Home 2018 Elections Why Arlington’s Only Elected Republican Could Be Toast This November

Why Arlington’s Only Elected Republican Could Be Toast This November


Four years ago, in 2014, Republican John Vihstadt – running as a self-proclaimed “Independent” – shocked Arlington Democrats by first defeating the Democratic nominee for County Board, Alan Howze, in a special election (57%-41%) and then in the November general election (56%-44%). Note that although Vihstadt calls himself an “Independent,” over the years he has donated to McCain/Palin, Romney/Ryan, the Nebraska Republican Party, George W. Bush and many other national and local Republicans (check the FEC database and also VPAP and see for yourself). Vihstadt also is included here in a list of “Arlington Republican activists” supporting Jeff Miller for Arlington County Republican Chairman. So…yeah, the guy has been a lifelong Republican, that is until he decided to run for County Board in deep-blue Arlington – as an “Independent.” Uh huh…

Regardless of how honest (or not) Vihstadt is, clearly he was a formidable candidate; in the 2014 general election, Vihstadt received 34,986 votes (55.8%) to Howze’s 27,485 (43.8%) — a big victory by almost any metric. Even more surprising was that there was a U.S. Senate race on the ballot as well that year, with Sen. Mark Warner (D) winning Arlington County 47,709 (71%)-18,239 (27%) over Republican Ed Gillespie (note: 1,660 votes also went to Libertarian Robert Sarvis). Note that the Democratic Arlington County Board candidate received around 20,000 (!) fewer votes than Sen. Mark Warner, while Republican…er, “Independent” John Vihstadt received nearly 17,000 (!) more votes than Ed Gillespie.

Given all that, why on earth would I possibly say that Vihstadt could be toast this November?  Several reasons.

  1. 2014 was a horrendous year for Democrats, whereas 2018 is shaping up as a possible “blue wave” election year, in which Democrats romp to victory, fueled in large part by Democratic fury at Donald Trump. In other words, 2018 is a TOTALLY different political environment than 2014 – to the advantage of the Democrats.
  2. I like Alan Howze personally, but he was simply not a strong candidate in 2014. The key for Democrats in 2018, obviously, will be to nominate someone a lot more forceful and effective than Howze was in 2014.
  3. In 2014, there were specific issues – and anger – in Arlington which Vihstadt was willing and able to capitalize on. Those issues, whether we’re talking about the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, the Artisphere, the proposed aquatic center (“gold plated,” with a “lazy river” no less, per Vihstadt’s demagoguery), a “million-dollar dog park” (note that in Arlington, a fairly typical townhouse often goes for $1 million, so…big barkin’ deal), are no longer present in 2018. Nor is the anger about some or all of those projects — anger that Vihstadt was able to tap, irresponsibly but effectively, in 2014 — present in 2018.
  4. Also in 2014, there was a lot of anger at Arlington County Board members’ “arrogance,” “insularity,” etc. And again, Vihstadt ran against that, while Howze was in a very difficult position — even if he had wanted to distance himself from his fellow Democrats, it would have been difficult. Today, the Arlington County Board is almost completely different than it was in 2014, with the exception of Vihstadt ally Libby Garvey (first elected in 2012). And as far as I’m aware, there’s no particular anger at Katie Cristol, Christian Dorsey or Erik Gutshall (to the contrary, they seem to be well liked) for Vihstadt to run against.
  5. What we saw in Virginia in 2017 was voters coming out in droves with one thing in mind – vote against Republicans, and vote FOR Democrats, up and down the ballot. If that’s the case this November, it bodes well for the Democratic nominee for Arlington County Board.
  6. Last but not least, this November there will be a hotly contested race for U.S. Senate, with Sen. Tim Kaine facing off against one of three possible Republican nominees – extremist/bigot EW Jackson, neo-Confederate Corey Stewart or…this guy. In Arlington, it’s likely that Kaine will rack up a huge margin of victory over any of those right wingnuts, perhaps somewhere around 75%-25% (a 50-point margin). Which will mean that the Democratic nominee for Arlington County Board can afford to shed a slew of Kaine/Vihstadt voters (I’m assuming there are some) and still win the election. Quick math: let’s say it’s a 50-point margin for Kaine and turnout is high given anti-Trump fervor; we’re talking about potentially a MUCH higher margin of victory than Warner saw in 2014, possibly 50k or higher, as opposed to Warner’s relatively small 30k margin (note that Alan Howze underperformed Warner by around 20k votes in 2014). That’s a TON of possible Kaine/Vihstadt votes for the Democratic County Board nominee to shed — and still win the election.

Of course, none of this by any stretch of the imagination guarantees a Democratic victory for Arlington County Board this November.  But if I had to put a probability on it right now, I’d go with a 60% chance that the Democratic nominee – assuming he or she runs a strong campaign – will defeat Vihstadt in just over 9 months…

P.S. According to VPAP, there are two Democrats currently filed for the Arlington County Board nomination — Matt de Ferranti and Chanda Choun.

  • dave schutz

    This reminds me somewhat of Mary Hynes telling everyone who would listen that the power of the Democratic sample ballot would bring Alan Howze to victory in the general, that John Vihstadt’s victory in the special had been a fluke. I took that day off from work to watch my kids, since the schools were closed, and my wife covered for me while I handed out Vihstadt flyers at Patrick Henry School. One of the two Dem poll workers who were handing out that sample ballot would barely speak to me, the other confided that she had voted for Vihstadt earlier in the day.
    As Dems we keep expressing wistfulness for the moderate sensible Main Street Reeps of yesteryear, except that when we actually encounter a moderate sensible Main Street Reep it’s Katie bar the door. And Vihstadt seems to me to have been operating as an independent in his Board service. I am grateful for his role in stopping the Pike Trolley, and I think the Board’s auditor is a good idea.
    The overwhelming majority of my votes have been for Dems, but it’s my intention to vote for Vihstadt in November. That seems to me to be the most common sentiment in the living rooms I frequent – obviously I have no way to know about the rest of Arlington’s living rooms.

    • Re-read the post and tell me specifically what you disagree with and why.

      • dave schutz

        Oh my, that’s an invitation. I thought and think that Alan Howze was a very strong candidate: worked hard, consistently genial, remembered people well. He had a very good history and background in the commission system and from working in the governor’s office.
        I think your point 1 is quite right, and will constitute a problem for Vihstadt in seeking reelection. On your point 4, I don’t see much grousing against the Board as a whole, but I did hear complaints about the use of the caucus as a mechanism which depressed voter turnout in the process which picked Erik Gutshall – this may, or may not, be vitiated by the Dems’ choice to do a primary to choose their candidate for Board. There are voters who think as I do that the Board is stronger if it has a wider spectrum of opinion, how many of them there are I doubt either of us knows. On point three, I was and am absolutely with Vihstadt in thinking the Board had abandoned all semblance of fiscal prudence, so I reject your characterization of him as a demagogue, and I see lasting gratitude to him on the part of others for his role in resisting thriftlessness – but, again, we all only see the living rooms in which we are guests, and I am sure there are many living rooms where he is seen as the Grinch who stole Christmas.
        He and Katie Cristol are the Stakhanovite Caucus on the Board, nobody works harder than they. No subway stop, no farmers market goes uncampaigned-at for those two. He has talked at huge numbers of civic associations and other events. There was a nice line about Bill Clinton – ‘the groom at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral’ – that’s the kind of campaigner he has been. So I think he has built up a lot of good will, and that his chances are better than even.
        Arlington is a place where dislike for Trump is very strong, and if Vihstadt had run as a Republican (and if he hadn’t, at the time of the election, announced that he had voted for neither Clinton nor Trump) I think our near-unanimous municipal disdain for Trump would have posed a, shall I say it, yuuuuge problem for him. Even as an Independent with a Republican history I think you are likely right that Trump’s presence across the river poses a problem for Vihstadt. How big, we will see.

        • Thanks for this answer; I agree with some parts, disagree with other parts, but no doubt your response achieved memorable – bordering on classic – status with the line, “He and Katie Cristol are the Stakhanovite Caucus on the Board.” 😉 I actually had to Google that one; the first thing that popped up was “a worker in the former Soviet Union who was exceptionally hardworking and productive.” I’ll have to ask Katie sometime if she considers herself a Stahanovite, and if so whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – lol.

  • Ann

    I have never voted for anyone but a Democrat in my long life, but you are wrong. Vihstadt is a schools guy who has won friends with many Arlington factions, including LGBT community and disabled community. He is responsive to constituents. As Tip Said, “All politics is local.” I will work hard this Fall to re-elect Democrats, but I’m not going to try against Vihstadt.

    • Just as I asked Dave Schutz, can you go through my analysis and tell me specifically what you disagree with and why? Thanks.

      • Ann

        Your analysis is all based on generalizations about Democratic year, voter anger, etc. it’s all irrelevant. Vihstadt shows up. He reaches out to voters about specific concerns, votes the way a lot of Democrats like on specific issues, and a lot of Democrats I know don’t mind having a counter balance on the Board. I’m not saying I’d vote for him, but all out running against him might hurt the Arlington turnout for re-election of other Democrats. When I do get out the vote, I’ll focus on turnout for other Democrats.

      • Ann

        There is one other thing. Vihstadt helped a lot on an issue about services for disabled while other Board members initially refused to help. (This was before Katie was elected). A lot of constituents have had that experience.

  • Perseus1986

    I’ll preempt your question and outline my disagreements with your analysis:

    Point 1) I think it is erroneous to think that a “blue wave” will take out any and everybody that doesn’t have a D next to their name. The national GOP has been an accomplice to Trump, however, there are many statewide, let alone local, politicians up for reelection who have actively maintained no association with Trump and his politics, and in turn, they are favorites to win in very blue, anti-Trump areas (take Hogan in MD and Baker (the most popular governor in the country) in MA as examples). Voters, especially in an area as politically in touch as Arlington, can and will distinguish between a slight fiscal conservative like Vihstadt and the Trump movement. (As an aside, can you identify one Trump-like statement or action made by Vihstadt?) This race will have to actually be won by the local Democratic party on local issues, they won’t be able to just ride a national wave.

    leading into Point 3) That being said, this point is misleading since it will be up to Democrats to make a case of why Vihstadt shouldn’t get another term. Even though there might not be anger to capitalize on for him, he is the incumbent and part of the board. Are there actual elements of his record that would provoke significant anger among the general voting populace? The trolley issue, the most devisive, public issue recently is dead and done. Is there anything else that would provoke a significant movement against his reelection?

    Point 5) See point 1 with the addition that in many blue areas, voters (Democrats included) put up and defend moderate GOPers (like Baker or Hogan) to serve as a check on complete 1 party control and group think. I consider myself a liberal and progressive Democrat but recognize that a body completely composed of like-minded people left unchecked could end up out of touch with the community it serves.

    Point 6) Again, I don’t think you can bank on national or statewide trends to predict which way this will go. Democrats will have to win this seat, not count on Vihstadt losing it as part of a broader trend. Like with the MA and MD example, and VT electing a GOP governor while overwhelmingly backing Clinton in 2016, and looking likely to reelect him (2 year terms) while also reelecting Bernie Sanders, local and state GOPers who intentionally do not tap into the trends of the national party are often judged on their own merits rather than by presumed association.

    • Right; national trends and the “blue wave” are only part of the analysis. The main point is the math – Tim Kaine will be on the ballot and will rack up an enormous margin of victory in Arlington. Which means that the Democratic nominee for County Board can run wayyyyy behind Kaine and STILL win. But I acknowledge that many people will vote on local issues, whatever those happen to be come November, and that some people like Vihstadt for whatever reason(s). Which is why I say that the Democratic nominee is only a 60% favorite, not a 90% or whatever favorite, to win.

      • dave schutz

        ‘Democratic nominee’ sounds kinda generic, yknowit? The nominee is an individual. Usually the person who gets the nomination is somebody with a long history in commissions, blue ribbon commissions, etc., and has been known to people in the amorphous mass which is the ACDC Historic In Crowd. That would describe Garvey, Bondi, Schneider, Dorsey, Howze, Vihstadt, Gutshall, Hynes, Favola, Fallon, Klingler, and Tejada. It’s less apt for Fisette and Cristol, who were nominated with public enthusiasm despite shorter resumes (Vihstadt, obviously, was NOT nominated by the Dems, but he had the lengthy pedigree and relationships).
        Both Matt de Ferrante and Chanda Choud are short-resume candidates. A short resume is obviously not a bar to election, but nor is it a boost.

  • dave schutz

    Any BlueVa reader who does not also read Arlington Now, and who is interested in this discussion, may want to take a look at this set of comments section: https://www.arlnow.com/2018/01/25/morning-notes-1827/