Why is it so hard to predict, or to some, to even speculate on the outcome of this year’s General Assembly races. Surely all you should be able to do a few polls and make a forecast. Alas, if it were only that easy. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people willing to make forecasts. There are. But, it’s such a dicey business, with so many qualifications and caveats that, at the very least, forecasting the outcome of this year’s state Senate and House of Delegate races is more of a guessing game than it is hardcore political forecasting.
Let me offer some thoughts as to the reason why. The first is the way the districts for both chambers are drawn. They are, by nature, small. Each House district is about 80,000 persons and each Senate District about 200,000, which makes it sound like drawing 100 House districts and 40 Senate districts shouldn’t be that hard. Just do what the state constitution says and draw district lines that are contiguous and don’t break apart communities. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it was done. Virginia’s state legislative districts are some of the most gerrymandered in the nation.
With that in mind, if you tried to take a poll of some districts, you’d end up calling into little bits and pieces of several counties, part of a city, and in some cases, even half of a precinct. It’s just that bad and we have several illustrations locally. So, doing a reliable sampling is tough.
Now, as for another reason this election is so hard to predict. Virginia holds its elections for state offices and the General Assembly in the off years. In other words, they’re not in sync with the nationwide even-year election cycles. With only a mild interruption after the Civil War, this has been a Virginia thing since 1851. The result, not surprisingly, is a lower turnout. In 2017, with a governor’s race at the top of the ticket, the turnout was 47.6%. This year, it’s probably going to be more like 30% or less. So, making a forecast when so few people likely to vote is doubly challenging.
Still, none of this says we can’t speculate. But, with a one vote margin for the GOP in both houses, the calculus is pretty simple. At the very least, Republicans have to hold every seat to keep their majority while the Democrats have to do the same thing and pick up a couple along the way. This means it all comes down to just a handful of races. Some where the race seems too close call and others where there could be a surprise or two. It seems like there is always at least one surprise on election night.
One of the most contentious races is in our own backyard: the 28th House District representing Stafford and Fredericksburg. Both candidates seem to be invoking national themes, and Democrat Josh Cole is hoping to ride the same wave of anti-Trump sentiment that almost got him elected in 2017. Paul Milde, his Republican opponent is trying to manage the difficult task of reaching out to independents while holding on to his motivated conservative base.
Another tight race is House Speaker Kirk Cox’s seat. Thanks to a court decision, Bethune v. Virginia Board of Elections, which said race had been a motivator for redrawing a number of House seats, Cox’s district was redrawn and is now competitive. His name recognition is high, even in his new district, but this is now a Democrat-leaning district. Oh, and don’t forget Nick Freitas. He is an incumbent Republican in the 30th House District, but he messed up his paperwork and is now running as a write-in candidate.
Another potential casualty for the GOP is their last member of the Northern Virginia delegation, Del. Tim Hugo in the 40th District. He held onto his seat in 2017 by only 100 votes.
When all the votes were counted in 2017 five remained in GOP hands by razor-thin majorities and another was tied. Each of these is a potential pickup.
The Senate is another story. Their districts seem nicely drawn to protect incumbents of both parties with the GOP having slight edge. How convenient. Alas, don’t expect any sweeps here. It will come down to a seat here and a seat there.
One that’s hard fought is the seat being vacated by longtime Sen. Dick Black in the 13th District. This Loudon and Prince William district is part of the rapidly changing Northern Virginia exurbs, which now perform reliably for the Democrats. It could be a Democratic pickup. The same is true for Sen. Glen Stertevant seat in the 10th District that includes Richmond, Chesterfield and Powhatan. The area has become more and more Democratic since the last time Stertevant faced the voters and squeaked by in 2015.
In the end, it’s all about how much interest this election can generate and how that translates to a group of select races all over the state. I’m afraid it’s a tough environment for anyone trying to make predictions.
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.