A blue wave swept entrenched Republican incumbents out of office across the state on Nov. 7, but no locality lost more GOP lawmakers than Prince William County.
County voters chose five new Democratic delegates last Tuesday, booting four longtime members of the House of Delegates from the General Assembly and radically altering the makeup of the area’s legislative delegation in the process. In all, Prince William powered the Democratic Party’s historically strong performance in an off-year election — a full third of the 15 incoming Democratic members of the chamber will represent the county.
The result is a confounding one for Prince William Republicans, who have watched the county increasingly support Democrats in presidential and statewide elections, yet remained confident that the party would continue to perform well in these local races. Now, the local GOP has to somehow sort out a way forward with the 2018 midterms looming and county races on the ballot in 2019.
“No one expected the complete bloodbath that took place here,” said D.J. Jordan, vice chairman of the county’s Republican Committee. “Many of us local Republicans are still licking our wounds, and still in shock. We can’t believe what happened, and we’re not sure what to do yet.”
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The chief factor affecting this uncertainty about the party’s future in Prince William is that Jordan and other GOP leaders aren’t clear on what exactly they could’ have done to fend off the Democratic wave, which they believe was largely generated by anger at President Donald Trump. Jordan speculates that “I don’t know that any Republican could’ve won in these seats,” considering that Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam convinced more than 1.4 million people to turn out for him in a non-presidential election, a record in Virginia.
“We just couldn’t keep up with the surge on their side,” said Del. Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican who lost his 31st District seat to Democrat Elizabeth Guzman. “Do the math. It’s just what it comes down to.”
Lingamfelter notes that he earned more votes this year than he did in any of his eight previous electoral victories, a pattern that played out countywide — all the losing Republicans except Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th District--beat their past vote totals, often by several hundred votes, in a sign of just how many Democrats turned out for this election.
“Democrats were obviously energetic and motivated, and I think a lot of Republicans were not motivated, because of what amounts to a do-nothing Congress,” said Del. Rich Anderson, a Republican who lost to Democrat Hala Ayala in the 51st District.
While Anderson’s latter assertion isn’t quite borne out in the numbers (Republican Ed Gillespie earned nearly 1.2 million votes--more than any GOP candidate for governor in the state’s history), there is little doubt within the party that Democratic turnout, driven by a historically unpopular president, swamped Republican chances in Prince William.
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“There is no way you can look at this and disregard national politics,” said county Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, a vocal Gillespie supporter. “Remember, Trump didn’t win Virginia last year...and there might’ve even been some Republicans frustrated with the president. There hasn’t exactly been a whole lot of good news coming out of Washington over the last year.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a notion that Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and former Trump campaign official, rejects. He contends that the Nov. 7 election “was not a referendum on the president,” as he feels Gillespie never truly embraced Trump (and the party narrowly decided against picking an ardently pro-Trump candidate as its nominee when it rejected Stewart in the June primary).
But Stewart also faults Gillespie for keeping the president at arm’s length and declining to campaign with Trump, which he feels depressed the party’s base and led to the GOP’s down-ballot wipeout.
“With these delegates who were running for re-election, when I was the top of the ticket and I was the main draw for the race, they did just fine,” Stewart said. “Now, they were defeated and it wasn't because of anything they did. It wasn't because they changed, it wasn’t because the county changed that much in two years. It was because we had a guy at the top of the ticket who was establishment and who did not speak to the people and energize his base.”
Yet many of the rural areas that backed Trump (and Stewart in the primary) recorded vote totals not far off from presidential election turnout numbers, prompting Nohe to dismiss that sort of claim.
“That theory is just false,” Nohe said. “This is not a cause for celebration for the White House.”
While Anderson won’t go that far, stressing that he’s “not in the mood to get into a debate with Corey” over Gillespie’s performance, he is still optimistic about the party’s chances going forward. He notes that many Republicans rode into Richmond in a wave election of their own in 2009, and he suspects that “no party can sustain this sort of energy indefinitely.”
“Electoral politics is so cyclical,” Anderson said. “This is a disappointment, but there are future election cycles, and Republicans will do well again in the future.”
But whether the party will recover in time to stave off a similar Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms or even in the 2019 elections (when local Prince William lawmakers and all 100 members of the General Assembly will be on the ballot) is an open question.
Jordan concedes that it’s “too early to tell” just how things will shake out, but he wouldn’t be surprised to see the party make some gains two years from now, calling it a “perfect test case for Republicans.”
Without the statewide races commanding all the attention, and races for the Board of County Supervisors and school board on the ballot, Jordan expects candidates will be more able to focus on “hyperlocal issues” and win over voters. He says he’s already heard from a variety of people interested in running against Stewart for chairman — for his part, Stewart says he has yet to decide whether he’ll run again, with his bid for U.S. Senate in 2018 commanding his attention — as well as potential candidates for school board.
“We definitely need to think about how we rebuild our bench as we have the conversation about how we move forward,” Jordan said.
As of now, Lingamfelter doesn’t expect to be part of that conversation. He says he gave “pretty serious thought” to not running for re-election this year, and even if he’d won, he likely would’ve made this his final term.
“I’m not going to foreclose on any future opportunities, so if I have something to offer, maybe you’ll see me again,” Lingamfelter said. “If not, there are books, and family and writing and hunting and fishing to occupy my time.”
Anderson says he’s heard from hundreds of people urging him to run again in the wake of his loss to Ayala, and he’s leaving “every option on the table” for his future. In the near term, at least, he plans to stay active in the Prince William community as best he can.
“There are many ways to be involved in public service, and elected office is just one way,” Anderson said. “And I believe in public service. I don’t know anything else and I won’t do anything else.”