Democrats Start 2013 Behind in Southwest Virginia

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    Cross posted to Virginia’s newest political blog, The Real Crystal Ball!

    It’s just days away from the candidate filing deadline for the Virginia House of Delegates. Many Southwest localities have a tradition of conventions, not primaries, so the impending doom facing Virginia Democrats may actually be delayed beyond March 28th. But from this vantage point Virginia Democrats are starting out from way behind in Southwest Virginia. Longtime popular Democrat Joe Johnson has called it quits, getting out while he’s still ahead.

    Here’s how bad this news is for the Democrats.

    Here’s how bad this news is for the Democrats.

    Johnson has not been challenged since 1989. George Bush was President then. No, the OTHER George Bush.

    Here’s just a brief glimpse of how the 4th District has changed in recent times, not even going back to the last time Michael Dukakis was on the ballot.

    In 2004, that other Massachusetts liberal running against a Bush received 34.4% of the vote in the 4th District. Only 13 other districts were more Republican than the 4th that year.

    The following year, 2005, Tim Kaine received only 36% of the vote against Southwest Virginia’s own Terry Kilgore. Local Virginia Democrats tend to do better than liberal national Democrats, but Kaine was facing off against a well known Southwest Virginian Republican. Kaine managed to run ahead of Kerry, although not by much. But it was still better than his performance in three other Delegate districts, all in Southwest Virginia, where Kaine ran behind Kerry.

    In 2008, Barack Obama may history by winning Virginia, the first time a Democrat had won the Commonwealth since 1964. Despite running ahead of Kerry across the nation and the Commonwealth, he managed to finish only at 34.7% in Johnson’s 4th District. Only six districts were more Republican.

    Redistricting actually made the 4th more Democratic, as Republicans sliced up Southwest Virginia in order to eliminate at least one Democrat. Creigh Deeds, the country lawyer who honed his rhetoric for rural jurors, won 26.9% under the old lines but jumped to an impressive 32.3% under the new lines. Deeds Country!

    In 2012, the 4th was one of three Southwest districts to swing sharply to the right. Obama received only 30% of the vote, down almost 9 points from his 2008 performance. Which was already disappointing when compared to Kerry’s performance. Which set an extremely low floor that Kaine only barely outperformed in 2005. Which only looks good for a Virginia Democrat when compared to Creigh Deeds.

    Unless Mark Warner himself runs for office, this seat is going to be gone, gone, gone for Virginia Democrats. Johnson would have been in for a tough fight if Republicans had ever ran against him. Much like Phil Puckett he might have been able to hang on, or he could have joined Rick Boucher in the formerly elected Southwest Virginian Democrats club. But this is a very big uphill climb for any local Democrat when you consider that they will be swimming upstream against an overwhelming landslide for Republicans at the top of the ticket.

    To put this in perspective, in 2008, when Barack Obama was losing this district with 39% of the vote, Mark Warner was running 22 point ahead of Obama and winning with 61% of the vote. That was Mark “I love Southwest Virginia so much my blood is a blend of NASCAR fuel and coal” Warner running against the world’s most incompetent Republican candidate. And that was before Obama’s “War on Coal,” the defeat of Rick Boucher, and an even sharper swing to the right in Southwest Virginia.

    Today, the Democratic brand is much, much weaker in Southwest Virginia and you need to find a candidate with the sort of independence that a Mark Warner has. Tim Kaine ran 4 points ahead of Obama in this district in 2012, but still lost the district. The local congressional candidate, who never had a chance and never had any major support, ran 10 points ahead of Obama … and still lost the district.

    In 2009, multiple incumbent delegates ran significantly ahead of Creigh Deeds. Ward Armstrong ran 22 points ahead of Creigh Deeds, Lynwood Lewis ran 23 points ahead, Albert Pollard was 18 points ahead, Paula Miller in Tidewater was 18 points ahead, Shannon Valentine in Lynchburg ran 11 points ahead of the top of the ticket, Bill Barlow ran 11 points ahead, and Dan Bowling ran 10 points ahead in the 3rd District. This list includes some incredibly strong and popular incumbents. You would need someone on the Armstrong, Lewis, Pollard and Miller range of popularity in spite of an unpopular top of the ticket in order to win the 4th District. And you’d need to find that level of popularity without a history of incumbency. In 2009 no Democrat in an open seat ran that far ahead of the top of the ticket. Luke Torian, 4 points ahead of Deeds, was the only one to run well in a competitive district. And 4 points ahead of Terry McAuliffe means you’re still blown out of the water in the 4th District. I would be shocked if McAuliffe breaks 35% in this district.

    Even back in 2005, when Democrats were doing well in Virginia, not a single Democrat in an open seat managed to run ahead of Kaine by double digits. Lowell Fulk, an incredibly strong and popular Democratic candidate in Rockingham/Harrisonburg, ran 6 points ahead of Tim Kaine, the best for any Democratic challenger in an open seat in 2005. He still lost, and this district is MUCH worse for Democrats than the 26th. Having ran before, Fulk started off with significantly higher name ID than his opponent. And he still lost. He managed to run 6 points ahead of the top of the ticket. To keep the 4th, Virginia Democrats need to find someone who could run closer to 20 points ahead of the ticket.

    Let’s summarize.

    Even if he wins, McAuliffe is going to be lucky to break 35% in this district. Something closer to 30% is more likely.

    It would take an incredibly strong Democratic challenger to run far enough ahead of the ticket to make this competitive. Finding someone who’s not an incumbent and who hasn’t run before yet is somehow that popular seems nigh impossible.

    Even if you find the right candidate, it would be a tough fight, in which Virginia Democrats would be sinking resources into an area that does little to help the top of the ticket, and will elect a “Democrat” who will always vote against gun control, always vote for the interests of the coal industry, and will frustrate the socially liberal, tree hugging activists who make up a large part of the Democratic base.

    Is it worth it?

    There’s a Part Two to this post coming soon, talking about the 6th District. Stay tuned.

    • Isaac Sarver

      The Democratic Party has to contest seats in every corner of the state, from Lee County to Norfolk. You win with a strong offense, and the main reason Republicans have a veto-proof majority because they run candidates in a considerable number of seats.

      The 4th House of Delegates seat became much more Democratic in 2011 after absorbing the blue precincts of Dickenson and Russell County in Bud Phillip’s old 2nd District. I am confident that we can find a strong Democratic challenger in this seat. One thing you neglect to mention above is that Bud Phillips ran 15 to 25 points ahead of Tim Kaine in various precincts during a contested HOD race in 2005. Yes, he was an incumbent member of the House of Delegates, but with the proper messaging, fundraising, and an aggressive field operation there is no reason a challenger shouldn’t be able to do the same.

    • Paba

      “Even if you find the right candidate, it would be a tough fight, in which Virginia Democrats would be sinking resources into an area that does little to help the top of the ticket, and will elect a “Democrat” who will always vote against gun control, always vote for the interests of the coal industry, and will frustrate the socially liberal, tree hugging activists who make up a large part of the Democratic base.”

      And there are 51 seats that line up nicely with this sort of rationale right now?

      This sort of talk always sounds to me like the same sort of rationale we here from the “wait for the demographic tidal wave!” crowd. I’m not trying to justify any of those positions, I’m just saying that you may need some pro-gun Democrats to protect education and Medicaid funding from a GOP that universally wants to take an ax to those things as of late.

      You’re either going to need a big tent, or you’re going to end up feeling a lot like Jim DeMint and the “I’d rather have 30 pure believers and lose than ever have a chance to enact anything positive” crowd.

      I also pose this question: does your preferred targeting strategy eschew a sort of state-level “50 state strategy” to spread GOP resources thin, or do you figure that you’d rather focus everything in 20 or so districts knowing that the GOP will still outspend you? At least when you spread them thin and provide minimal resources, you have a chance to act on late breaking news.