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Since 2001, Only 7 Incumbent VA GOP Delegates Have Lost; Will 2017 Be Different?

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The point of this post isn’t to get everyone all depressed, but simply a reality check – based on Virginia House of Delegates elections since 2001 – regarding what we’re up against this November. That includes the fact that Virginia House of Delegates Republicans have a large fundraising advantage over Democrats

Important caveat: this year could end up being very different than previous Virginia elections, for two big reasons. First, we’ve got a very unpopular Donald Trump is in the White House, something that has energized Democrats ‘bigly,” as Trump might say. Second, we have an unprecedented number of Democrats running for House of Delegates this cycle against Republican incumbents OR in open seats that are currently held by a Republican (e.g., HD-2, HD-28, HD-42, HD-56, HD-64, HD-72): a whopping 56, according to VPAP, compared to previous highs of 39 in 2013, 32 in 2009, 29 in 2007, 28 in 2015 and just 16 in 2011.

With that, here’s a short review of Democrats since 2001 who have unseated Republican incumbents.

2001: Chap Petersen (D) defeated incumbent Del. John Rust (R) by a 52%-48% margin in the 37th House of Delegates district. Note that this was a gubernatorial election year, in which Mark Warner (D) won the governor’s race by a 5-point (52%-47%) margin over Republican Mark Earley, but in which Democrats went from 47 to just 34 members in the House of Delegates (following the 2001 GOP-controlled redistricting/gerrymandering).

2003: Mark Sickles (D) defeated incumbent Del. Tom Bolvin (R) by a 54%-46% margin in the increasingly “blue” 43rd House of Delegates district.

2005: David Poisson (D) defeated incumbent Del. Dick Black (R) by a 53%-47% margin in the 32nd House of Delegates district. Note that this was a gubernatorial election year, in which Tim Kaine (D) defeated Jerry Kilgore (R) by 6 points (52%-46%) and in which Democrats gained three seats in the House of Delegates.

2007: Bobby Matthieson (D) defeated incumbent Del. John Welch (R) by a 58%-42% margin in the competitive/”purple” 21st House of Delegates district (currently held by Del. Ron Villaneuva, a Republican who is facing a tough race for reelection this year).

2009: Robin Abbott (D) defeated incumbent Del. Phil Hamilton (R) in the 93rd House of Delegates district, despite the Democratic statewide ticket (Creigh Deeds, Jody Wagner, Steve Shannon) getting blown out by Republicans Bob McDonnell, Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli. How did Abbott buck the “red” tide? In short, Hamilton was under investigation for ethics violations, later indicted on federal bribery and extortion charges

2011: Democrats defeated zero Republican incumbents.

2013: Monty Mason (D) defeated incumbent Del. Michael Watson (R) in the 93rd House of Delegates district. Michael Futrell (D) defeated incumbent Del. Mark Dudenhefer (R) in the 2nd House of Delegates district. This was a statewide election year in which Democrats Terry McAuliffe, Ralph Northam and Mark Herring defeated Republicans Ken Cuccinelli, EW Jackson and Mark Obenshain by a relatively narrow margin (2.5 points for McAuliffe, 10 points for Northam, 165 votes in a recount for Herring). Also worth noting is that Democrats lost a bunch of close House of Delegates races that year (Bob Marshall 51%-Atif Qarni 48%; Scott Lingamfelter 50.4%-Jeremy McPike 49.4%; Tag Greason 51.4%-Elizabeth Miller 48.5%; Barbara Comstock 50.6%-Kathleen Murphy 49.2%; Tom Rust 50.1%-Jennifer Boysko 49.9%; David Ramadan 50.3%-John Bell 49.4%; David Yancey 51.2%-Robert Farinholt 48.6%), so a bigger win for the top of the ticket could easily have led to a half dozen more Democratic wins, not the “net one” pickup we managed that election day. This really illustrates the importance of the top of the ticket not just winning, but winning as big as possible, both to help the LG and AG candidates and also so that Democrats might pick up the maximum number of seats in the House of Delegates.

2015: Democrats defeated zero Republican incumbents (and also managed to not take back the State Senate).

What lessons should we draw from these historical results? First, I’d argue that the more Republicans we challenge, the better. Second, of course, we need strong candidates and well-funded, well-run campaigns. Third, it’s very hard to defeat incumbents for a variety of reasons ($$$ being a big one, as well as the fact that at least some voters might split their ballots – Dem for statewide offices, Republican for House of Delegates). Fourth, this year might – emphasis on MIGHT – be different, given how many districts in which Democrats are challenging Republican incumbents, also the intensity advantage Democrats demonstrated on June 13. The question is whether Republicans’ big money advantage and more experienced candidates/campaigns will be able to counter what COULD be a “blue wave” on November 7. Finally, we need as big a win as possible at the top of the ticket, both to help elect Justin Fairfax LG and reelect Mark Herring AG, but also to pick up as many of the 17 House of Delegates districts won by Hillary Clinton but currently held by Republicans…

P.S. For my ranking of Virginia House of Delegates districts by competitiveness, see here. For more recent Virginia House of Delegates race ratings, see here.