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Vying for Virginia: The 2015 General Assembly Elections

On Nov. 3, the Old Dominion holds elections for all 40 of its state Senate seats and all 100 House of Delegates seats.

Control of the House of Delegates is a foregone conclusion (it will remain in the GOP’s hands), but the Virginia Senate contest is on a knife’s edge. With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the Crystal Ball is here to provide an overview of our home state’s election and what to watch for as the returns come in.

In the Senate, Republicans currently hold a 21-19 advantage. However, the lieutenant governor is Ralph Northam (D), who is in a position to break ties in Democrats’ favor. Thus, a net gain of one seat for Democrats would enable them to take back the upper chamber, though they would still need 21 votes sans Northam to pass budgetary legislation (the presiding officer can’t vote on such measures). In the House of Delegates, Republicans have a dominant 67-33 majority. Needless to say, there is absolutely no way the GOP can lose its edge in the lower chamber this cycle.

The state midterm cycle suffers from particularly low turnout — a sad state of affairs given the importance of the General Assembly in state government. Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy recently found that 2015 turnout might be less than 30% of registered voters in Virginia. This would be unsurprising: 28.6% showed up in 2011, and just a touch more than 30.0% in 2003 and 2007. Chart 1 shows the turnout history of Virginia since the passage of the 1996 “Motor Voter” law that reduced the number of voters regularly purged from registration rolls. Clearly, the state midterm cycles (green squares) have tended to be notably lower than other cycles.

Chart 1: Turnout of registered voters in Virginia elections, 1997 to present

Source: Virginia Dept. of Elections

The lack of competition in most legislative elections will surely help depress turnout, too. A huge number of 2015 races will feature no opposition or at least no major-party opposition. In the Senate, just 23 of 40 contests will feature at least two candidates; half will have candidates from both major parties. In the House, only 38 of 100 elections will have at least two candidates; just 29 will have major-party matchups.

The paucity of competitive races is also a result of having few seats that even could be competitive in a relatively neutral political environment. Using the close 2014 U.S. Senate race as a baseline, exactly three Virginia Senate seats (7.5% of the chamber) saw either U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) or Ed Gillespie (R) win by five percentage points or fewer, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. In the House, 13 seats were decided by five or fewer in 2014. The lack of competitiveness is partly the fault of gerrymandering — in 2011, Democrats in the Virginia Senate and Republicans in the House of Delegates drew highly favorable maps to try to hold onto majorities (Democrats actually lost their 22-18 pre-2011 edge — it ended up 20-20 with then-Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling breaking ties in favor of the GOP). But the same forces that have reduced the number of closely-fought seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (where 11% were decided by five or fewer points at the 2012 presidential level) are also at play as Democratic voters are highly concentrated in most urban and some suburban areas, while Republicans cluster more in rural, exurban, and some suburban portions of the state.

Thus, the playing field is extremely small, especially in the Senate. One could argue that three seats will likely make or break the parties’ chances of control in the upper chamber.

One seat to rule them all?

Stretching from inside the western city limits of Richmond out into Chesterfield and Powhatan counties in the western suburbs and exurbs, the 10th Virginia Senate District (SD-10) is ostensibly the keystone seat for a post-2015 majority. The retirement of long-time state Sen. John Watkins (R), a centrist Republican (e.g. he backed Medicaid expansion), opened the seat up, giving the Democrats a real shot at winning a district that they have narrowly won in every statewide election going back to 2012.

Voters in SD-10 backed Warner 49%-47% in 2014 and went 50%-49% for President Obama in 2012 (see Table 1 below for a statistical overview of all seats mentioned in this piece). It’s currently the only seat won by both Obama and Warner that Republicans hold in the Senate. However, Watkins’ moderate profile left him relatively unchallenged for most of his time in office (he won a special election unopposed to fill the seat in 1998). With the seat’s swingy fundamentals, the lack of an incumbent, and the need for Democrats to gain just one net seat to organize the Senate, both parties are going all in for their respective candidates: Chesterfield County Supervisor Dan Gecker (D) and Richmond City School Board member Glen Sturtevant (R). The race is likely to be the most expensive this cycle: The latest campaign finance report showed that Gecker has raised about $1.2 million, most among non-incumbent Senate candidates, though he also had a competitive primary that forced him to spend a fair amount. Sturtevant has brought in over $770,000, good for fourth among non-incumbents, and currently has a three-to-one cash-on-hand advantage over Gecker. Given the stakes, both have received large sums from related party committees and partisan outside groups. (Remember, Virginia state elections have no donation limits.)

Additionally, on Wednesday news broke that a gun control group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is going to spend $700,000 attacking Sturtevant over guns. That’s a ton of money for a state Senate race: The Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that the total was equivalent to a third of all the money raised in the high stakes race through the end of September, and it underscores the importance of this race both in Virginia and beyond.

The key to SD-10 may be Chesterfield County. In 2011, Watkins won reelection by 13 points, the most competitive contest he ever endured. That race saw 45% of the district vote come from Chesterfield, and the portion of the county in SD-10 is almost the exact same part that Gecker represents on the county board. So he may get a slight boost there, especially as it contains most of the more Democratic-leaning parts of Chesterfield. At the same time, Sturtevant may be able to do slightly better than a generic Republican in very Democratic Richmond (33% of the 2011 vote total) as a city school board member. For Sturtevant, it will be all about limiting the margins in Richmond and Chesterfield while he runs up a large edge in more conservative Powhatan (22% of the 2011 vote total).

One difficult-to-calculate variable is the role of two minor candidates in the SD-10 contest. Independent and third-party candidates don’t often make a huge impact in these races, but in an election that could see a razor-thin margin, their presence could matter. Or the two could more-or-less cancel each other out. The Libertarian candidate, Carl Loser (pronounced LO-zer), may harm Sturtevant to some small extent (Libertarians tend to draw more from the GOP), while independent Marleen Durfee could conceivably have more appeal among Democratic leaners (she lost to a Republican while seeking reelection to the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors in 2011).

As far as anyone can tell, the SD-10 race is a total toss-up, and it may keep everyone up late on Election Night. If Democrats win, they may well regain control of the Senate; if Republicans win, they are almost certain to retain the upper chamber.

Two flies in the Democratic ointment?

The problem for Democrats is that, outside of SD-10, they don’t have many other opportunities to pick up seats. That leaves an extremely narrow path back to a majority: Win SD-10 and hold everything else to attain a 20-20 tie.

Thing is, Republicans have a legitimate shot at winning at least one of two districts currently held by Democrats in the Virginia Senate. In suburban-exurban Northern Virginia, the 29th Senate District is open following the retirement of veteran Sen. Chuck Colgan (D), while down in the greater Roanoke area Sen. John Edwards (D) faces a serious challenge in the 21st Senate District.

SD-29 forms a narrow southeast-to-northwest band across Prince William County, taking in the small independent cities of Manassas and Manassas Park. Given the presidential numbers, it should not be a terribly difficult hold for Democrats: SD-29 backed Obama 63%-35% in 2012. But of course a presidential electorate is nothing like an off-off, state midterm cycle electorate. The 2014 midterm cycle illustrates this: Warner beat Gillespie 56%-41% in SD-29, but the seven-point 2012-to-2014 Democratic drop-off was the largest in any Virginia Senate district.

Boosting the GOP’s chances is that the party’s nominee may be the best recruit of any new General Assembly candidate running this cycle. Hal Parrish (R) is not only mayor of Manassas, which tends to be slightly more Democratic than not, but he’s also a veteran and a businessman. He has crossover potential — or at least as much as someone can have in this polarized era — and has been able to raise a boatload of money (about $900,000, third among non-incumbents). It also can’t hurt that his late father, Harry Parrish, represented the area in the House of Delegates from 1982 to 2006.

Moreover, Republicans may have found an issue that could play big in SD-29 and some other Northern Virginia Senate and House districts: tolls. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is backing a plan to toll vehicles with fewer than three occupants during rush hour on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway, a proposal that has sparked opposition from Republicans as well as many Northern Virginia Democrats. But the GOP could find success connecting Democrats to McAuliffe’s plan — Parrish is certainly trying.

To hold onto SD-29, Democrats are going to have to partisanize the contest to ensure that the baseline Democratic nature of the district can overcome Parrish’s strengths; that basically means emphasizing the (R) next to Parrish’s name. Carrying the Democratic banner is Jeremy McPike, who works in the city of Alexandria but has lived in Prince William County most of his life. McPike lost by just one point in a 2013 House of Delegates contest and won a three-way primary battle to earn his party’s nomination in SD-29. Thus far, he’s raised about $740,000, staying relatively close to Parrish as we enter the final days of the campaign, though the Republican held a very large cash-on-hand advantage at the end of September.

An interesting part of this race is the fact that Colgan, who will retire after 40 years in the Senate, is probably the most moderate member of the Democratic caucus. For years he occupied previous incarnations of SD-29 that were more Republican, causing the GOP to always target him unsuccessfully. Now one wonders if the shoe is on the other foot, with Parrish serving as the moderate Republican who might be able to win a Democratic-leaning seat. This appears to be the seat most likely to dash Democratic hopes of Senate control on Election Night.

The other seat Republicans have in their sights is SD-21, which runs from the city of Roanoke through part of Roanoke County into Montgomery and Giles counties.

Going into Election Day 2011, there were some rumblings that Edwards might lose. But in the end, he won by a rather comfortable 12-point margin, basically right in line with a seat that Warner won 54%-42% in 2014. So the question is, can Edwards’ principal challenger, retired surgeon Nancy Dye (R), improve markedly upon the performance of former Del. David Nutter (R), who ran against Edwards last time? She might be able to — so far, she’s actually raised more money than Edwards (about $540,000 to $480,000), and outraising an incumbent is no easy feat. Dye, who is from the city of Roanoke — the most Democratic part of the district — may also perform better there than Nutter did in 2011.

Besides the prospect of having a stronger challenger, there’s another potential complication for Edwards — an independent candidate who might matter: Don Caldwell, the longest-serving commonwealth’s attorney in the city of Roanoke’s history and an ex-Democrat. Caldwell may have exactly the profile to actually impact the outcome in this race. If he shaves off even just two or three points mostly from Edwards while Dye runs better in Roanoke, Edwards may find himself in a true nail-biter.

Curiously, Edwards got an endorsement that, on the surface, should boost him to some degree in more rural southwest Virginia: Despite having a (D) beside his name, Edwards once again earned the backing of the National Rifle Association. But the NRA’s support may actually prove to be a bit troublesome for Edwards. Increasingly, the Democratic rank and file will not brook heterodoxy on gun control, and with the late August shooting of two WDBJ television employees in nearby Moneta, VA, the issue is still fresh on the minds of voters in the region. Thus, Edwards could have some problems with his left flank, worsening turnout issues that already complicate things for Democrats.

Given the district’s fundamentals and his incumbency, Edwards remains a slight favorite. But Republicans see this seat as their most likely pickup after SD-29, and beating Edwards would almost assuredly guarantee the GOP continued control of the Senate.

Other Senate races of note

Democrats remain hopeful about winning the 7th Senate District, a potentially swingy Virginia Beach-area seat. Gary McCollum (D) has raised a lot of money (the second-most of any non-incumbent behind Gecker in SD-10), and as a former Army Ranger in a region full of veterans and active military personnel, he seemed to pose a legitimate threat to incumbent Sen. Frank Wagner (R), who hasn’t faced opposition since 2003. However, McCollum already faced a bit of an uphill battle running against an incumbent Republican in a 50%-47% Gillespie district, and his campaign has been damaged by revelations that he misstated his Army reserve status; McCollum previously claimed to be in the inactive reserve but was actually discharged nearly 15 years ago. Wagner must be a considered a favorite to retain his seat.

Another seat that may be a bridge too far for Democrats is the 13th Senate District, located in western Fairfax County and northern Loudoun County. Socially conservative incumbent Sen. Dick Black (R) has a history of controversial comments that could theoretically make him vulnerable. Such remarks have proven to be useful fundraising fodder for Democrats running against him, and the 2015 cycle is no exception: Dr. Jill McCabe (D), a pediatrician, has kept neck-and-neck with Black in fundraising and is regarded as a strong recruit for Democrats. However, Black occupies a seat Gillespie won 53%-44% in 2014 and the incumbent won by 14 points in 2011 when he first ran in this district. Thus, it’s hard to see Democrats overcoming the fundamentals, especially in an off-off year election.

Republicans have their own second tier of Senate targets. In the 6th Senate District, located in Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore, Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D) won a special election to replace now-Lt. Gov. Northam in January 2014 by just 11 votes, a race that was far, far closer than many observers initially anticipated. But it would make sense for Republicans to see this as a target: The only Senate district Warner won by less in the 2014 cycle was SD-10 — SD-06 was a 53%-45% Warner seat. Special elections are just that, special — turnout was abysmally low — but Lewis’ performance does suggest that Republicans can’t be counted out here. Still, the incumbent has outraised his opponent, Richard Ottinger (R), nearly two-to-one, so Lewis remains a favorite.

The GOP also hopes to possibly spring a surprise in the 39th Senate District, which runs from the city of Alexandria all the way into Prince William County. There, incumbent Sen. George Barker (D) is facing Joe Murray (R), a former Capitol Hill staffer. SD-39 is a 56%-42% Warner district, but it’s not a seat Barker will run away with — he won by about six points in 2011 against a serious challenger, and this time around Murray has remained close in the fundraising battle. There is also some thought that the 1st Senate District could be competitive — incumbent Sen. John Miller (D) won by the narrowest margin, 3.6 points, of any Democrat who won reelection in 2011 — but the race remains a reach for Republicans as Miller has raised about eight times as much as Mark Matney (R). Still, it should be included as one to keep an eye on.

With such low turnout, there is always the chance for some unexpected results; 2015 may be no different. But in the battle for control of the Virginia Senate, which is the focal point of this election, the seats above are the ones that appear most competitive in 2015. Overall, the road to a majority in the Senate mainly runs through SD-10, SD-21, and SD-29. Given the close nature of those three contests, it’s entirely possible that we’ll end up right back where we started — a 21-19 Republican edge — after playing electoral musical chairs.

Table 1: Statistical overview of competitive Virginia Senate races

Notes: *Indicates an incumbent. Senate district numbers are colored according to the party that currently controls them. Total amount raised is through Sept. 30. The 2014 U.S. Senate race is used as an indicator of fundamental partisanship in lieu of the 2013 gubernatorial contest because the 2013 contest’s numbers were complicated by a third-party candidate’s performance.

Source: Virginia Public Access Project

Conclusion: the House of Delegates

This piece hasn’t offered a race-by-race exploration for the House of Delegates, mostly because all 2015 electoral drama lies in the Senate. The House Republican caucus holds a two-to-one majority in the General Assembly’s lower chamber, removing any doubts about its future partisan makeup. But just to dot our “i’s” and cross our “t’s,” we offer a list of districts to watch in the House on Nov. 3 in Table 2.

Table 2: Statistical overview of potentially competitive House of Delegates races

Notes: *Indicates an incumbent. House district numbers are colored according to the party that currently controls them. Total amount raised is through Sept. 30. The 2014 U.S. Senate race is used as an indicator of fundamental partisanship in lieu of the 2013 gubernatorial contest because the 2013 contest’s numbers were complicated by a third-party candidate’s performance.

Source: Virginia Public Access Project

At first glance, it might seem as if Democrats should be able to add a seat or two given how seemingly overextended Republicans are in the House, but that is far from guaranteed based on a seat-by-seat analysis. In fact, a likelier outcome may be no net change at all — much like in the Senate — or Republicans could conceivably add to their 67-33 majority.

One final point: A great unknown for the House going forward is a pending court case regarding the boundary lines of 12 districts around the state. The suit involves arguments similar to those made in a recent redistricting case in Virginia that has resulted in the redrawing of the state’s congressional map (the court is currently drawing the new lines). Depending on the timeline, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia — which also originally heard and overturned the congressional map — could decide the House of Delegates case in time to force special elections in newly-drawn districts during the 2016 cycle. Not only would a new map almost certainly be more favorable to Democrats, but the prospect of presidential-level turnout would be a huge boost for them — the GOP currently holds 14 seats that Obama won in 2012. As time passes and no decision is reached, this wild scenario becomes less and less likely as appeals (if necessary) would delay things further, but there certainly remains a chance that a new map could be drawn that would impact the partisan makeup of the House markedly during the next gubernatorial cycle in 2017.