Home Virginia Politics Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Five, Unchallenged Incumbents

Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Five, Unchallenged Incumbents


( – promoted by lowkell)

This is the fifth part of a twelve part series looking at the challenges, obstacles, and future possibilities of Virginia Democrats. Here are the previous diaries: Day One, Competitive Districts. Day Two, Turnout Problems. Day Three, Past Mistakes. Day Four, Downstate Democrats. To show that you’ve read this diary and support the project, please vote in the poll at the end. Thank you!

On the fifth day of Christmas, the Commonwealth of Virginia gave to me …

Incumbents who are so safe in their seats they don’t remember the last time they had to actually campaign. Could they even fundraise if they tried? Do they know anything about targeting, polling, and tools like Votebuilder or Catalyst?

In 2013, 41 incumbent Delegates were not even challenged by another candidate, either by the other major party or by a minor party candidate. One more was able to win their first election without any challenge at all, walking right into office. That may seem sad, but it’s an improvement over 2011, when 59 incumbents were unchallenged in their newly drawn districts. That’s similar to elections in 2003, 2005, and 2007, where over 60 delegates on average, almost two-thirds of the chamber, were unchallenged. In the ten years from 2003 to 2013, well over half of all delegate races were unchallenged.

What are some of the worse offenses of democracy? Roxann Robinson in the 27th hasn’t seen an election since winning a special election in 2010. In fact, the 27th hasn’t seen a contested general election in a long time. Previous Republican Delegate Sam Nixon had held the district uncontested since winning it in a special election in 1994. Elsewhere, Republican Tommy Wright hasn’t been challenged in over ten years, since 2001. The biggest winner of this do-nothing political system? Riley Ingram, who hasn’t been challenged since 1995!

When the 27th became open during a special election in 2010, the Democratic Party ignored the district and instead devoted resources to a more Republican district in Harrisonburg. At the time, the 27th was a district where Barack Obama had won. Focusing more on candidate than district, Ward Armstrong and his advisers decided to spend $60,000 in the more Republican district where they liked the candidate. In 2010, Ben Tribbett wrote on the 27th:

“This is a seat that is more Democratic than the 26th, would be tougher to tear up in redistricting, and is exactly the kind of area Democrats need to win to take back the House.  Instead, we are not even competing.  Which tells you all you need to know about where Democrats are in the House of Delegates right now and how their immediate future looks.”

That was in 2010, do you think things have changed since then?

We need to find ways to contest every district, especially every competitive district. We aren’t there right now, but we’re getting a lot better.. However, many of these candidates in long-shot races are going to be running bare bone campaigns with little outside support. They need to live off the land, getting the resources they can from the local community. That’s not going to be easy.

Incumbents who aren’t even challenged aren’t the only problem; some districts are so safe that a challenger gets next to no attention from the incumbent. If an incumbent Democrat doesn’t have to campaign, why do we expect them to know how to help challengers?  

Can we learn any lessons from the Democratic challengers in 2013?

O’Quinn and McGrady in Southwest Virginia ran better than McAuliffe, but not enough to be competitive. An assortment of other Democrats running in more conservative areas ran slightly ahead, including Cathcart, Harris, Cyphert, and Daniel. None were in districts that could ever be competitive without a blue moon, and then some. Only Qarni kept his race against Bob Marshall close in a competitive district, almost pulling off an upset when few gave him a chance.

Why are our Democratic challengers doing worse than the top of the ticket in the most competitive districts, while long-shot challengers seem to shift more voters?

I can understand why coal-country Democrats like O’Quinn and McGrady may have been more popular than McAulliffe. But what explains the better performance of Cathcart in Roanoke County, Harris and Daniel in the exurbs of Northern Virginia, and Cyphert around Lynchburg? Daniel received attention and support because of the controversy surrounding LaRock’s campaign. Cyphert and Qarni were running against the most outspoken of social theocrats in Richmond. Is that all that explains it? Why did all of our challengers, with the exception of Qarni, wilt under the pressures of a competitive campaign?

The logical explanation is that in these overwhelmingly Republican seats, the incumbent hardly has to campaign, and so the more intrepid underdog can pick off a few crossover votes. But in marginal districts, the challenge to the incumbent Republican awakens a sleeping giant. The response from the GOP campaign apparatus smacks aside the challenger, ensuring enough crossover support from Democratic voters to protect themselves. However, not every Democratic challenger in the long-shot races ran better than McAuliffe. In many other Republican districts, the Democratic challenger ran behind the top of the ticket. There’s probably more to this story, but when will the party step up to analyze this tale?

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