Three Takeaways from the 11th HOD Special Election

By Mason Adams

Last week I wrote here that Virginia Republicans had a shot to snag the 11th State House District away from Democrats “if things fall perfectly.”

Clearly that didn’t happen.

Democrat Sam Rasoul defeated Republican Octavia Johnson in a landslide. Rasoul won 70 percent of the vote to Johnson’s 30 percent. He lost only two of the district’s 27 precincts and tied her in one.

Here are 3 takeaways from last night’s election:

* Rasoul ran a stellar campaign.

rasoulsaYou may not like Rasoul personally. If you’re a regular Bearing Drift reader, you almost certainly don’t like his politics (his election signifies a leftward tilt from the left-center politics of Onzlee Ware, a Democrat often criticized by Roanoke progressives for his working relationship with Republicans and a guaranteed number of votes per session that broke with the House Democratic Caucus). You may be suspicious of his donors.

But Rasoul deserves credit for running this race to perfection. There are plenty of jokes to be made about the Peter Principle and the third time being a charm, but he clearly learned from his failed 2008 congressional campaign and 2012 mayoral run. He learned from those losses and built the network of grassroots support that carried him to victory on Tuesday.

When Ware announced his retirement, Rasoul moved quickly to announce his candidacy and leveraged his support network to win a firehouse primary over a field that included two sitting Roanoke City Council members. He articulated his platform clearly, which motivated his base. He used social media, email and traditional media outlets to campaign.

On Election Day, that all paid off and delivered him victory.

* Johnson ran an awful campaign.

johnsonocOn the surface it’s easy to see why Johnson appealed to the state GOP. She’s a black woman who previously had run well in the city’s most Democratic precincts. If elected, she would help diversify the House Republican Caucus and potentially prove able to hold the seat against future challengers.

But with hindsight, that all falls apart. Johnson had just come off a defeat in November, and looking back now her previous wins aren’t as impressive. Her first win came in 2005 over a beleaguered incumbent sheriff mired in a sexual harassment scandal, and she still barely edged over 50 percent. In ’09 she won re-election, but even in a three-way race she defeated the 2nd place finisher by only 139 votes, or 0.7 percent.

Her efforts in this state House race look uniformly uninspiring as well. Her campaign website offered little, aside from a list of her technical accomplishments as sheriff, a promise to follow Ware’s example in the General Assembly and a list of platitudes that sound good but hold substance. Johnson also declined invitations by local organizations to speak or to debate Rasoul. Acting as a blank slate for voters to project their hopes isn’t an entirely bad strategy in some cases, but in this special election for a seat in a demographically blue district, Johnson had to motivate Republicans. The GOP touts itself as the “party of ideas” but Johnson didn’t offer anything of the sort.

Her media presence wasn’t much better. The dominant image of Johnson during the election was her walking tour with 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte. Out of context, that’s not a bad thing, but it earned her a “Why Get Off the Couch?” post from the Roanoke Tea Party. Worse, Johnson needed crossover votes in heavily African-American precincts in Northwest Roanoke. Widespread media coverage of an appearance with a vocal critic of President Obama while trying to appeal to neighborhoods where Obama is highly popular creates a cognitive dissonance that clearly hurt Johnson on Election Day. That’s not a value judgment – just an observation that trying to be everything to everyone clearly doesn’t work as an election strategy.

One final thought on Johnson’s campaign? She outraised Rasoul $121,240 to $108,351 according to the most recent figures from the Virginia Public Access Project. That figure includes $100,000 from House Speaker Bill Howell’s Dominion Leadership Trust. That means she raised $56 per vote received — and she still couldn’t get to 30 percent.

* The Roanoke City Republican Party is a mess.

This isn’t exactly news to anyone who’s paid attention. Whether as a result of urban flight into the surrounding localities, a tough demographic situation or general incompetence, the Roanoke GOP really has had a tough go the last several years.

Republicans haven’t elected anyone to the Roanoke City Council since 2000, meaning that this year marks a full decade since the council dais has been inhabited by anyone from the GOP. In some years they haven’t even fielded a candidate.

The last two years have been particularly dire. The Roanoke City Republican Committee’s current chairman, John Brill, inherited a mayoral candidate that came within 348 votes (just under 4 percentage points) of knocking off an incumbent Democrat. But look at what his committee’s done since then:

* November 2012: Democrats won Roanoke outright in the presidential, U.S. Senate and 6th District congressional races. (The Democrat who beat Goodlatte in Roanoke failed to reach 35 percent in the greater 6th District.)

* November 2013: Republicans failed to field a challenger to Ware and get swept in elections for city constitutional officers, including incumbent Johnson’s run for sheriff. Democrats also swept the statewide offices in Roanoke.

* January 2014: Johnson fails to win even 30 percent of the vote in a race for an open seat.

Even as Democrats splinter yet again headed into the 2014 city council elections – two of the three Democratic incumbents will run as independents and the third is endorsing them, even while maintaining his party label – it’s quite possible that Republicans will fail to field a single challenger to take advantage of the chaos.

There are two silver linings for Republicans in all of this. First, they still represent a share of the city in the House of Delegates. Del. Chris Head, who represents chunks of Botetourt County and Roanoke County, also has five city precincts, of which he won all but one in 2013. Second, former Del. William Fralin has remained an active Republican, both as a donor and with his involvement in a variety of civic groups.

Mason Adams grew up in the Alleghany Highlands and now lives on the edge of the Blue Ridge Plateau. He covered local government and politics for the Roanoke Times until late 2012. He also spent four years refereeing roller derby, which is very similar. Follow him @MasonAdamsVA.

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