In Virginia’s General Assembly Races, Turnout Is Paramount

It’s prediction season in Virginia politics, that magical time of year when professional and armchair analysts alike make their guesses on which party will control the General Assembly in January.

One of the more prescient prognosticators is Christopher Newport University’s Rachel Bitecofer, who recently published a preview of the Nov. 5 elections.

Her take: The outcome depends on who shows up to vote.

That may seem obvious. But in Virginia’s off-off year elections, turnout is paramount.

What does that mean for Nov. 5? Bitecofer puts it this way:

Turnout is too unpredictable. If overall turnout exceeds 31 percent, Nov. 5 is likely to be a good day for Democrats.

In 1999, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly were up for election, the then-ascendant Republicans maintained their control of the Senate and won control of the House of Delegates for the first time since Reconstruction.

The partisan makeup of the General Assembly heading into that historic election? It was eerily similar to what we have today.

Republicans controlled the Senate 21-19. In the House, Democrats had a 50-49 advantage, with one GOP-leaning independent.

Turnout in the 1999 elections: 36.1 percent — the highest off-off year election turnout in the Motor Voter era.

Yes, turnout does matter. An expanded pool of enthusiastic voters can make all sort of legislative districts change partisan hands, as they did in 1999 and in 2017.

Will it happen this November? Bitecofer writes that even if Democrats lose some of the House districts they picked up in 2017’s wave election — she says the 10th, 68th and 80th are the most likely to return to GOP control — districts such as the 94th, which the GOP won via a random drawing in 2017, and the redrawn 76th “seem primed to flip to Democrats under even the most modest Democratic turnout surge models.”

But Democrats should not start shopping for chairmen’s gavels just yet.

“Even with the benefits of the court-ordered redistricting,” Bitecofer writes, “if the electorate looks like it did in 2015 in terms of its partisan composition, Democrats will come up short of a majority and may even lose ground.”

Bitecofer says such an outcome is “hard to imagine.”

But we need to keep in mind that Virginia Republicans — despite their increasingly creative efforts to the contrary — aren’t dead yet.

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