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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

September 10, 2019

High Stakes in Virginia General Assembly Election will Preview 2020 Presidential

State / Elections / Legislative

Image of the Virginia state capitol building

In the wake of the Blue Tsunami that crashed through Virginia on election night in November 2017, the state’s Democrats found their political fortunes in the House of Delegates dramatically transformed. Not only had they held onto the state’s governorship for back-to-back Democratic administrations, the party had ridden a wave of anti-Trump backlash to pick up 15 seats in the state’s lower chamber, rocketing them from a distant minority to just two seats away from taking the majority away from the GOP. The state’s Senate, which was not up for reelection that cycle, already sat within two seats of a Democratic majority and Republicans would be forced to defend it in 2019. Democrats got to work making plans.

Republicans got busy, too, moving quickly to take Medicaid expansion, a policy with robust public support among Democrats and Independents in Virginia, but one the party had fought tooth and nail against for the better part of a decade, off the table as a potential campaign issue for Democrats to use against them again in 2019. Despite outcries of treason from Republicans in safe districts, party leadership, senators in competitive districts and the few remaining survivors in competitive House districts joined Democrats to pass Medicaid expansion in May of 2018, just before the 2018 midterms.

With two post-Trump elections behind them, both of which had produced large turnout surges for Democrats and sympathetic Independents aligning with Democrats, Republicans already faced an uphill battle defending their General Assembly majorities this year. Then, the federal courts struck down 11 House of Delegates districts due to racial gerrymandering. The court-ordered revisions affected the boundaries of 25 districts and made additional Democratic Party pick-ups even more likely. Several Republicans strategically retired.

It is hard to illustrate how much the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes have changed in the Commonwealth in just four years, since the last off-, off-year state legislative election cycle – when no statewide candidates appear on the ballot. Back then, in 2015, along with their large House of Delegates majority and slim Senate majority, the state’s GOP controlled all but 3 of the 11 seats in Virginia’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation. And although they were locked out of the governor’s mansion, they had occupied it as recently as 2013 and nearly kept it in that year’s contest despite the nomination of a controversial candidate. They had also come much closer than expected in their 2014 effort to unseat Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Warner. In short, they were down statewide, but certainly not out. And the 2015 state legislative cycle was a good one for Virginia Republicans. Just six of 100 House races managed to end in a “close” election and, although Democrats picked up three seats, all three were open. No state Senate seats changed party.

Turnout in the 2015 cycle was low at 29.1% of registered voters, a typical turnout rate for the off-, off-year cycle. Turnout varied widely by district, ranging from 10% to 40%, according to this recent analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project. Over the Obama era, low turnout generally benefited the Republican Party, whose own voting base tends to be older and predominately white -- two demographic groups with less variance in their turnout than other demographic groups.

In the polarized era, as more voters have sorted into the two political parties ideologically, with liberals in the Democratic Party and conservatives in the Republican Party, turnout of each party’s loyal constituencies has become more important in terms of deciding which party will prevail on Election Day. Our politics have become more tribal, with more Americans seeing their party identification as a social identity. Even many Independents, who don’t formally align with one of the two major parties, behave in predictable, partisan ways for things such as their vote choice when they “lean” towards one party or the other. The small portion of each electorate who are “pure” Independents are top targets for each campaign, and “persuadable” within reason; but even these voters respond to atmospheric conditions that may, or may not, benefit one party in a given cycle. Generally, pure Independents break against the party in power in Washington in rejection of the current status quo.  

As such, the election results of 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 become just as much about who didn’t vote as they are about who did. The dramatic transformation of the Democrats’ fortunes in legislative races in Virginia (on top of picking up 15 House of Delegates seats in 2017, Democrats gained 3 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 and incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Kaine did not face a serious challenge that year) has been powered by large turnout surges among demographic groups that favor Democrats: college-educated women; millennials and Gen Z voters; minority voters; and Independents who “lean” left or at least don’t “lean” right. These voters, whether they know it or not, have been galvanized to the polls via negative partisanship because of the election of Donald J. Trump. Trump has shaken into action a sleeping demographic giant in Virginia.

A big unknown for the 2019 cycle is whether this Democratic turnout surge will manifest in an election cycle lacking any statewide stimulant. Will there be a natural “Trump Bump” for Democrats when there is only low-salience, district-specific campaign activity? If so, how large a bump should we expect? What is not unknown is Republican turnout. At the very least, Republicans will replicate their 2015 turnout, and my forthcoming analysis of Virginia’s competitive House of Representatives districts in 2018 suggests that the GOP may even see improvements over their 2015 turnout. Despite controlling the White House, the Republican base posted strong voter turnout numbers in 2018 in support of Republican candidates for Congress.

Democrats still have some “low hanging fruit” left from the 2017 cycle. Del. Tim Hugo’s seat in House District 40 in Northern Virginia came within 100 votes of flipping in 2017. Most famously, Democrats lost the 94th House District in Hampton Roads in a “drawing for lots” after a recount produced a tie. But the 94th is one of the many districts affected by the court-mandated new maps. The result was catastrophic for the GOP. Of the 25 districts redrawn, 8 of the 9 held by Republicans became friendlier for Democrats. Of these, 4 went from fairly “safe” Republican seats to competitive seats, and the 94th went from an electorate that produced a tie in 2017 to one that decisively favors Democrats, leaving the Republican incumbent on the fence as late as August as to whether to run or not. Although the redistricting also made several districts less friendly for Democrats, in only one district, the 93rd, does the change feasibly create a pick-up opportunity for Republicans, although even that district maintains a modest Democratic advantage.

It is worth noting that one of the districts most severely impacted by the redistricting belongs to Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox. As seen in Table 2, the speaker’s district has moved from being a completely safe district (R+14) to a toss-up (R+1.6). Although Cox’s response to the court’s decision, and efforts to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court indicates he understood the stakes the new maps held both for his party and his own electoral fortunes, it is not clear he fully appreciated the level of competitive he would face this fall because of the way he chose to navigate the governor’s special session on gun violence, convened in the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting. Republicans in the House of Delegates chose to adjourn the session almost immediately, without considering even the least contentious gun reform proposals such as so-called “Red Flag” laws which allow law enforcement to remove firearms from individuals deemed to pose a threat. Such a compromise should have been highly attractive to Cox if he was feeling vulnerable in his own race, so the decision to jettison the session without even the appearance of consideration of the Red Flag law and expanded background checks could signal that Cox felt secure, at least at the time.

So, what does my negative partisanship, surge & decline turnout theory have to say about the Virginia 2019 state legislative elections? It does, after all, have its genesis in the state’s 2017 cycle. My research considers each district’s partisan competition (polarization, the percent of each district’s college-educated public, and the percent of each district’s non-white population) to produce estimates of the Democratic candidate’s percent of the two-party vote. The 2017 version proved quite accurate.

The most powerful predictor in my forecasting model, the Partisan Voter Index (PVI), is a partisan score invented by the Cook Political Report, designed to measure the level of partisan competition in a district. Although scores can have wide ranges, scores close to zero indicate a high level of party competition in the district. Following the methodology Cook uses to construct their scores for the House of Representatives, I construct PVI scores for the competitive Virginia legislative districts, in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. Due to PVI scores’ demonstrated predictive power in my forecasting work, as well as their long history of being informative for qualitative handicapping for Congressional races, Virginia PVI scores should give us a reasonable sense of how competitive each of the 2019 races will be and, in my opinion, should be the single most important predictive factor as to what results we can expect. PVI scores will be more important than incumbency, fundraising, personality, or other factors people generally cite to “explain” election results.

To start, let’s look at the PVI scores for 15 seats that Democrats picked up in the 2017 cycle, as well as the margin by which the Democrat carried each district. Please note: In Table 1, I am displaying the PVI scores I used in my original analysis, which were calculated using data from each district from the 2013 gubernatorial and 2016 presidential cycle. The 2019 version has been updated using data from 2016 and 2017, because it allows me to capture any “Trump Bump” effects and because PVIs for the 25 redrawn House of Delegates districts needed to be recalculated anyway. So, the PVIs in Table 2 reflect “current” PVI scores. Of the 15 seats Democrats gained in the 2017 cycle, all but three had incumbents running. As you can see, there is a great deal of variation in the partisan competition scores of the districts Democrats flipped in 2017. Some of the districts tilted strongly Democratic, so much so that it is surprising that a Republican held the seat in the first place (districts 2, 13, 32, 42, 50, and 67). But others, such as districts 10, 68, 72, 73, and 85, actually had at least slight Republican tilts. Of the two seats Democrats came close to flipping but failed, the 40th was nearly at 0 PVI and the 94th was D+1.

What does this mean?

Along with the 15 seats Democrats gained, and so must defend in 2019, Table 2 includes all of the competitive races in the 2019 cycle in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. Democrats need a net pick-up of at least 2 seats in each chamber to have a working majority. And although Virginia politics is not as marked by gridlock and polarization as its federal counterpart across the Potomac, failure to flip only one of the chambers and not the other is likely to produce continued legislative stalemates for Virginia Democrats’ most sought-after legislative goals, such as gun control, minimum wage increase, and voter rights reforms.

Given this, you would think Virginia Democrats would make taking control of the Assembly the centerpiece of their 2019 messaging strategy, particularly given their overall numbers advantages in many of these districts. However, thus far they have strayed little from their 2017 messaging strategy, which focused largely on healthcare, an issue they feel resonated well with Independents. That said, the off-, off-year state legislative cycle is shorter and much less visible to voters than federal and gubernatorial statewide elections. Most of the activity is constrained to the post-Labor Day period and within the few competitive districts in the state. Because of this, it is still too early to definitively get a sense of each party’s messaging strategy (or in the case of Democrats, if they will put forward a centralized messaging strategy). What we do know is that turnout in this cycle, as in all elections in the polarized era, will be decisive. Whichever side best motivates the voters that make up their party’s coalition will prevail on Election Day. Democrats, it appears, seem content to rely on a natural “Trump Bump” they feel no need to energize directly.

Tonight’s results in the special election in North Carolina’s 9th district will tell us a lot about how naturally enthusiastic the Democratic electorate is, because in order to prevail there, Democrats will need a turnout surge of Democrats and sympathetic Independents large enough to overcome the significant partisan advantage Republicans hold in that R+8 district. The Democratic candidate’s strategy there has been the traditional one run by Democrats running in territory that Republicans have a numbers advantage in: focus in on key “bread and butter issues” while minimizing the candidate’s membership in the minority party (the Democrats). In McCready’s case, there is also heavy focus on his military service as a means of courting Independents and “soft Republicans.” If McCready pulls out a win it will be because enough Democrats and Independents show up to cast ballots to overwhelm the votes of Republicans in what will be a low turnout election- not because of increased so-called “cross-over voting,” which in the polarized era, averages at about 10% of each party’s electorate.

All the GOP needs to do to prevail in NC 9 is turn out enough Republican voters, Independents be damn, and they hold the seat; which is why their closing play is to bring the president himself into the district to close out the campaign and remind Republican voters there is an election going on and that the result of it is related to supporting Donald Trump. Even a close McCready loss bodes well for Virginia Democrats because it’ll provide evidence that a natural “Trump Bump” remains and a win should make Virginia Democrats ecstatic. The Democrats’ record in similar races is mixed in the Trump Era. They won in Pennsylvania’s 18th district but lost with nearly the same conditions in Ohio’s 12th. Most famously, they prevailed in Alabama’s special senate election although the Republican nominee’s scandal no doubt factored in. We don’t have a test case of Democrats running a strategy that seeks to tap into the Trump referendum affect because no candidate has tried it. We have only seen that type of strategy used by Republicans. Early 2020 ads suggest that might change.

For their part, Virginia Republicans find themselves facing the same electoral conundrum that has plagued them in every election cycle since Donald Trump captured the presidency. They must embrace a highly visible party figurehead their base voters adore but the rest of their potential voters hate, including a solid majority of Independents. In our Wason Center April state legislative election survey, Trump had a 40% approval rating among Independents (23% strongly approve, 13% somewhat) and a 60% disapprove. Most problematic for Virginia Republicans is the split among Independents: 42% of the 60% of Independents who disapprove of Trump say they “strongly” disapprove of him, while just 14% “somewhat” disapprove. There is no reason to expect these numbers have changed for the better since spring. Although Democrats may not have adapted their campaign strategies to a more nationalized campaign environment for state-level elections, there is no doubt that voters see state and local politics, and the parties, via a nationalized lens. Republicans have long recognized the electoral benefits of tapping into their voters’ national passions to drive turnout in state elections, though some may be wary to embrace Trump due to his unpopularity with Independents.  It is clear that the Trump presidency has had a negative effect on the Republican brand in Virginia. In the same Wason Center poll in April, when asked which party best represents the interests of various groups in the electorate: women, men, children, African Americans, the working class, the middle class, and the poor, Republicans won just one category, men. This is hardly encouraging for Virginia Republicans who need Independents on their side to win close elections.

So, What Will Happen?

Press speculation is that Democrats are more bullish on their potential to pick up the state Senate than they are the House of Delegates. Assuming this reporting is on target, I am having a hard time squaring this assessment with the data. As Table 2 shows, even if Democrats were to lose some of the House seats they gained in the 2017 cycle (the 10th, 68th, and 85th would be most likely), they would still have viable paths to a House majority because several districts that once had Republican PVIs now have Democratic ones. Two of these, David Yancey’s district (the 94th, which ended in a tie in 2017) and Chris Jones’ district (the 76th) seem primed to flip to Democrats under even the most modest Democratic turnout surge models. That said, a good Election Day for Democrats hinges on at least some Trump Effect (turnout surge) in 2019. Even with the benefits of the court-ordered redistricting, if the electorate looks like it did in 2015 in terms of its partisan composition, Democrats will come up short of a majority and may even lose ground. Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this happens. Although the 2017 and 2018 Democratic Party strategies weren’t completely devoid of “Trump referendum” material, they were hardly grounded in it. In large part, the Democratic surge effects we have seen have been produced without intentional stimulation. (This is quite different from the GOP’s strategy in similar circumstances, in which they structure their electoral messaging around enhancing the referendum effect). Based on my conversations with Democratic Party insiders, the party understands that base turnout is the key to victory in the 2019 cycle and is structuring their GOTV efforts accordingly.

Keep in mind that we are talking about an election cycle in which turnout is historically between 28 and 31%. The highest it has ever been since the 1996 Motor Voter Law ended the practice of purging inactive voters from the rolls (decreasing participation rates across the board) is 36.1% in 1999, and I am unable to verify whether that is a product of a phase-in of the Motor Voter Law or not. Overall turnout at 31% or above should mean a good day for Democrats, but what is most important is the partisan composition of the turnout. The simple fact is, if Democrats want to win, they need to outvote Republicans. 

In terms of expanding on their seat gains from 2017 and taking the majority in the House of Delegates, the “low-hanging fruit” was in Northern Virginia because districts there had very high rates of college education, a characteristic most conducive to natural turnout surges. If ground zero of 2017 was NOVA, ground zero of 2019 is Hampton Roads, where voter turnout traditionally favors the GOP. And Democrats have the additional complication of two scandals affecting their top two office holders in the state. Governor Northam’s so-called “blackface scandal” broke in February of 2019, plummeting his approval ratings 19 points from 59% to 40%. Still, even at the height of the scandal, a slight majority of all Virginia voters, 52%, felt he should stay in office, and the percentage was far higher among those arguably most affected by the scandal: 63% of African-American voters felt Northam should stay in office. But the group that is most responsive to the Northam scandal, and sexual assault allegations later brought against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, are the state’s youngest voters – a key constituency whose turnout lies at the heart of Democrats’ hopes this fall. It is not clear how much of a factor these scandals will play in the fall. Reporting by Gregory Schneider of the Washington Post notes that after 6 months in the political wilderness, Northam is back on the stump for Democrats and receiving positive receptions at Democratic events and Republican strategists are abandoning the strategy of highlighting the scandal after it failed to register with Independent voters.  

For those who follow my national research, you’ll know that I argue that a good deal of the GOP’s messaging advantage comes from their recognition of the mobilization value of nationalized messaging (tying a state legislator to Nancy Pelosi) and their reliance on emotive rather an analytic messaging techniques. With control of the General Assembly on the line, and with it, their last avenue for power in the Commonwealth, both the state GOP and its national counterpart will bring their “A” game to these 2019 races. And their “A” game is very, very good. Despite the baggage Trump presents, Republicans were handed a major gift the very same week of the “blackface scandal,” when Governor Northam answered a question about medically necessary late-term abortions like a medical doctor and not like a politician, giving Republicans the sound bite of their dreams. Taken out of context, it sounds like the governor is describing infanticide.   Political campaigns are built to take things out of context, and Northam’s gaffe has become a rallying cry to mobilize Republican base voters to the polls, not only here in Virginia but across the country in the 2018 midterms and in the upcoming 2020 cycle.

However, no matter how good the Republican strategy is, they will be overwhelmed if Democrats show up in increased numbers. Democrats have very encouraging news in terms of the state’s registration data. Writing in The Daily Progress, Virginia politics expert Jeff Shapiro notes that “470,000 people have been added to the [voter] rolls from four years ago. From the 2011 House-Senate cycle to 2015, the increase was 80,000.” As Shapiro notes, much of that growth comes from Virginia suburbs. There are simply too many swing districts with conditions ripe for a Democratic Party turnout surge.

The Wason Center will be tracking the cycle closely and this article is just the first in a series of research we will be releasing on the Virginia 2019 elections. We are in the field now with a new statewide survey, testing metrics such as party enthusiasm, messaging, the generic ballot, and preference for control of the Assembly. We will be releasing that data near the end of September. We will follow that survey with two “horserace” style surveys: one in competitive House districts and one in competitive Senate districts. These will be released over the month of October. If you have not already done so, please be sure to sign up for our mailing list.

As we move through this election cycle, I will be putting out some contest-specific analyses that bring in other elements of my forecasting model on the most interesting and competitive races, which I at this point expect to be House districts 10, 40, 21, 28, 50, 51, 66, 68, 72, 83, 84, 85, and 91 and Senate districts 7, 8, 12, and 17. Depending on what I see in the data, this list could shorten significantly or expand. However, I will not be putting out race calls or predictions for these races similar to my federal election forecasting. Turnout is too unpredictable If overall turnout exceeds 31%, November 5 is likely to be a good day for Democrats. If exceeds that, it is all but certain to be.

I can’t reiterate enough how dependent these races will be on turnout, precisely because in a 30-ish% election, turnout exerts even more influence on the outcome than in a higher turnout election. Usually when turnout declines, a fair portion of the decline comes from the center of the electorate, the part that is theoretically persuadable. We won’t have exit polls to look at after the election, but what will be determinative is the partisan breakdown of the electorate. If it favors Republicans, they will maintain control of the Virginia General Assembly. If it favors Democrats, they won’t.

If you are NOT from Virginia, I highly recommend that you nevertheless follow these statehouse races closely for what they will indicate about 2020. First, and foremost, either a great day or a bad day for Democrats will tell us a lot about the energy in the Democratic Party heading into 2020 cycle. Second, a decent day, a day on which  Democrats hold their previous gains but come up short on gaining majority control will demonstrate the folly of not tapping directly into the Trump referendum effect. Flipping both chambers is something Democrats should be able to achieve, and failure to do it would be attributable to their strategic choice to gamble on a natural surge. That said, across the country since 2016, in contests where similar strategies have been deployed, the surges have come anyway. It is entirely possible we wake the day after Election Day to another big Democratic wave.

Aside from the stakes for Virginia in terms of the future of governing the state, especially for the state’s next redistricting cycle, both parties and their outside supporters are keenly aware of the importance of the optics of winning here in 2019. The party that prevails will have a fundraising and candidate recruitment advantage heading into the 2020 cycle nationwide, and the GOP in particular is desperate to show signs of electoral viability under Trump. The “Wild West” nature of Virginia’s campaign finance laws are such that there are no donation limits for state candidates (no, I am NOT making this up). Money has already been pouring into the coffers of candidates on both sides of this arms race, and the formal campaigns have just begun. Given these loose campaign finance laws, I am expecting a veritable tsunami of money to pour into the state, and already both the NRA and the gun-control groups are investing heavily as they fight over the future of gun policy in the Commonwealth. We are lucky to have one of the best public access projects in the country at our disposal in our friends over at the Virginia Public Access Project. You can use their site to easily keep track of spending in the state legislative races.

Stay tuned!

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