Can we expect a “blue wave” for the 2019 Elections? What this refers to is a possible Democratic sweep of the races for the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate. It’s a potential surge based heavily on national politics. Of course, that’s not an easy generalization to make. Historically, races for the General Assembly have been surprisingly immune to the vicissitudes of national politics. However, that was before Donald Trump became president. Things have changed. State and local elections in Virginia have taken on a distinct national flavor and that’s not necessarily good news for the GOP.
There are a couple of factors at work. For one, there is the precedence of 2017. The president was about as unpopular in Virginia in 2017 as he is now. His poll numbers hover around a 38% favorable rating with a fairly high unfavorable rating. And, being a lightning rod sort of president, the passions he evokes for and against him are unusually strong. So, the 2017 results reflected what was being seen in the polls and national trends. After all, in a way, it was the only election in town where voters could show their dissatisfaction. The Senate wasn’t up for election, but the House was, and the Democrats wiped out a GOP supermajority and came within a vote of capturing the lower chamber. The Democrats also took all three statewide races.
A one-time thing? Maybe, but in 2018, in what was arguably a more national race, the Democrats picked up an unprecedented three seats in the U.S. House representing Virginia and easily reelected Sen. Tim Kaine. It was their best midterm election for Democrats in modern times.
So it’s no surprise they’re going into 2019 energetic, ready to do battle and anticipating victory. Besides, the state’s demographics have steadily drifted in their favor, in many cases negating the impact of Republican gerrymandering. More than half of the commonwealth lives in the area broadly defined as Northern Virginia and the voting patterns of this regions are radically different and far more liberal than the rest of Virginia. If the Republicans want to hold on to their majorities, they have to at least keep a foothold in this region. Thing is, that’s getting harder and harder to do.
However, this time, the upper chamber is in play. The Senate also has a one vote Republican majority. They haven’t had to face the electorate since 2015. That was before the age of President Trump and the seemingly steady trend of Democratic victories that followed. Senate districts are large — about 200,000 Virginians in each — and many of these races are likely to be highly competitive. With a Democratic lieutenant governor who breaks tie votes, all it takes for the Democrats to win control of the body is one seat.
In 2017, even though there was a governor’s race running hot and heavy, the amount of money spent for Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates was modest. The Democrats worked to get nominees for every seat, their fundraising was adequate, but it could have been better. This year, in something of a first, the Democrats, at least as of this moment, are raising more campaign money for House of Delegates than the Republican. This almost never happens. Some Republican donors may not have made their contributions yet, while others, sensing a change in the political tides, may be saving their cash for another campaign.
Ah, but in politics, it’s never good to count your “red” or “blue” waves until they wash ashore. The outcome, while looking good for the Democrats, includes a few variables that could dampen the prospects of victory. First, this is an off-year election and by “off” I really mean off. It’s an odd year and that means it’s out of sync with the national election calendar. Virginia is one of the few states that does this and on top of that there is no statewide race to entice voters to the polls. So, turnout is likely to be low.
This means, no surprise, each side has to get out their vote and energize independents. Some GOP candidates are embracing their party identity, hoping to bring the base of Republican faithful to the polls. Others in more progressive areas are out for Democratic crossovers and independents. So, they’re not sounding quite so Republican. As for the Democrats, they expect a strong anti-Trump vote, and by focusing on healthcare, schools and roads, they are actively wooing independent support and counting on some Republican crossovers. There are more of the latter than most in the GOP care to admit. So, speaking of waves and carrying this water based analogy a bit further, if I were a Republican, I would be checking to make sure my political flood insurance policy is up-to-date.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at email@example.com.