Thursday, October 19, 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.
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%).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
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