David Kerr

In 2018 three of Virginia’s 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives changed parties.  Each sent a brand-new Democratic member to Congress.  What’s more,  the winners were all women, representing the largest female contingent Virginia has ever had in Congress.  The Democrats had a remarkable night.  

Now, however, in 2020, the question is will these Democrats be able to hold on to their seats and will the new open 5th District seat, thanks to the defeat of Rep. Denver Riggleman in the GOP primary, be competitive as well?  The answer isn’t as clear as it once was.

Not too long ago it would have been easy to predict that the incumbents in all three seats would win and that maybe even the new open seat would be a pickup for Democrats as well.  However, things look a little closer than they did just a couple of months ago.

One problem, in making any forecast, or assessing any aspect of the political landscape, is the pandemic.  COVID-19 has made it hard to discuss the campaigns, the sway of opinion, or even who is going to vote. 

Up to 40% of the electorate in Virginia has already requested an absentee ballot.  This makes pre-election day forecasts especially difficult, particularly when you realize that weeks before the election, many of those deciding the election will probably have already cast their ballots.

So, let’s have a look at the seats that are the most competitive.

One seat that seems fairly secure is the 10th District.  This is the seat that Jennifer Wexton took from Republican Barbara Comstock in a lopsided victory in 2018.  The reason for the shift was, yes, an anti-Trump backlash, but it was also because the demographics of the district have changed.  It was Congressman Frank Wolf’s safe seat for 30 years, but a changing economic base, new arrivals, and a younger electorate have made it more Democratic.  That’s why, even though Wexton is a freshman and the only Democrat elected in the district since the 1970s, she is likely to hold onto this seat with ease.

The same may not be true for the 7th District.  This seat was held by Dave Brat for three terms, and then, in a brilliantly executed campaign, Democrat Abigail Spanberger won in 2018.  Yes, the demographics of this seat have changed a little, but it’s still a decidedly conservative district.  Spanberger’s victory in 2018 was something of a surprise. 

Adding in the factor that the turnout will be far higher in a presidential election year, with potentially more GOP voters turning out (by mail or in person), will it swing back to the Republicans? Spanberger has a vigorous opponent in Nick Freitas.  Freitas is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, has decent name recognition and financing and knows that flipping the district is within his grasp.

The other seat that swung to the Democrats in 2018 is held by Rep. Elaine Luria in the 2nd District.  She is a retired U.S. Navy commander taking on the person she beat in 2018, Scott Taylor, one more time.  Taylor, also a Navy veteran -- a SEAL no less -- got in some trouble during that campaign for helping to try to qualify an independent candidate to run.  It wasn’t all above board, and although Taylor was cleared, it hurt him 2018 and may again in 2020.  One more factor to consider:  This district, unlike Spanberger’s, has gone Democratic before.  

As for the open seat, the 5th, where Riggleman lost in a drive-in firehouse primary to a virtual unknown, Bob Good, it’s all a big “if.”  Good faces Democratic nominee Dr. Cameron Webb.  

The only poll I’ve seen says it’s close, but, pray tell, how do you capture the opinion of a district that runs almost the entire width of Virginia, from the North Carolina border to Fauquier County?   This is usually a safe Republican seat, and unless there is some heavy-duty anti-Trump backlash in this region (this is generally friendly territory for Trump), that flip is hard to see.  

There are lots of challenges in running for Congress in a pandemic environment.  But, given the current climate, no matter how bizarre the campaign, it looks like several of these new members have tough fights on their hands.  

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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