Virginia’s Busiest Federal Primary Day in Modern History
A Commentary By Geoffrey Skelley
The main races to watch on June 12 are the Republican contest for U.S. Senate and the Democrats’ six-way race in VA-10
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— With nine contested U.S. House primaries and one U.S. Senate primary, June 12 will be the busiest federal primary day in Virginia’s modern history, surpassing the seven total contests held in 2012 (one Senate, six House).
— In the Republican primary for Senate, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart (R) appears to be the ostensible favorite, largely due to his unexpectedly strong performance in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, where he finished a close second to Ed Gillespie (R). However, there has been little polling and it’s possible that state Del. Nick Freitas (R) could surprise Stewart.
— Six Democrats are running for the right to face Rep. Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10), one of the most endangered Republican House incumbents in the country. Four of the Democrats seem to have at least some chance of winning the nomination. Comstock is a prodigious fundraiser and has a history of outpacing the partisan lean of districts she has represented, but the district’s Democratic shifts in 2016 and 2017 show why she is one of the Democrats’ foremost targets in 2018.
— Democratic primaries in VA-2 and VA-7 will determine the nominees to face two other potentially endangered Republican incumbents: Reps. Scott Taylor (R) and Dave Brat (R), respectively. The other contested primaries for the House are unlikely to alter the general election outlook in their respective districts.
— The Crystal Ball’s home district, VA-5, turned messy in late May when incumbent Rep. Tom Garrett (R) announced that he would not seek reelection despite having already won renomination. With Garrett’s withdrawal, the VA-5 GOP district committee picked distillery owner Denver Riggleman (R) to take on journalist and filmmaker Leslie Cockburn (D).
The busiest federal primary day in modern Virginia history
A year ago, Virginia had one of its liveliest primaries in recent history with contested statewide gubernatorial contests for both parties. This year’s affair has not garnered quite the same level of attention as the 2017 primaries, though Virginia was one of the only states to hold regular elections last year. Whereas both parties had highly competitive races for their respective 2017 gubernatorial nominations, only one party — the GOP — has a contested primary for Virginia’s lone statewide contest in 2018 — the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). However, in terms of quantity, this will be the busiest federal primary day in the commonwealth’s modern history.
With really only federal elections on the June ballot, Virginia has nine contested major-party primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives out of a possible 22 (two potential primaries in each of the 11 districts). While this might sound like a poor mark for contestation, Virginia will hold more contested primaries for the U.S. House in 2018 than in any post-World War II cycle, surpassing the six held in 2012 (additionally, the GOP held a Senate primary in 2012 for seven total federal primaries). Including this year’s Republican Senate primary, there are 10 contested primaries for federal office. This record comes despite the fact that Virginia does not require parties to use primaries to determine nominees. Party committees can opt to use methods other than the state-run primary to select a candidate. For instance, Democrats in VA-5 and Republicans in VA-6 chose to use conventions to nominate their general election candidates. Additionally, Republicans in VA-5 ultimately used their district committee to select a replacement nominee for now-retiring Rep. Tom Garrett (R, VA-5), who chose to withdraw as the GOP nominee after being automatically renominated when no one filed to challenge him at the VA-5 Republican convention. Garrett joins outgoing Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R, VA-6) as the two House retirements in Virginia. The other nine incumbents are seeking reelection, seven of whom are unopposed for renomination (note that primaries with only one filed candidate do not appear on the ballot). Only two Republican incumbents — Reps. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2) and Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10) — face primary opposition on June 12. Featuring six candidates, the Democratic primary to determine Comstock’s November opponent is the most notable House primary next Tuesday.
This article will dig into the 10 federal primaries occurring on June 12 and offer some clues about the general election when possible.
The main event: the Republican primary for U.S. Senate
As in other Republican primaries around the country, the Virginia primary for Senate features candidates racing to show the most support for President Donald Trump. All three entrants — Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart (R), state Del. Nick Freitas (R), and minister E.W. Jackson (R) — back the president, but offer contrasts in intensity of support and style. Stewart has claimed in the past that he was “Trump before Trump,” and served for a time as chair of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in Virginia (he was later fired). Jackson rivals Stewart in the earnestness of his stated support for the president, including in an ad where Jackson says, “Unlike Tim Kaine, I’ll be a senator who stands with President Trump instead of against him.” Freitas has been a less vocal Trump backer, though a review of Freitas’ social media and media appearances suggests that he does back Trump. But Freitas’ campaign principally emphasizes his commitment to limited government (e.g. his campaign hashtag is #LibertyRising) and his overall conservatism. Understandably, Freitas has drawn endorsements from more libertarian-minded, small-government Republicans such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) as well as the libertarian-conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks.
Despite some stylistic differences, all three candidates are ardent conservatives on most hot-button issues. Stewart summed up his campaign in a May 27 tweet: “Vote June 12th to defeat radical leftist Tim Kaine and I’ll fight to build the wall, bring jobs to Virginia, and defund Planned Parenthood.” A Freitas speech in response to efforts to pass new gun control legislation went viral earlier this year. In it, the delegate defended the Second Amendment, castigated the “the abortion industry” and “the welfare state” as causes of declining social cohesion, and blamed Democrats for Japanese-American internment in World War II, resistance to women’s suffrage, and racial segregation. An evangelical minister, Jackson has a history of controversial statements, ranging from saying that gays and lesbians are “very sick people” to connecting yoga to Satan.
Looking at the state of play, Stewart appears to be the ostensible favorite for the nomination, largely because of his unexpectedly strong performance in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. In that race, Ed Gillespie only defeated Stewart 43.7%-42.5% after surveys suggested Gillespie had a comfortable lead. However, there has been just one public poll of the 2018 primary: A February survey from the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University found Stewart in first with 16%, Jackson at 7%, and Freitas at 6%, with a whopping two-thirds of respondents undecided. The only more recent data come from a Stewart internal, which unsurprisingly found Stewart ahead of Freitas 32%-9%, with Jackson at 5%. Between the paucity of polling and the huge number of undecideds, analysts are flying somewhat blind.
Table 1: Campaign fundraising in the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Virginia
Note: Data are up to May 23, 2018, the end of the pre-primary period
Source: Federal Election Commission
But Federal Election Commission campaign finance data do provide at least some additional evidence that Stewart is probably the frontrunner. Table 1 lays out the fundraising data for the three Republican candidates and Kaine up to May 23. As the table indicates, Stewart has outraised and outspent his opponents, though Stewart has been running for Senate since July 2017 while Freitas and Jackson both entered the race in December 2017. Stewart and Freitas had about equivalent amounts in their war chests heading into the final three weeks or so of the primary contest.
Conventional wisdom pegs Stewart as the favorite, and he is the only one of the three candidates with a competitive statewide primary to hang his hat on. Unlike Stewart, Jackson has been an actual statewide nominee, but he won the 2013 lieutenant governor nomination at the state party convention after winning just 5% in the 2012 U.S. Senate GOP primary. Considering Stewart’s near miss in 2017, it is worth examining where Stewart’s geographical strengths are and examining where Freitas and Jackson might find support. To do that, I have mapped Stewart’s relative performance in the 2017 GOP primary for governor by precinct, comparing Stewart’s precinct-level performance to his statewide share of 42.5%. In Map 1, precincts where Stewart performed better than he did statewide are shaded orange while precincts where he underperformed relative to his statewide share are shaded purple.
Map 1: Corey Stewart’s relative performance in the 2017 GOP primary for governor, by precinct
Note: Click on maps to enlarge
Sources: Shape files from Virginia Public Access Project, Accomack County, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Henrico County, and the city of Roanoke. Election data from Virginia Department of Elections.
Stewart’s strongest areas were located in predominantly rural areas — such as Southwest Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley (along the West Virginia border), and Southside (the south-central part of the state) — as well as around his home base of Prince William County in Northern Virginia. PWC provided about 5% of the total 2017 GOP primary vote and serves as a helpful foundation for Stewart’s prospects in the 2018 primary. Generally speaking, more affluent areas went for Gillespie, such as western Richmond and the inner DC suburbs. Meanwhile, less affluent and more rural places tended to back Stewart. As Table 2 shows, Gillespie edged Stewart in all three of the major metropolitan areas of Virginia but Stewart bested Gillespie in the areas outside of the “Urban Crescent” that those regions form.
Table 2: 2017 GOP primary for governor by metropolitan area
Note: Regions are based on the Office of Management and Budget’s 2017 definitions for the Richmond, VA MSA, the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC MSA, and the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV MSA.
Source: Election data from Virginia Department of Elections.
Still, Stewart’s connection to the outer Northern Virginia suburbs enabled him to win his home county while also running close to Gillespie in nearby Loudoun County (Gillespie won there 44.9%-43.3%) and Fairfax County (Gillespie 47.8%-38.9%), far better performances for Stewart than in the inner DC suburbs of Arlington County (Gillespie 61.2%-25.9%) and the City of Alexandria (Gillespie 65.5%-24.0%). Stewart won GOP vote bastions like Hanover County north of Richmond (Stewart 49.0%-42.4%) as well as rock-ribbed Republican counties in the western part of the state such as Augusta (Stewart 57.7%-35.7%) and Bedford (Stewart 49.1%-41.7%).
In the June 12 primary, a major question mark is the vote in Hampton Roads, the southeastern part of the state that encompasses major cities such as Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Newport News, Hampton, and Portsmouth. In the 2017 primary, most of those localities backed Gillespie, but they also recorded heavy votes for Virginia Beach state Sen. Frank Wagner (R), a moderate third-wheel contender for the GOP nomination. Given Stewart’s statewide profile and the fact that he edged Wagner in every major locality in Hampton Roads save Virginia Beach, he may do better there without someone like Wagner in the race. Still, Jackson hails from Chesapeake, and while he only won 5% statewide in the 2012 primary for U.S. Senate, Jackson did manage to win at least 8% in many localities in Hampton Roads. With a larger profile following his 2013 lieutenant governor bid and steady activism since that time, Jackson could win a decent chunk of the vote in his home area of the state. However, he will likely finish third.
Freitas may be able to make inroads in some of the rural areas where Stewart performed strongly, particularly in central Virginia. The state delegate represents parts of Culpeper, Madison, and Orange counties in the north-central part of the commonwealth, all counties that Stewart carried in 2017. Overall, it will be vital for Freitas to capitalize on the strong anti-Stewart feelings held by some Virginia Republicans. While Freitas’ libertarian-flavored conservatism does not necessarily mesh well with classic “establishment” Republicanism, he may be the de facto establishment candidate against Stewart and Jackson. To beat Stewart, Freitas will need to win over Republican voters in parts of the major metropolitan areas where Stewart performed poorly in 2017 while also trimming Stewart’s edge in rural areas.
Looking ahead to the general election and party control of the Senate seat, it is unlikely to matter which of the Republicans wins the nomination to face Kaine. Limited polling shows Kaine with sizable leads against all three GOP contenders, and as Table 1 shows, the incumbent had $10.7 million cash on hand as of late May, about 67 times the amount Stewart had. With 10 Trump-state Democrats defending seats in 2018, Kaine’s seat is not a high priority for national Republicans; they have far juicier U.S. Senate targets, so whomever the GOP picks to run against Kaine will likely receive little outside assistance. Different surveys find Kaine with a net positive approval rating. Morning Consult’s most recent Senate data found Kaine had a 45% approval rating and a 35% disapproval rating for a net positive approval of +10. Although Kaine is not wildly popular — over the years, his approval rating has been consistently lower than that of his colleague, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) — the incumbent is sufficiently well-liked in a national environment that appears relatively favorable for Democrats and in a state where Trump remains relatively unpopular (though the president’s approval has improved nationally since the 2017 gubernatorial election). In light of these realities, the Crystal Ball continues to rate the Virginia race as Safe Democratic.
If Kaine is favored to win, a major question may be the margin in the Senate race, which could matter a great deal. As the contest at the top of the ticket, it will exert some influence on turnout in other contests. Should Kaine win by around 10 percentage points à la Ralph Northam (D) in the 2017 gubernatorial race, that might make it difficult for someone like Comstock to survive in a Democratic-leaning seat because of the effect the Senate contest might have on relative turnout among Democratic and Republican voters. A Kaine victory larger than 10 points could also complicate things for Taylor or perhaps even Rep. Dave Brat (R, VA-7), while a smaller one might help Republicans in tough congressional races hold on. Thus, it is worth noting that Republican big wigs fear Stewart’s nomination because it is likely that he will run an aggressively conservative campaign that may alienate even more suburban voters than Gillespie’s general election campaign appeared to in 2017. Back in December, Republican leaders contacted former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) to see if he might be interested in running for Senate. To put that in perspective, Gilmore ran a quixotic campaign for president in 2016 and lost to Warner in a 2008 Senate race by 31 points. Adding to the worries of anti-Stewart Republicans, on Monday the Daily Wire published video footage of Stewart calling avowed anti-Semite Paul Nehlen one of his “personal heroes.” The clip, recorded on the night of Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, showed Stewart applauding Nehlen for challenging Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) in the WI-1 GOP primary in 2016. While Nehlen’s anti-Semitism did not come to the fore until later in 2017, Stewart did not repudiate Nehlen when the video surfaced.
Contrarily, Stewart supporters argue that his candidacy would boost rural conservative turnout and as a Northern Virginia pol, he might be able to reduce Democratic margins in Prince William and other nearby localities. Some have made similar points while arguing that Stewart would have done better than Gillespie in 2017, in part because he would have run a more resolutely populist and race-conscious campaign built on Stewart’s defense of the Confederacy, anti-immigration views, and social conservatism. While Gillespie took aspects of Stewart’s campaign rhetoric and used them in the general, Stewart supporters argue that Gillespie — a consummate GOP insider — could not make as compelling a case as Stewart. Should Stewart win the Republican nomination for Senate, he will get the chance to prove that a “vicious and ruthless” campaign against Kaine will work.
The undercard: the Democratic primary for VA-10
Six Democrats are running to face Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in VA-10, a district that stretches west from the outskirts of Fairfax County and Prince William County, takes in all of Loudoun County, and terminates in the west in Frederick County and the City of Winchester (it also includes Clarke County). The reason Comstock has attracted a large contingent of challengers is simple: She represents one of the 25 districts held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election. In VA-10, Clinton won 51.6%-41.7% while Comstock won reelection 52.7%-46.9%, meaning Comstock ran about 16 points ahead of Trump in margin. Based on 2016 presidential margin, VA-10 ranks as the fifth-most Democratic leaning district held by the GOP in the U.S. House.
Although the turf she represents has become more Democratic, Comstock is not going to be an easy mark for Democrats. While in the Virginia House of Delegates, Comstock earned a reputation as a tough campaigner who won close races, including a narrow reelection win in her final House of Delegates contest in 2013 while the Democratic nominee for governor (Terry McAuliffe) carried her district by 10 points at the top of the ticket (foreshadowing her 2016 accomplishment). As of May 23, she had $1.7 million cash on hand and should easily beat back a primary challenge from Air Force veteran and 2014 U.S. Senate candidate Shak Hill (R) on June 12.
Given the midterm environment and the recent partisan lean of VA-10, a bunch of Democrats have piled in to take on Comstock. As we reach the final days of the primary campaign, it appears that four of the six candidates might possibly eke out a plurality to win the nomination. Table 3 lists the six candidates (plus Comstock and Hill) and ranks them by cash on hand as of May 23.
Table 3: Campaign fundraising in the 2018 VA-10 congressional race
Note: Data are up to May 23, 2018, the end of the pre-primary period
Source: Federal Election Commission
The four Democrats with at least $300,000 cash on hand are also the four who seem like they have some chance of winning. In a six-way race, it’s hard to say anyone is a favorite. But if there is a “frontrunner,” it is probably state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D). Recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and favored by establishment forces in the Democratic Party of Virginia, Wexton is the lone elected official in the Democratic field. Because of her backing from party leaders and the fact that she has a legislative record, Wexton also has been the chief target for her primary opponents as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee, which may view her as the likeliest winner on the Democratic side. A principal issue in 2018 Democratic primaries is gun control, and VA-10 is no exception. For example, Dan Helmer and other Democrats in the VA-10 race have criticized Wexton over her vote for a compromise that expanded conceal-carry reciprocity in Virginia in exchange for voluntary background checks at gun shows and restricting gun ownership for domestic abusers. A West Point graduate, Helmer gained notoriety for an undercover video of him buying an assault rifle at a gun show without any background check. He also garnered attention for a controversial ad that concludes by saying “After 9/11, the greatest threat to our democracy lived in a cave. Today, he lives in the White House.”
Along with Wexton and Helmer, two former Obama administration alumnae are running: Alison Friedman and Lindsey Davis Stover. Friedman, a former State Department official and anti-human trafficking activist, has raised the most money on the Democratic side, in part because she recently gave herself $1 million to help pay for TV ads. Her spending advantage might pay dividends on June 12. Davis Stover, a communications strategist who worked in various roles in the Obama administration and once was a chief of staff for former Rep. Chet Edwards (D, TX-17), had a strong initial fundraising haul, ranking only behind Friedman in the second quarter of 2017 among the four Democrats who were in the race at that time. While Davis Stover’s campaign finance numbers remain healthy, she did trail Friedman, Helmer, and Wexton in the money race by a sizable amount as of May 23.
With a crowded field and millions already spent, it would be foolhardy to make any absolute predictions about who will come out on top in the VA-10 race. Still, given that Wexton is the only elected official in the Democratic primary, represents a state senate district that is almost entirely in VA-10, and earned the endorsement of the Washington Post — in recent times that has seemingly boosted Democrats in primaries for governor (e.g. Creigh Deeds in 2009 and Northam in 2017) — she is reasonably pegged as the frontrunner. But the primary vote will be heavily fragmented and the eventual winner may have only a small plurality. One other trend to consider is the success women Democratic candidates have been enjoying in primaries so far in 2018. In many of the most important House races, Democratic voters have picked women as their nominees. But in VA-10, three of the four principal contenders are women, so it is possible that Helmer will benefit from being the lone male candidate truly in contention.
Looking ahead to the general election in VA-10, the most recent data point is the 2017 gubernatorial election. Like most parts of the state, Northam improved on Clinton’s performance in most areas of VA-10. Map 2 overlays the congressional district lines on precincts shaded by how much Northam’s margin versus Gillespie improved or declined compared to Clinton’s margin versus Trump, with blue indicating improvement on Clinton’s margin and red indicating a decline.
Map 2: Ralph Northam’s margin in the 2017 gubernatorial race vs. Hillary Clinton’s margin in the 2016 presidential race, by precinct and congressional district
Note: Click on map to enlarge
Sources: Shape files from Virginia Public Access Project, Accomack County, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Henrico County, and the city of Roanoke. Election data from Virginia Department of Elections and Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.
While there were a few precincts where Northam’s margin declined relative to Clinton’s, most parts of VA-10 saw improvement for the gubernatorial Democratic nominee in 2017. This was perhaps most notable in some parts of Loudoun County, which featured a couple of major down-ballot wins for Democrats in House of Delegates races. Northam won VA-10 by 12.3 percentage points, an improvement of 2.5 points on Clinton’s margin there in 2016. Table 4 lays out the gubernatorial results in all 11 congressional districts.
Table 4: 2017 gubernatorial vote and 2016 presidential vote by congressional district
Although Northam improved on Clinton’s margin to a greater degree in some other congressional districts, it is notable that Northam built on Clinton’s already-marked improvement in VA-10, a seat that Mitt Romney narrowly carried over Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. These fundamental shifts in the partisan lean of the district are of great concern to Comstock and Republicans. The general election contest is a Toss-up in light of Comstock’s prodigious fundraising and history of outpacing the partisan lean of districts she has represented, but these data indicate why she is one of the Democrats’ foremost national targets in 2018.
Other House primary contests
Having dug deeply into the GOP Senate primary and the VA-10 race, I will offer a lightning round summary of the other districts with primaries happening on June 12.
In VA-1, Democrats have a three-way primary to decide who will face Rep. Rob Wittman (R) in November. John Suddarth, Edwin Santana, and Vangie Williams had a combined $19,000 cash on hand as of May 23 versus Wittman’s nearly $1 million in a district Trump carried by 12 points. Wittman was actually a candidate for governor for a time during the 2017 cycle but opted to withdraw and refocus on the House. The Crystal Ball rates the race as Safe Republican, and the Democratic primary result will not change that.
Democrats view VA-2 as one of their best targets after VA-10, in part because it is a district that Northam carried (though he is from that area) and Clinton only narrowly lost. Prior to Pennsylvania’s redistricting, VA-2 was the median district in the country based on 2016 presidential margin. That is, of the 435 seats, it ranked 218th. NE-2 now holds that honor, but VA-2 remains very close to being the median district by that measure. The incumbent, Rep. Scott Taylor (R), is favored to win currently — we rate the race as Leans Republican — but national Democrats are excited about Elaine Luria, a business owner and retired Navy commander who has proven to be a decent fundraiser. However, Luria will first have to get by teacher Karen Mallard in the Democratic primary. Luria is heavily favored to do so, but there has been some irritation with DC Democrats’ meddling in VA-2. Moreover, Luria voted for Taylor in both the 2016 GOP primary and the 2016 general election, a fact that is sure to show up in an ad and/or mailer during the general election. For his part, Taylor faces a primary challenge on his right flank from Mary Jones, a former member of the James City County Board of Supervisors, but there’s little reason to expect her to trouble the incumbent. Looking ahead to the general, Taylor had $900,000 in his war chest as of May 23 while Luria had a bit more than $225,000.
In VA-4, Republicans have a head-to-head contest for the right to run against Rep. Donald McEachin (D) in the general election. Evangelical minister Ryan McAdams (R) and businesswoman Shion Fenty (R) have raised little money and the winner will very likely lose to McEachin, who faces no primary opposition. The Crystal Ball rates VA-4 as Safe Democratic.
Democrats have a crowded primary field in VA-6, where Goodlatte is retiring, leaving an open seat. Four Democrats — Sergio Coppola, mental health professional Jennifer Lewis, former Roanoke County Supervisor Charlotte Moore, and urban planner Peter Volosin — are seeking the nomination. The winner will face state Del. Ben Cline (R) in November as Cline won the GOP nomination at a May convention. Volosin has raised a little over $60,000, much more than any of the other Democratic hopefuls, but only Moore has held elected office previously. However, Moore has not reported any fundraising numbers to the FEC, suggesting she has raised very little, if anything. Cline, who once worked for Goodlatte, will be the odds-on favorite to keep VA-6 in Republican hands, and we rate the seat as Safe Republican.
Along with VA-2 and VA-10, VA-7 is the other district with some chance of a party flip that is holding a primary on June 12. The GOP did not request to use a primary, and Rep. Dave Brat (R) faced no intraparty opposition at a convention, so the author of one of the greatest primary upsets of all time — Brat beat then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) in 2014 — has already been renominated prior to the primary. His opponent in November will be either former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger (D) or Marine veteran Dan Ward (D). Both Democrats had raised $900,000 apiece as of May 23, with Ward holding a cash-on-hand edge of about $240,000 to $160,000 over Spanberger. Their fundraising hauls each about equaled Brat’s total raised in the 2018 cycle, though the incumbent is sitting on about $700,000 in his campaign war chest. Spanberger and Ward have focused on issues such as health care, gun control, and not taking money from “special interests.” The eventual winner will give Brat a challenge, though VA-7 is a district that Trump carried by 6.5 points. Still, Northam cut that margin to 3.6 points, making VA-7 something of a second-tier target for Democrats in the fall. We give Brat the edge, but rate the race as Leans Republican.
Lastly, VA-9 has a Democratic primary on June 12 between 2016 VA-9 nominee Anthony Flaccavento and policy analyst Justin Santopietro. The victor will face Rep. Morgan Griffith (R), who is unopposed in his primary. As of May 23, Flaccavento had raised $230,000 and had a little more than $70,000 in his campaign account, whereas Santopietro had $0. With name ID from his 2016 run and more resources, Flaccavento seems likely to get another shot at Griffith. Although VA-9 was once known as the “Fightin’ Ninth,” the nickname hardly applies in an age when Southwest Virginia is the most Republican-leaning part of the commonwealth. VA-9 voted nearly 70% for Trump and was also Romney’s best Virginia district in 2012. The Crystal Ball rates VA-9 as Safe Republican.
The Crystal Ball’s home district, VA-5, turned messy in late May when incumbent Rep. Tom Garrett (R) announced that he would not seek reelection despite having already won renomination. His announcement came with the public admission of his alcoholism and it followed a strange few days where a story broke that Garrett had improperly used his congressional staff to take care of assorted personal errands. With Garrett’s withdrawal, the VA-5 GOP district committee picked a replacement nominee to take on journalist and filmmaker Leslie Cockburn (D), who defeated three other Democrats to win the nomination at a May district convention. A sizable number of candidates looked at the GOP replacement race, including state Sen. Bill Stanley (R), who seemed to go into the committee’s June 2 meeting as a strong possibility. But Stanley then withdrew from consideration and instead announced that he would consider a possible statewide run in 2021. Once the voting began, it took four ballots to determine the winner. The main drama following Stanley’s exit was the emergence of Cynthia Dunbar (R) as the early leader in voting. Dunbar, Virginia’s Republican National Committeewoman, is an ardent social conservative and former elected member of the Texas State Board of Education. Only a few weeks earlier, she had sought the GOP nomination in VA-6, finishing second to Ben Cline at the party convention. Republican leaders had worried that she might make VA-6 — a more Republican district than VA-5 — somewhat competitive in the fall. Many Republicans viewed her as a very weak general election candidate in VA-5 because of her strident views and the fact that she lived outside of the district. But she earned 15 votes on the first ballot with 19 needed to win a majority and the nomination. Suddenly, the VA-5 GOP district committee seemed on the verge of making a potentially catastrophic choice. The Crystal Ball was ready to move VA-5 to Toss-up if Dunbar became the new Republican nominee. But in the end, the committee voted 19-18 on the fourth ballot to nominate Denver Riggleman (R) instead of Dunbar. Riggleman, who ran a short-lived gubernatorial campaign in 2017, owns a liquor distillery and holds libertarian-populist viewpoints on a number of issues, making him something of an analog to Garrett. With Riggleman’s nomination, VA-5 remains a Leans Republican seat. Cockburn will probably have to run a nearly perfect race to win in a district Trump carried by 11 points and Gillespie by nine. However, she faces charges of anti-Semitism regarding a book she co-authored in the early 1990s on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Cockburn denies she is anti-Semitic, but the attack could complicate her attempt to flip the Fifth.
1. There are also primaries for local offices, but no state-level offices such as those for governor or seats in the General Assembly are on the primary ballot this year.
2. Of course, Virginia historically was mostly a one-party state controlled by conservative Democrats up until the 1960s, and the GOP largely eschewed primaries when it did choose candidates.
3. Prior to the court-ordered congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania, there were 23 such districts.
Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
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