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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…