It wasn’t even close.
Last night, after a brief, month-and-a-half long campaign that began March 1, Democrat Jackie Smith defeated veteran Republican legislator Jackson Miller to win the Clerk of Court race in Prince William County. Smith won by an eight point margin, 54% to 46%, garnering 13,905 votes to Miller’s 11,871 – which represents an abysmal turnout of 10% of Prince William’s over 256,000 registered voters.
Just two years ago, in 2015, Republican Michelle McQuigg defeated Jackie Smith in the regular election for the position. McQuigg won handily, beating Smith by slightly more than four points, 52% to 48%, receiving 34,394 votes to Smith’s 31,538, in a race with slightly less than 30% turnout. McQuigg, a former state Delegate and member of Prince William’s Board of Supervisors, passed away in February 2017, leaving the position vacant.
Smith is not a politician, but a local lawyer, and this was her second time running for elected office in Prince William County. Miller, like McQuigg before him, is a seasoned elected official, having won elections to both the Manassas City Council and having served in the House of Delegates since 2006. Miller served in the House leadership under Speaker Bill Howell, and has consistently won reelection in Prince William since his first election with more than 55% of the vote, and wasn’t even challenged by Democrats in 2011.
Miller outspent Smith close to seven-to-one, raising almost $200,000 to Smith’s $35,000. Republicans in Prince William control the Board of Supervisors 6-2, and Prince William’s House of Delegates delegation also 6 to 2, including some of Virginia’s most conservative elected officials like Bob Marshall. Democrats control 3 of 5 State Senate seats representing the county. The county is represented in Congress by Rob Wittman (R), Barbara Comstock (R) and Gerry Connolly (D).
The county is also home to Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart, who serves countywide as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, and won his last election campaign 57% to 43% countywide in 2015, the same election McQuigg won.
The point of all of this background is to make it clear – this was a race that most outside observers would have called for Jackson Miller. He was a sitting incumbent representing a portion of Prince William. He had access to help from a number of colleagues in the House of Delegates as well as on the Board of Supervisors, and at least one other countywide elected official who is actively running a campaign designed to appeal to Republican voters in a low-turnout election that is less than two months away. He had ample resources and higher name recognition than his opponent. In short, the deck was stacked against Jackie Smith and yet she prevailed. Not only did she prevail, the margin was much higher than anybody expected. This wasn’t a squeaker of an election.
This election result should force every Republican running for election or reelection in Virginia to sit up and take notice. This was a winnable race, with a well-funded veteran campaigner in a county filled with active GOP incumbents with good data. Yes, the county has been trending Democratic, but it remains winnable for Republicans. Prince William is a microcosm of Virginia as a whole. We should have won, but we didn’t.
Yesterday’s loss in Prince William looks like foreshadowing of bad results come November.
This win will provide momentum to Virginia Democrats who have been looking for wins since Donald Trump’s election last year. Even though Hillary Clinton won the Commonwealth by almost 5 points and Democrats gained a court-drawn Congressional seat, GOP control over the General Assembly, a majority of the Congressional seats, and now the White House, has left them hungry for electoral victories. Republicans, on the other hand, are doing what we tend to do whenever we have control – fight with each other. We are in the midst of an embarrassing gubernatorial primary, and one of the most disgusting Lieutenant Governor’s primary races in modern memory. President Trump’s low approval ratings and the motivation his election has created among liberal and progressive activists has manifested itself in grassroots organizing at a level we haven’t seen in Virginia from Democrats in a long, long time.
With a number of high profile retirements this year in the General Assembly, including Speaker Bill Howell, long-serving Fairfax Delegate Dave Albo, and Prince William’s Mark Dudenhefer, Republicans will be defending a number of open seats, including in Democratic areas like Fairfax. This, coupled with Democratic momentum as demonstrated in yesterday’s election in Prince William County, makes it likely that the GOP will have some significant difficulties in November.
If Republicans are going to weather to coming storm, a few things need to happen. First, we will need to put the divisiveness of the governor and LG races behind us as quickly as possible after June 13, and rally around our nominees, whoever they may be. Second, we need to stop fighting with each other and recognize that our true opponents are not each other, but the Democrats. We do not have the luxury, right now, to engage in the kind of internecine warfare that erupts when we have safe majorities and safe incumbents. It’s hard to understand how Miller could lose this race, especially with Corey Stewart sitting on a gold mine of targeting data not only from his successful 2015 campaign but also from his current gubernatorial campaign. Miller, however, endorsed Ed Gillespie for Governor, so it’s unlikely that Stewart did much to support Miller’s efforts. That was a mistake, because other than Miller, the biggest loser from yesterday’s election was Stewart. He let a countywide position fall to the Democrats on his watch as the most senior county-wide elected official in the GOP. Stewart will learn the hard way that allowing the Democrats a foothold county-wide is not going to make his job as Chairman any easier. Third, we cannot afford to take anything for granted. As the old saying goes, if you’re not running unopposed, you’re running scared, and it is likely that there are going to be a number of incumbents who have not had real races in quite a long time who may get caught napping if they aren’t careful. Nobody should go into this November thinking they are a shoo-in for any contested race, no matter how well they have done in the past. Anybody who doesn’t recognize the pitfalls and perils of the current political environment for Republicans is just looking to get upset in November.
Make no mistake – what happened in Prince William yesterday was the canary in the coal mine for the GOP. If we do not stop with the petty bickering, bear down and focus, we have the potential to lose anywhere from 5-10 seats in the House of Delegates and all three statewide races. Again. If we simply try to run the same campaigns we’ve run in the past, with candidates whose ideology does not fit the Virginia electorate, we are going to lose. It’s that simple. Republicans need to get fired up and they need to be ready to work hard to win.
The GOP has been winning nationally and, thanks to gerrymandering and incumbency, we have maintained our control over the General Assembly. But with Republicans in complete control of all three branches of the federal Government, Virginia state and local politics are going to become all the more difficult for GOP candidates. If we are going to defeat the Democrats in November, we need to take what happened yesterday in PWC for the warning signal that it was.