Sabato's Crystal Ball

The 35th Senate Seat on the Ballot: Virginia

Larry J. Sabato, Director, UVA Center for Politics August 18th, 2016

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Everyone is rightly focused on the 34 Senate seats already on the ballot this fall. But there is actually a 35th, the Class I Senate seat currently held by Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine.

Of the four major-party candidates for national office, only one contender holds a position whose term will not be finished by Inauguration Day, and thus a vacancy will need to be filled if he is promoted. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) was elected in 2012 and therefore Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) will appoint a temporary senator should Kaine become vice president. The appointee will serve until a senator is elected in November 2017 in a special contest to be held simultaneously with the election for Virginia’s next governor.[1]

The GOP won every White House race in the Old Dominion from 1968 to 2004, but all that changed in 2008 and 2012 with Barack Obama’s victories. The Crystal Ball now rates Virginia as Likely Democratic this November, and Kaine is certainly a major reason why. Yet the Democrats’ dominance is reduced in non-presidential election cycles, which see lower turnouts, especially among minority voters. The potential Senate vacancy may be a godsend to Democratic hopes, however.

Behind the scenes, some senior Democratic officeholders believe that if McAuliffe chooses an African-American appointee to replace Kaine, minority turnout will be much higher in 2017. While circumstances can always change, the Crystal Ball has learned that McAuliffe agrees, and at least tentatively intends to make some history and appoint the first African American ever to represent Virginia in the Senate. (Let’s remember that the appointment is McAuliffe’s alone, and he can change his mind until the minute he makes an announcement.) While there are several qualified minority candidates, and McAuliffe might pick any of them, the frontrunner is obviously Rep. Bobby Scott (D, VA-3). Scott has a lengthy, successful political career stretching back to 1977, when he was elected to the House of Delegates. After a stint in the Senate of Virginia, in 1992 Scott became the first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia since the Reconstruction era. Scott has never been seriously opposed since.

Scott’s tenure in the Senate, should it occur, would be a busy one. He would have less than a year before the election — and that election would only be good for one more year, until the regularly scheduled 2018 contest for a six-year term. Should there be primary challengers, Scott or any appointee would have to face four election days in two years. This will be an exhausting and expensive undertaking.

Nevertheless, it is to the Democrats’ advantage to have an African-American senator on the ballot to boost their gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is white. At this early point, Republicans are more unsettled and have several aspirants for governor, and no doubt they will have multiple contenders for Senate as well — especially because incumbent U.S. House members will not have to give up their seats to run for the upper chamber in an odd-year special election.

The only other time Virginia has ever had a simultaneous election for governor and senator was in 1933 — when Virginia was heavily conservative and Southern Democratic, and both Democratic nominees (George C. Peery for governor and Harry F. Byrd, Sr. for senator) won easily. Today’s very different band of Virginia Democrats hopes that history will repeat itself.

Footnote

1. At first, some election specialists thought McAuliffe’s appointment could last a full two years, until November 2018. This is the case in many other states. But Virginia is one of five states with off-off-year general elections, and the applicable statute clearly places the special election simultaneously with the gubernatorial contest. There is also a 1933 Virginia precedent for precisely this kind of twin Senate-Governor election.