GOP than HD-13, but if Ayala maintains her cash advantage, she might be able to beat Anderson.

In the Richmond area, Republicans are fighting to hold onto HD-72 in western Henrico County just outside of the state capital, where Schuyler VanValkenburg (D) and Eddie Whitlock (R) are facing off in an open-seat contest. The district has long been a Republican area, but like many suburban areas of Virginia, it shifted toward the Democrats in 2016, backing Clinton by five points after supporting Mitt Romney by nine in 2012. This is also a seat that Ken Cuccinelli (R) won by five points in the 2013 gubernatorial contest against McAuliffe. Republicans think Whitlock can hold onto the seat, which is being vacated by retiring Del. Jimmie Massie (R). However, VanValkenburg had twice as much cash-on-hand at the end of September, so state Republicans may need to come in and boost Whitlock in the closing days of the race. This is traditionally GOP turf, so Whitlock could retain it for his party, but it’s still an open seat.

Republicans’ principal target

The Republicans are mostly trying to hold onto what they have, but there is one seat where they stand a reasonable chance of winning a Democratic-held district. In 2015, now-Del. John Bell (D) won a tough open-seat race 50%-48% to capture HD-87 in eastern Loudoun County. He now faces Subba Kolla (R) in a difficult reelection tilt. Kolla has been a great fundraiser and now holds a three-to-one cash-on-hand edge over Bell. The district is bluer than any discussed so far, with Clinton having won 60% there, but it has a long history of being very competitive. In 2011, ex-Del. David Ramadan (R) won the seat by less than 100 votes, and he won by less than 200 votes against Bell in 2013 to win reelection. Ramadan didn’t run again in 2015, so Bell managed to win it on the second try. The seat’s fundamentals favor the incumbent, but given its history, don’t count out Kolla giving the GOP a gain on Nov. 7.

Democrats’ reach seats

Having gone in-depth on a number of seats that Democrats and Republicans view as the most competitive, this section will spend less time on each seat. Still, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for Democrats to pick up one or two of these seats.

In Northern Virginia, the Democrats are probably most disheartened by their chances in HD-50, a seat in the Manassas area that they viewed as winnable. Del. Jackson Miller (R) tried to exit this seat earlier this year in a clerk of court race, but he unexpectedly lost. That loss, plus the fact that Clinton won 54% of the vote in HD-50, suggested that Miller might have trouble winning reelection. However, Lee Carter (D) has proven to be a poor fundraiser, which has helped move this seat down the board. The other three Northern Virginia seats to note are HD-10, which stretches from the exurbs of eastern Loudoun County to rural Clark County to the west; HD-40, which takes up part of western Fairfax County and some of Prince William County; and HD-28, which contains parts of Stafford County and the city of Fredericksburg. In HD-10, Del. Randy Minchew (R) has a large fundraising edge over Wendy Gooditis (D). Minchew is probably fine unless there’s a Democratic wave. Meanwhile, the Democrats are impressed by their nominee in HD-40, Donte Tanner (D), who is taking on Del. Tim Hugo (R). However, while Tanner has been a solid fundraiser, Hugo is very formidable, and the incumbent holds about a two-to-one war chest advantage. Still, HD-40 is a seat that took a large step to the left in 2016, so if there are any surprising Democratic pickups on Nov. 7, this could be one. Lastly, HD-28 is only on here because it’s an open seat in a fairly competitive district in presidential years. Outgoing Speaker Bill Howell (R) is retiring, but Bob Thomas (R) will probably defeat Joshua Cole (D).

Around the state capital are two other GOP-held seats to mention, both of which are traditionally Republican seats that shifted to the left in 2016. In HD-68, Del. Manoli Loupassi (R) has opened up a sizable three-to-one cash advantage over Dawn Adams (D). The Democrats had higher hopes for this seat, but Loupassi is in a very strong position. North of HD-68 is HD-73, where Del. John O’Bannon is trying to fend off a challenge from Debra Rodman (D). O’Bannon had a two-to-one war chest edge as of Oct. 1, so it’ll probably be tough for Rodman to win.

Down in the Hampton Roads region are the other three seats that the Democrats view as reach targets. First is HD-85 in Virginia Beach, which had a competitive special election contest in January to replace now-Rep. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2), who won a congressional seat in November 2016. In the Jan. 10 special, now-Del. Rocky Holcomb (R) defeated Cheryl Turpin (D) by about six points. Now Turpin is back, and this seat represents the Democrats’ best chance of winning a seat that Trump carried in 2016, though it remains a stretch for them (HD-28 is also a Trump-won seat). In nearby HD-21, Del. Ron Villanueva (R) has long been a target for Virginia Democrats. His opponent, Kelly Fowler (D), actually had more cash-on-hand than Villanueva as of Oct. 1, but Villanueva is considered formidable, and it will be hard for Fowler to knock him off. Also down in the Hampton Roads area is HD-94, where Del. David Yancey (R) faces Shelly Simonds (D), who Yancey beat in 2015. Simonds was actually chosen to replace the original Democratic nominee, so the party finds itself a bit behind the eight ball there. Lastly, HD-100 is partly made up by the Eastern Shore, which also happens to be where Ralph Northam is from. That’s the main reason this seat made this list as Del. Rob Bloxom Jr. (R) is favored to win reelection. But if there’s a bit of a bump for Willie Randall (D) because Northam does well on his home turf, it’s possible this race could be interesting. Then again, there may just be a fair number of Northam-Bloxom voters.

Republicans’ reach seats

There are two Democratic-held seats that the GOP could conceivably make interesting but that Democrats are likely to retain. First, in Northern Virginia, HD-34 is being defended by Del. Kathleen Murphy (D). The seat in its current form has been highly competitive. In 2013, Murphy narrowly lost to now-U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10) by a little over one point. Murphy then won the special to replace Comstock by a little less than three points in early 2015, and then won reelection in November 2015 by less than one point. But Murphy has a massive fundraising edge over Cheryl Buford (R) and is probably safe unless Ed Gillespie does better than expected in Northern Virginia. The other reach seat for the GOP is HD-94 down in the Williamsburg area. In that district, Del. Mike Mullin (D) just won the seat this past November in a special election, and he faces his opponent from that race this November, Heather Cordasco (R). Mullin seems to be in a strong position, however, with about a five-to-one money edge.


Much depends on what happens at the top of the ticket. In the last few days, there has been a poll showing Northam up double digits while another poll had Gillespie ahead by one point. Based on what we know about the race, it’s probably relatively close, and we continue to see Northam as a modest but hardly overwhelming favorite. But the margin will matter for these down-ticket races. A Northam win by two points or so might mean only two-to-four seats for Democrats, whereas a Northam win by five points could mean more GOP-held seats fall to the Democrats. On the other hand, a nail-biter or Gillespie win could trim the Democratic gains even further. There may be many races decided by just a few hundred votes. These are the kinds of contests that should remind people that every vote really does count.


1. There was one incumbent-versus-incumbent contest in the 1997-2015 period, which occurred in 2011 following redistricting. So there were 891 incumbents who ran in 890 elections; of those, 863 won.

The Kennedy Assassination Document Dump Could Be a Fiasco

UVA Center for Politics October 19th, 2017


“The federal government’s long campaign to try to choke off rampant conspiracy theories about the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy is threatening to end this month in massive confusion, if not chaos,” write Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato and historian and journalist Philip Shenon in a column for Politico Magazine that appeared earlier this week. Sabato, the author of The Kennedy Half Century, and Shenon, author of A Cruel and Shocking Act, argue that the upcoming release of government documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy may “simply help fuel a new generation of conspiracy theories,” particularly if President Trump exercises his option to block any of the files from release.

To read their column about the pending release of the documents, click here.

The document release, whenever it happens, will bring the Kennedy assassination back to the forefront as the nation recognizes the centennial of Kennedy’s birth this year. JFK’s life and legacy, along with new and little-known stories, is the subject of a new documentary from the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Community Idea Stations.

Directed by Paul Tait Roberts and hosted by Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato, This is the House that Jack Built is beginning to air nationally on public television — click the link below to see a trailer and check your local listings to see where it is showing in your area.

This is the House that Jack Built is the latest collaboration between the Center for Politics and Community Idea Stations, which regularly partner to produce documentary films for public television on American politics and history. Three of their recent documentaries won Emmy Awards in the categories of Best Historical Documentary and Best Topical Documentary: 2016’s Feeling Good About America, which chronicled the 1976 presidential election; 2013’s The Kennedy Half Century, which explored President Kennedy’s life and legacy; and 2012’s Out of Order, which examined partisan polarization in Washington, DC.

Virginia’s Gubernatorial Race: Where Things Stand With Less Than a Month to Go

It’s no surprise that 2017’s top race is competitive

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 12th, 2017


The November of the year following a presidential election is always relatively quiet on the electoral front, with only regularly-scheduled statewide races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia. With the Garden State’s contest looking like a safe Democratic pickup and Alabama’s special election for the U.S. Senate not happening until December, coverage of the competitive Virginia race seems to be accelerating as it enters the final month before Election Day. This is only natural: gubernatorial elections in the Old Dominion traditionally ramp up around Labor Day, and now that the election is less than four weeks away, the candidates are beginning to go all-in on television ads, which attracts more notice inside and outside of the commonwealth.

Some of the national discussion regarding the Virginia contest expresses surprise — in Democratic circles, concern — that it appears to be close. After all, President Donald Trump’s approval rating nationally (and in Virginia) is around 40%, and Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by five percentage points in 2016. Surely the margin in a seemingly purple-to-light-blue state should be more comfortable for the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam?

Although all recent public polls show Northam leading Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, the margins vary a great deal, and reports suggest recent campaign surveys have found the race to be inside the margin of error. The reality is, the demographics of the Virginia electorate help explain why a close contest for governor isn’t a surprise. And developments in the campaign have probably helped to make it even more competitive for Gillespie.

The off-year electorate

Virginia elects its governors in off-years, which fundamentally alters the nature of the commonwealth’s electorate compared to presidential cycles. Look at Chart 1 below. Whereas 72% of registered voters in Virginia turned out in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, only 43% showed up to vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election. And 2013 had the highest percentage (38%) of the state’s voting-eligible population to show up in a gubernatorial election going back to 1997. It’s hard to say where turnout ends up this year, but obviously it’s going to be far lower than the 2016 presidential contest. That means the gubernatorial electorate will likely be older, whiter, wealthier, and more educated due to the factors that affect individual-level voter turnout — older voters are more regular voters, wealthier and more educated people are more likely to vote, and whites are older, wealthier, and more educated compared to most other racial/ethnic groups.

Chart 1: Voter turnout in Virginia statewide races, by registered voters and voting-eligible population

Notes: Different shapes indicate what race was at the top of the ballot: circles for presidential elections, diamonds for U.S. Senate elections, and squares for gubernatorial elections. The voting-eligible population in gubernatorial years is estimated based on available data for the federal cycles that bookend each gubernatorial cycle (e.g. 2000 and 2002 for the 2001 gubernatorial election).

Sources: Virginia Department of Elections for voter registration figures, United States Election Project for voting-eligible population figures

Based on what we know about voting trends nationally and in Virginia, the first two factors — whiter and older — are good for Gillespie. While exit poll data have their issues, they do show shifts toward a whiter electorate from the presidential to gubernatorial cycles in Virginia. In the 2008 presidential election, the exit poll found 70% of the commonwealth’s electorate was white; in the 2009 gubernatorial election, the figure was 78%. In 2012, the exit poll found Virginia’s presidential electorate was once again 70% white; in the 2013 gubernatorial, the figure was 72% white. Again, exit polls are imperfect: they tend to exaggerate the nonwhite percentage of the electorate and its relative education level (so really, the electorates were probably whiter and less educated). Still, the data show a whiter electorate in Virginia’s off-year elections.

The third shift in the electorate — it will be more educated — is probably good for Democrats. Education has become one of the more important demographic factors in voting, and more highly-educated voters are trending Democratic. However, white voters with a college degree still split fairly evenly in the 2016 election in Virginia (the exit poll found that Trump won such voters 49%-45%), so it’s not like this is a strongly Democratic cohort, and it might be more open to a Republican like Gillespie than one like Trump. Because nonwhite voters are very likely to vote Democratic, the fact that they will likely make up a smaller share of the gubernatorial electorate is a challenge for Democrats.

Essentially, because of the competitive nature of the state and the makeup of Virginia’s off-year electorate, it would be hard for Northam, even if things in the campaign were going swimmingly for him, to truly blow out Gillespie, who is in some respects a “generic Republican.” Remember, while Democrats have won the state in three straight presidential elections, the state is not exactly a leftist redoubt. In recent party primaries, Virginia Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Northam over ex-Rep. Tom Perriello in 2017. And the Democratic Party of Virginia’s modern history is mostly that of a centrist party, because in order to win it had to be. Only once in the modern era of Virginia two-party politics (from 1969 on) has the Democratic nominee for governor won by more than 10 points — Jerry Baliles (D) won by 10.4 points in 1985. Meanwhile, Republicans have won by more than 10 points four times (1977, 1993, 1997, and 2009). The point is, recent gubernatorial elections in Virginia suggest that a negative environment for a Democratic candidate may be more damaging in electoral margin than a negative environment for a Republican one, and the nature of the off-year electorate is a contributing factor.

The campaign

Importantly for Gillespie, he’s not seen as someone who is Trumpian. The GOP nominee cuts a decidedly non-populist profile, having been a major player in Republican politics for years. This quality could help him in the suburban areas of the state: In an admittedly advantageous environment in the 2014 Senate race, Gillespie did better in Northern Virginia, an increasingly Democratic region, than all other GOP statewide nominees running from 2012 to 2016. While his cool demeanor is far from that of Trump’s, Gillespie has in some ways taken pages out of the same playbook Trump used in 2016. Gillespie is running ads on immigration and law and order, most notably ones focused on the Latino gang MS-13. These spots play to anti-immigrant sentiment among the GOP base and portray Northam as a threat to the health and safety of Virginians. The impetus for the ad was a vote Northam took to break a tie in the state senate — one of the few statutory jobs of the lieutenant governorship — to halt a bill that expressly banned sanctuary cities in Virginia. The vote was orchestrated political theater, but it gave the Gillespie campaign a talking point that has become a critical part of the campaign. For example, when the president weighed in on Gillespie’s behalf on Twitter a few days ago, he specifically referenced MS-13 while attacking Northam. Because of the racial/ethnic overtones of the ads, Democrats have attacked the ads as Willie Horton, part deux. Public polls have found that Democratic unity for Northam is slightly stronger than GOP unity for Gillespie, so the MS-13 ads suggest that his campaign sees the issues of immigration and sanctuary cities as helpful in exciting the Republican base. The ads could also be a tool to bring home some white-collar moderates in the suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia, voters who may not like Trump but are also concerned about the activity of MS-13 in that part of the state.

Nonetheless, the two candidates’ level of party unity is not drastically different. In recent polls with party identification crosstabs, Northam is winning among Democrats by an average of 91 points while Gillespie is up 85 points among Republicans. Considering the rancor of the GOP primary contest between Gillespie and Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, that’s better than some thought would be the case for Gillespie (one could say the same for Northam, who won his primary by more but had to work hard to do so). One aspect of the campaign that may be helping Gillespie is the significant focus on Virginia’s Confederate monuments. The issue appears to have tripped up Northam to some extent because the public is more in favor of keeping such monuments in place than removing them. Northam wants localities to handle such matters but says he’ll be an advocate for removing them, while Gillespie wants the monuments to stay but with more context added. Overall, the relative unity of Republicans on the issue — they overwhelmingly want the monuments to remain — makes this a more straightforward issue for Gillespie compared to the division among Democrats. Moreover, the monuments issue is exactly the sort of catnip for cultural conservatives that could help Gillespie turn out those voters in November despite his lack of outsider credentials. Stewart, whose campaign centered on preserving Confederate monuments, has not formally endorsed Gillespie, but that could change as former White House strategist Steve Bannon and others are encouraging Stewart to do so. It’s hard to say just how much a Stewart endorsement would matter, but more unity on the GOP side can only help Gillespie.

Together, the Confederate monuments and immigration issues could be very useful for Gillespie. Just consider a Gillespie mail piece that claims Northam “wants to tear down history while making life easier for illegal immigrants.” These issues distract from other ones that could be better for Northam, like health care, which tends to be the most or one of the most important issues for Democrats and where the GOP plans in Washington, DC have been horribly unpopular. Additionally, polls have generally shown voters are more likely to support expanding Medicaid, which is a position Northam holds. Gun control has now entered the fray in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, and there may be more potential for Northam than Gillespie on that front: A Quinnipiac poll back in April found that voters are somewhat more likely to support some gun control measures than not. Nonetheless, it’s an issue where the commonwealth is pretty evenly divided.

In terms of television advertising, it seems the Gillespie campaign tried to strike first. Throughout August, Gillespie ad buys were nearly double that of Northam’s in amount spent. Since then, Northam has picked up the pace, but Gillespie used the August ad buys to re-introduce himself to the general electorate with mostly positive spots that focused on, for example, his plans for the Virginia economy and how he worked to pay his way through college. One interesting effect of Northam’s seemingly-stiff Democratic primary challenge from Perriello was that it forced Northam to spend a bunch of money. This meant that Northam had to refill his campaign coffers in July and August, which may have helped Gillespie get the jump on TV ads, with the Republican campaign buying more in that period than the Democratic one. As we get closer to November, Northam may have the overall financial edge. He had $3 million more cash-on-hand than Gillespie at the end of August, and reported having $5.7 million available to spend at the end of September. We don’t yet have Gillespie’s report for September, so we don’t know if Northam has retained his monetary edge. But compared to 2013, Northam’s cash-on-hand total seems formidable: In 2013, now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe — a fundraising maven — had $1.8 million in the bank at the end of September. That means Northam has three times as much at the same point in 2017. This is a surprising development: It seemed reasonable to expect an experienced DC operative like Gillespie to have the connections necessary to outraise Northam — not to mention the well-endowed Republican Governors Association — but now it’s very possible that Northam will have an edge down the stretch, something our Republican sources concede even though they insist this race is anyone’s game. Democrats see Northam with a small lead — considerably smaller than some public polls, from the Washington Post and Quinnipiac, that have Northam leading by 10 or more. We continue to rate the race Leans Democratic, which is where we have had it since the June primary.


Circumstances and Gillespie’s campaign strategy have made this more of a law-and-order election, which has probably hurt Northam. The favorable environment — that is, a fairly unpopular Republican president in the White House and a relatively popular outgoing Democratic governor — is helping to keep the Democrat slightly ahead, but given the tendency in Virginia to vote against the sitting presidential party in gubernatorial elections and Trump’s poor approval rating, Northam should maybe be ahead by a little more.

Still, as discussed above, a blowout was always unlikely. A concern for the Northam campaign has to be the recent history of polling in Virginia and nationally that has missed some conservative voters. For example, the final RealClearPolitics average in 2013 showed McAuliffe leading Ken Cuccinelli (R) 45.6%-38.9%, with Libertarian Robert Sarvis getting 9.6%. Although McAuliffe led by 6.7 points, he only won by 2.5 on Election Day, 47.7%-45.2%. Some of that was Sarvis’ slide to 6.5%, as it’s likely that some Republican voters considering Sarvis came home to the GOP in the end (some of Sarvis’ purported voters probably failed to show on Election Day, too). In 2017, there’s also a Libertarian candidate, Cliff Hyra, though he looks set to win a far smaller share of the vote than Sarvis did. Nevertheless, Cuccinelli’s actual percentage was 6.3 points higher than his polling average while McAuliffe’s was only 2.1 points higher. We’ve seen this phenomenon in recent races, most notably some swing states in the 2016 presidential race, but also in contests like the 2015 Kentucky gubernatorial election. What Northam has to hope for is that with a different party holding the White House, the polls are either on the mark or they underestimate Democrats, not Republicans.

While it’s true that Virginia polls were relatively on the mark in 2016, if Northam isn’t consistently hitting 50% in some polls heading into Election Day 2017, he will have good reason to fear a surprise.