Most Virginia political observers will turn their eyes Tuesday to the 6th Senate District, where Republican Wayne Coleman and Democrat Lynwood Lewis are running for Ralph Northam’s vacant seat and ultimately for control of the General Assembly’s upper house.
The other special election on Tuesday, between Republican Octavia Johnson and Democrat Sam Rasoul for 11th House District seat made vacant by the abrupt retirement of Del. Onzlee Ware, largely has been ignored outside of Roanoke.
That’s understandable: 1) The district, which is located entirely within the city of Roanoke, has long been considered safe for Democrats, so from a distance it looks uncompetitive; and 2) This race would appear to have few ramifications in the big picture since Republicans already hold a large advantage in the House of Delegates.
Politicos sleep on this race at their own peril, however. At the very least they’ll miss out on an entertaining opportunity to watch dysfunctional politics in action — and if things fall perfectly for the Republicans this could mark the last stand of House Democrats in western Virginia.
To start, Rasoul comes into this race with no elected experience, having twice run and lost. He challenged Congressman Bob Goodlatte in 2008 and did better than any of Goodlatte’s previous opponents, including Stephen Musselwhite in 1992 when the seat was open. That distinction is a bit misleading, however: Despite a Democratic wave that rode the Barack Obama’s coattails to snatch a short-lived majority of Virginia’s congressional seats, Goodlatte still won easily with 62 percent of the vote.
Last year, Rasoul moved into Roanoke and unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Roanoke Mayor David Bowers in a firehouse primary. When Ware announced his retirement late last year, Rasoul quickly entered the race to succeed him and won a four-way firehouse primary over a field that included two sitting city council members. He enters Tuesday’s special election with a base of motivated supporters and a get-out-the-vote network built through running in two primaries in as many years.
However — as often happens with one party enjoys political dominance in a locality — Roanoke Democrats have splintered into factions. Democratic intraparty squabbles historically have created opportunities for Republicans, including the rise of Ralph Smith, who first won election as mayor of Roanoke in 2000 and now represents the 19th District in the Virginia Senate.
Factionalism continues to run rampant in the Roanoke Democratic party. Two of the three incumbent Democrats up for re-election to the city council in May have opted to run as independents. The third, who finished second to Rasoul in the 11th District primary, is sticking with his party label but says he’ll support his fellow incumbents.
This dysfunction, along with an unspoken but likely hope among some ambitious Roanoke Democrats that their nominee will fail on Tuesday and therefore leave an opportunity in 2015, creates a chaotic atmosphere that could sabotage what should be a smooth ride for Rasoul.
That leaves the door wide open for Republicans to take the last Democratic House seat west of Charlottesville. The GOP would seem to have a strong candidate too: Octavia Johnson twice won election as sheriff of Roanoke. She’s a black woman who twice beat white men before finally going down to defeat to an African-American candidate in November.
The GOP has pumped plenty of money to ensure victory: According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Johnson has outraised Rasoul, $121,240 to $108,351 so far. House Speaker Bill Howell’s PAC has contributed more than $80,000, while the RPV has put in nearly $30,000 on top of that. Ken Cuccinelli’s chipped in too, disbursing $5,000 of money left over from his gubernatorial campaign to Johnson.
The House Republican Caucus should not be underestimated in special elections, either: Remember it came just 16 votes of snatching Brian Moran’s open seat away from Charniele Herring in 2009.
Still, it’s almost easier to find reasons why Johnson will lose than why she’ll win.
Consider the historically weak Roanoke City Republican party structure. Amid all the chaos among the city Democrats at present, it will not be a surprise if the city GOP still fails to field a single council candidate, much less a full ticket. The city party’s GOTV operation under-performs on a regular basis. It fielded candidates in 2012, 2010 and 2006 — the latter being another time when the Democrats had splintered and fielded warring slates of party and independent candidates — but got shut out every time.
Ware easily won re-election throughout his term in the House — most years without a GOP challenger. And in 2011’s marquee Senate match-up for western Virginia — Republican Dave Nutter versus Democrat John Edwards — Nutter got blown out in Roanoke, winning just under 37 percent of the vote.
Even Bob Goodlatte has faced a challenge winning Roanoke, especially in presidential years. Rasoul beat him there in 2008, and Andy Schmookler — who couldn’t even get to 35 percent in the greater 6th Congressional District — still managed to win Roanoke in 2012.
To make matters worse, the Roanoke Tea Party, which drives a small but dedicated group of grassroots activists in the city and beyond, has all but directed its supporters to sit this special election out (largely because Johnson has appeared with Goodlatte, who has become a target of the RTP).
Johnson hasn’t done much to motivate Republicans, either. Her campaign website gives extensive details on her time as sheriff but includes little of substance about issues, and certainly very little to distinguish her from Rasoul.
From her homepage, here’s Johnson’s statement about business and economic development issues: “To help create good jobs in our region, I will promote small businesses, increase access to workforce training and development programs, and facilitate outreach between the business community and minority groups in our community.”
It’s hard to imagine that fires up the imaginations and passions of Roanoke’s business community, whose support is essential to winning election (especially for Republicans).
Conventional wisdom has it that Johnson can win this race by appealing to Roanoke’s African-American population, who can swing a race when it turns out. The question is whether she can motivate those voters to come to the polls when her race is the only one on the ballot.
Special elections are decided by which candidate can better deliver their supporters to the polling places. If you’re watching the returns on Tuesday, a few key precincts may help serve as indicators:
- Williamson 1 – 6: The Williamson Road corridor has become a key to winning Roanoke. In 2000 it served as a beachhead for Smith, who successfully appealed to the working-class voters in these neighborhoods. If Johnson wins a majority of the Williamson Road precincts, that’s a good sign for her.
- Melrose: It’s not the largest of Roanoke’s several African-American heavy precincts, but it’s the one that Obama won by the largest margin in 2012, taking 98 percent of the vote. This precinct will be an indicator whether Johnson can make substantial inroads among black voters, who usually vote Democratic but will cross party lines for a good African-American candidate.
- Raleigh Court 1- 5: Like Williamson Road, these precincts can help indicate a greater wave. In 2012 they split between Romney and Obama by varying degrees. A sweep by one candidate likely indicates a win.
- South Roanoke 1 & 2: Conventional political wisdom has it that Republicans must run up big totals among the business-friendly voters here to have a chance. The dynamics in this special election throw that out the window, but it’s still worth a look to see if the city’s traditional Republican base is coming out for Johnson or sitting this election out.
Mason Adams grew up in the Alleghany Highlands and now lives on the edge of the Blue Ridge Plateau. He spent several years covering Virginia politics and refereeing roller derby, which are essentially the same thing. Follow him @MasonAdamsVA.