( – promoted by lowkell)
The announcement that the long-serving Virginia Beach Delegate Bob Tata will not be running for reelection in 2013 should not come as a surprise to political junkies. I had been predicting a likely retirement back in January of this year and encouraged Democrats to consider the district as a “must contest” in 2013 when the seat became open for the first time in almost three decades. While the 2012 election should rightly keep our primary attention for now, Tata’s announced retirement should serve as a reminder to Virginia Democrats that 2013 is just around the corner.
After the destructive elections of 2011 and 2009, Virginia House Democrats have good reasons to feel cynical about future prospects. The new Republican-drawn lines stack the deck against them and it will arguably take several cycles for population growth and demographic shifts to tilt the playing field back toward even. But a look back to the 2000s shows the Democrats that all was not right with the world before 2009 and the partisan redistricting that followed. The deck may be stacked against Democrats, but we’re making the job easier for the Republicans.
Over the last decade, Virginia Democrats made steady gains in the House of Delegates, before wipe outs in 2009 and 2011. A look back reveals that most of these gains were from special elections and winning open seats. Knocking off an entrenched incumbent was a rare occasion.
The House of Delegates’ last decades justifies Virginia’s title of “political museum piece.” After the dust settled from the 2001 redistricting, 17 seats were never, ever contested by a major party candidate. Not in 2003, or 2005, or 2007, or 2009. Three more were only contested during special elections over the decade. A total of only 18 seats switched hands in the entire decade between the two major parties, 19 when you count the seat temporarily held by Independent Katherine Waddell.
Bob Tata’s seat in Virginia Beach is one of the key exhibits in the political museum of Virginia. The seat was never contested during the 2000s. Not once. You have to go back to 1991 to find a year in which Tata faced a challenge from a Democratic candidate. Twenty years without a challenger.
I understand the counterargument is that Tata is a popular, relatively moderate Republican in a Republican leaning district, why prioritize going after him? But I’m not here to argue that Tata’s seat is one we must absolutely contest no matter what. Remember the poor track record that Democrats have in knocking off incumbents. Given the Republican tilt of the district, a challenge to Tata could be virtually hopeless. But if our successes have primarily come from open seats, each open seat has to be seriously considered for any change of a pickup opportunity.
The Virginia Beach based 85th seat is not a seat you’d normally list as potential pickup targets for the Democratic Party. It is not even an Obama district, Obama won 48% in 2008. Deed’s 36% is lackluster, although Jody Wagner received 42% and demonstrated strong crossover appeal in her home area despite being dragged down by the top of the ticket. But the seat’s Republican lean is not overwhelming, it would translate to an R+5 under Cook’s PVI based on the performances by Deeds and Obama, and unless there is another Democratic wipe out in 2013 we should expect the top of the ticket to be getting between 47% to 43% of the vote in the district.
There are more Democratic-leaning districts that the House Democrats have to contest and prioritize. But those districts will largely remain Democratic-leaning and arguably become even more blue in the next decade. Tata’s retirement is a once in a decade, or three decade, event. Should a Republican win in 2013, it is likely he or she will hold that district for years to come. But a Democratic win, while vulnerable in future years, would be a big step in helping beef up our bench in Virginia Beach, a Tidewater locality that overlaps with other, potentially competitive districts in the State Senate and in Congress.
The district may arguably be less Republican than R+5, given McDonnell at the top of the ticket in 2009. If Wagner’s 42% is seen as another effect of being from the area, we could use Shannon’s 38% (2% ahead of Deeds) to argue that the district might be closer to an R+4, which doesn’t change a lot but puts the expected Democratic performance in a close election closer to 48% to 44%.
Tata’s retirement is just one reminder that 2013 is around the corner and Virginia Democrats need to start to think ahead now to build on whatever advantages we can find next year.