In Virginia, Will Fundamentals Matter More Than Scandals?

Virginia Democrats had to be feeling pretty good about their chances to take control of the General Assembly this year — right up until scandal engulfed their top three state officials in February.

It seems inevitable that Democratic legislative candidates would suffer. The conventional wisdom hardened around this notion rather quickly.

But Randolph Macon College political science professor Lauren Cohen Bell says that view may be way off the mark.

“I don’t think the scandals are likely to have a huge effect on individual races this fall,” Bell said.

“Rather, the general assembly elections are likely to be decided by hyperlocal factors: Who are the candidates? Is the incumbent well liked? Who has the better campaign organization?”

In other words, the fundamentals still apply. That ought to come as a relief to Democrats, who ducked, bobbed and wove their way to the end of the General Assembly session.

And it’s something of a letdown for Republicans, who believed — not without reason — that the Northam/Fairfax/Herring debacles were priceless political gifts.

Bell said a key issue in the General Assembly elections has always been how many races are uncontested.

“Right now, of the 56 uncontested races in the House of Delegates, 35 of them are held by Democrats, and only 21 are held by Republicans,” Bell said. “Only 14 of the 44 contested seats are currently held by Democrats.”

Democrats, then, are recruiting more candidates for more races — expanding the playing field, and their chances, in November.

The federal courts have given them a leg-up, too, with new, court-ordered House district boundaries that could help Democrats flip up to half a dozen seats.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on those new district lines March 26.

But even with more candidates and better district lines, Bell thinks Republicans still “may have a slight edge” in overall voter turnout. And that’s because of the scandals.

“I am certain that the General Assembly Democrats would rather not have to be campaigning under the cloud of scandal in the executive branch.” Bell said.

“But both House and Senate races will be affected by the fact that the Virginia State Board of Elections has recorded about a half-million new registered voters in Virginia since 2015, and at least 200,000 since 2017.”

Bell said, “we know that the partisan skew of those who turn out (as evidenced in every election since then) has moved at least to some degree toward the Democrats.”

On balance, then, Bell said she would “probably give the Democrats the edge in November, barring any really significant changes between now and then.”

Which once again brings us back to fundamentals.

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Cover photo by First Virginia