Home 2019 Elections Virginia’s State Legislative Elections in 2007 vs. 2019: What’s Similar? What’s Different?...

Virginia’s State Legislative Elections in 2007 vs. 2019: What’s Similar? What’s Different? Could Past (2007) Be Prologue (2019)?

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This is probably ancient history for a lot of folks, but actually, 2007 was only three “off-odd-year” Virginia election cycles ago. For those who aren’t up on this stuff, Virginia of course has elections every years, including: a) the presidential election year (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020, etc.); b) the mid-term Congressional election year (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018, etc.); c) the gubernatorial election year (2005, 2009, 2013, 2017, 2021, etc.); and d) the “off-odd” election year, when the entire Virginia General Assembly is up, but when there are no “statewides” or federal elections (2007, 2011, 2015, 2019, etc.). Not surprisingly, voter turnout varies widely in these different election years. According to the State Board of Elections, we’re talking about:

  • Turnout in the “off-odd” years definitely the lowest: 30.2% in 2007, 28.6% in 2011, 29.1% in 2015
  • Turnout in the gubernatorial years about 12-15 points higher than that: 44.9% in 2005, 40.4% in 2009, 43.0% in 2013, 47.6% in 2017
  • Turnout in the mid-term election years very variable, but basically much higher when Democrats are fired up/pissed off – against the Iraq War and the Bush administration, also of course the massive anti-Trump backlash of 2018 – but more like the gubernatorial-year turnout when Democrats are not motivated (e.g., in 2010 and 2014): 52.7% in 2006, 44.0% in 2010, 41.6% in 2014, 59.5% in 2018
  • Turnout in the presidential election years is definitely the highest: 70.8% (2004), 74.0% in 2008, 71.1% in 2012, 72.1% in 2016

Note that when turnout was the highest, Democrats generally did very well, such as winning the last three presidential races in Virginia, winning the 2013 and 2017 gubernatorial races, kicking butt in the 2006 and 2018 “midterms.” Also note that when turnout was the lowest, Democrats generally did very badly, such as the 2010 and 2014 mid-term disasters for Congress and the 2009 Creigh Deeds wipeout loss to Bob McDonnell for governor (the only time since 1997 that Democrats have lost the Virginia governor’s race). Sensing a pattern here? In short, when Democrats vote, we win. When Democrats stay home, we lose. And yes, this is pretty basic stuff…yet sometimes people forget it, so it’s probably worth repeating ad nauseum.

With that background, I thought it would be interesting to compare the 2019 “off-odd-year” Virginia General Assembly elections to the 2007 cycle, as I believe there are both many similarities, as well as some significant differences, but more importantly some potential lessons to draw from what happened in 2007. And for those new activists who got involved after Trump’s election, and who haven’t necessarily been heavily involved in Virginia politics since 2005 or whatever, I feel like this might provide some useful historical context.

In BOTH Cases, Intense Democratic Base Anger at the Republican Administration in the White House, etc. But Bush Actually LESS Popular Than Trump.
Americans have short historical memories, so they might not recall that back in 2007, Democrats were perhaps just as livid then as they are now about Trump. In 2007, it was about the Bush Administration, the Iraq War (which was raging), the disastrous aftermath/horrific of Hurricane Katrina, and much much more. Today, it’s about the corrupt bigot in the White House, a stolen Supreme Court seat (or two?), the assault on our democracy and rule of law, the climate crisis, the horrendous/inhumane treatment of immigrants from Central America, growing income inequality, persistent racism, etc, etc. In both cases, Democrats were/are very angry about what’s going on. What’s interesting is that, according to Gallup, President Bush was at a pathetically bad 32% approval/65% disapproval rating at this point in 2007 — significantly WORSE, believe it or not, than Trump’s current 42% approval/53% disapproval rating. Let me repeat that: George W. Bush was significantly more unpopular at this point in 2007 than Donald Trump is now, although both were/are certainly unpopular. And it’s not just the level of disapproval, it’s the intensity; for those who don’t recall 2007, Democrats were enraged at the Bush administration and the Iraq War, arguably as strongly – or close – as they are today against Trump. So…sure, Democrats are fired up against Trump, but let’s not forget that Democrats were also fired up in 2007, and that Bush then was even *less* popular than Trump is now, with the Iraq War raging. So…not sure what that means exactly for this November, but let’s not just assume that because Democrats hate Trump, that that’s going to be sufficient to carry us to victory.

In BOTH Cases, the Presidential Election Campaign Starting to Heat Up
In July 2007, the race to succeed Bush 43 was heating up, with Democrats paying intense attention to Democratic presidential debates. Note that the first debate of that cycle was held on April 26, 2007 at South Carolina State University, with eight candidates (Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Hillary Clinton, former Sen. John Edwards, Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Joe Biden, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Sen. Mike Gravel, Sen. Barack Obama) debating. The second debate of that cycle was on June 3, with the third on June 28 and the fourth on July 12. Also note that, as of July 2, 2007, the polling had Hillary Clinton at 37.3% in the Real Clear Politics average, with Barack Obama at 23.0% and John Edwards at around 12%.

Today, we’ve got a lot more candidates than we had in 2007, and there’s definitely no definitive frontrunner at this point. Arguably, this year’s field is not just larger but also far more splintered than it was in 2007. Also, this time around, we’ve had fewer debates (only one so far) than we had by this point in 2007 (three by this point). But similarly, Virginia Democratic voters and activists are definitely starting to tune in heavily to following the 2020 presidential race. Which, of course, could definitely take attention away from Virginia’s General Assembly elections this November. And that, of course, would be a big problem…if it happens. On the other hand, if 2020 presidential candidates come to Virginia in the fall of 2019 to campaign for Virginia General Assembly candidates, that could help us. We’ll see.

In Both Cases, Democrats Had Shown Political Strength in the Previous Two Elections
This time around, of course, we know that Democrats did VERY well here in Virginia in November 2017 (sweeping the governor’s, Lt. Governor’s and Attorney General’s races, plus picking up 15 seats in the House of Delegates), and both here and across the country in November 2018 (Dems gained 41 seats in the U.S. House, including three here in Virginia – Jennifer Wexton, Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria). Back in 2007, we had also done well in the previous two elections – with Tim Kaine winning the governorship in November 2005 (although note that Dems lost the LG and AG races that year, while picking up three seats in the House of Delegates), and Democrats winning back both the U.S. House (with a gain of 31 seats) and Senate (with a gain of 6 seats) in November 2006 (with Jim Webb beating Sen. George Allen here in Virginia, albeit by just 9,000+ votes). In sum, Virginia Democrats were on somewhat of a roll in 2007, as they are now, but clearly more of a roll today, given the massive gains in November 2017 and November 2018. That should bode well for this November, but obviously that’s not automatic by any means; it’s up to us to make it happen!

Changing Virginia Demographics…but How Much Difference Does That Make?
Since 2007, Virginia has continued to trend in a more diverse direction. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Virginia is 61.5% non-Hispanic white, 19.9% African American, 9.6% Latino, 6.9% Asian American. The big changes are a big increase in the Latino share of Virginia’s population, from 6.0% in 2005 to 9.6% today; and a big decrease in the non-Hispanic white share, from 68.2% then to 61.5% now. The Asian-American population share has also increased, from 4.6% in 2005 to 6.9% today, while the African-American population share as remained steady, at 19.9%.

How much difference does this make? It seems like it should translate directly into better Democratic performance at the polls, but of course  – as a state like Texas shows – a state’s total population is not the same thing as its total registered voters, let alone which of those voters actually show up at the polls. Which means that the big question for this November is, basically, who will show up? Will the electorate trend older or younger? less or more diverse? If it’s younger and more diverse, major advantage to the Democrats. If it’s older and whiter, major advantage to the Republicans. So this is another challenge for Democrats this year – encouraging young people, Latinos, etc. to come out and vote in big numbers. That’s definitely a key to this November’s election results.

More “Low-Hanging Fruit” in 2007 than Today in the House of Delegates?
Heading into the November 2007 General Assembly elections, Democrats had 40 seats out of 100 in the House of Delegates and 17 seats out of 40 in the State Senate. Today, we’ve got 49 seats in the House of Delegates and 19 seats in the State Senate. So, arguably, there was more “low-hanging fruit” back in 2007 than there is today. Also note that the 2007 elections were held under lines aggressively gerrymandered by Republicans after the 2000 Census for their incumbent protection. As a result, Democrats fell from 47 in the House of Delegates in 2000-2002 to just 34 (!) in 2002-2004, while also losing seats in the State Senate (going from 20 in 1996-2000 to just 17 in 2004-2008). On the other hand, we now have new, fair(er), racially-“unpacked” districts in 11 House of Delegates districts thanks to the Bethune-Hill court case. Which gives Democrats a lot more “low-hanging fruit,” and helps compensate for the fact that Democrats already won most of the relatively “low-hanging-fruit” House of Delegates districts back in November 2017. Meanwhile, keep in mind that Tim Kaine won 26/40 State Senate districts and 61/100 House of Delegates districts in November 2018; and that Ralph Northam won 24/40 State Senate districts and 58/100 House of Delegates districts in November 2017. Which means that, potentially, there’s still plenty of “low-hanging fruit” out there for Democrats this time around, even if not as much as in 2007. Again, though, this comes down to whether Democrats vote in large numbers this November…or stay home. Obviously, the former scenario is the one we want…and the one we must work for!

Popularity of Governor Kaine in 2007 (HIGH!) vs. Gov. Northam in 2019 (Not-so-high)
Back in October 2007, Governor Kaine’s approval rating was at a very strong 67%-27% among Likely Voters. This year, as of April, Governor Northam was at a much lower, 40%-49% approval rating, although it was much stronger (62%-29%) among Democrats. One question is whether Northam’s approval will improve by the fall. Another is how much it hurts State Senate and House of Delegates Democrats to have a governor with a not-so-great approval rating. For one thing, I’m concerned about the governor not being able to campaign effectively (or at all?) with Democratic House and Senate candidates, as Gov. Kaine certainly did in 2007. Then there’s how much money Gov. Northam will be able to raise, versus how much money Gov. Kaine was able to raise in 2007. On the other hand, Democrats today have former Gov. Terry McAuliffe busy raising money and campaigning for candidates, especially given his decision not to run for president. And, as we know, if there’s one thing McAuliffe can do, it’s raise money! We also have popular U.S. Senators – Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – who can help pick up some of that slack, as well as seven U.S. Representatives, including the three (Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger, Jennifer Wexton) elected in November 2017. On yet another hand, Democrats also hold the Lt. Governor and Attorney General offices this time around, which we didn’t in 2007, but…again, how effective will they be in helping Democrats win the November 2019 elections? Got me.

Grassroots Activists: More Groups Today, but Not Necessarily Greater Numbers (or Effectiveness?) 
This one’s hard to measure, but there’s no question that after Trump’s election, a slew of new “resistance” groups sprung up to fight him. Having attended last weekend’s 2019 Virginia Women’s Summit in Tysons, which had nearly 1,000 enthusiastic participants, there’s little doubt in my mind that these groups are still around, active and engaged. The only question is, how focused are they – and will they be as we approach the fall – on the November 2019 elections? Back in 2007, of course, we also had a bunch of activists and a lot of energy related to Iraq War opposition, anger at the Bush administration, and of course Jim Webb’s enormous (around 13,000-15,000 volunteers by the end of that campaign, IIRC) 2006 “ragtag army” of grassroots activists. The difficulty at that time was keeping that “ragtag army” together, although attempts were certainly made, including the “Webb Brigades” group, which was very active for several years afterwards. There also was the rise of the Virginia netroots back in 2005-2008, as Nate Wilcox and I discussed in our book, “Netroots Rising.” Which will prove more effective? Who knows, but I sure hope that today’s panoply of grassroots “resistance” groups and activists do everything they can – and succeed! – to win back the Virginia General Assembly for Democrats, send a huge message to Trump, and result in FAR better policies enacted than if Republicans keep control (e.g., ERA ratification, gun violence prevention, women’s reproductive freedom, healthcare, voting rights, climate action, education funding, criminal justice reform).

Social Media Tools: Big Changes Since 2007
This stuff changes fast, that’s for sure. Recall that in the 2006 Jim Webb vs. George Allen U.S. Senate race, there was essentially no Facebook or Twitter, and YouTube was still in its infancy (the first major YouTube video that impacted a U.S. political race was, arguably, the infamous “macaca” video in August 2006). By 2007, those social media tools were gaining in popularity, but still not even close to where they are today. The question is whether these social media tools help Democrats organize and, ultimately, win elections? Or do they, on balance, actually hurt us, with their ability to facilitate the spread of false information spread by right-wing trolls, Russian bots, etc?  Hard to say, although on balance, I’m not thrilled at all with how social media has evolved since the “Netroots Rising” days, especially given the techno-optimistic, even cyber-utopian promises by many back in the early to mid 2000s.

Money, Money, Money
This could be a crucial factor, and as already noted, Democrats took a hit in February 2019 with Gov. Northam’s “blackface” scandal, along with rape allegations against LG Justin Fairfax and AG Mark Herring’s own “blackface” incident when he was in college. All this clearly isn’t going to help these guys raise money. In contrast, Gov. Kaine had no such problems in 2007, and in fact was a “Super Money Machine.” On the other hand, there are encouraging signs this cycle; according to the DLCC, “In the final disclosures before Virginia’s Tuesday primary, Democratic General Assembly candidates reported again outraising Republicans — bringing in over $1 million more than their GOP opponents in April and May…Senate Democrats raised more than $2.1 million compared to just $1.5 million from Senate Republicans. House Democrats raised more than $2.6 million while House Republicans raised about $2.2 million. Combined, Democratic candidates raised over $1 million more than Republicans.” Not too shabby at all! Also note that Tom Steyer, EMILY’s List and others are pumping money into Virginia this year to help take back the General Assembly. I don’t recall anything directly comparable to this in 2007, but I could be mistaken…

Number of Candidates: Advantage 2019!
According to VPAP, in 2007 Virginia House Democrats fielded 67 candidates vs. Republicans’ 64 candidates. This year? How about 91 (!) Democratic House of Delegates candidates vs. just 72 for Republicans? Not too shabby. 🙂  As for the State Senate, Democrats fielded 29 candidates in 2007 vs. 27 for Republicans. This time around? How about 35 Democratic State Senate candidates vs. just 25 Republicans? Again, looking good! Finally, as VPAP points out, “The number of uncontested [House of Delegates] seats — 31 of 100 — is one seat above the record-low since VPAP began tracking House elections in 1997,” while “Of uncontested seats, 23 are currently held by Democrats and eight are currently held by Republicans.” And “The number of uncontested [State Senate] seats — 12 of 40 — is a record low since VPAP began tracking Senate elections in 1999,” of which “11 are currently held by Democrats and one by Republicans.” Also great news. So on this metric, Democrats are looking MUCH better than they did in 2007, and really better than they’ve ever looked, including in the blockbuster, “blue wave” 2017 elections.

Results
The bottom line is that Democrats went from 40 to 44 House of Delegates seats in 2007, a pickup of four seats; and from 17 to 21 State Senate seats, also a pickup of four. Can Democrats replicate those results in November 2019? Personally, I think it’s quite plausible that Democrats go from 19 to 23-24 State Senate seats, which would be a 4-5 seat pickup. As for the House of Delegates, I can see Democrats picking up in the 2-5 range, which would get us to 51-54 House seats and the majority there. That would be very similar in terms of pickups to what happened in 2007. Past as prologue? Or maybe, as the saying goes, “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes?” Or another favorite, from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s note even past?”

Did I Miss Anything?
I figure I probably missed something important, so let me know in the comments section. Thanks.

UPDATE #1 – Local Races, Democratic Dropoff
It’s very important to emphasize that in “off-odd” election years, Democratic turnoff can *really* drop off, making what appear to be “blue” localities in federal and/or gubernatorial years (e.g., Prince William County, Loudoun County, Fairfax County) suddenly become a lot more “purple.”  That’s a big part of how Republicans like Corey Stewart have kept winning in places like Prince William County. For instance, in 2007, I remember thinking that Stewart would probably lose, because Latinos were enraged at him for his anti-immigrant crusade. But in the election, they really didn’t turn out, and Corey Stewart cruised to victory, 55%-44% over Democrat Sharon Pandak for County Board Chair. As for Loudoun County, there wasn’t even a Democrat running for County Board Chair, with Independent Scott York defeating Republican Michael J. Firetti 55%-44%. In Fairfax County, on the other hand, Democrat Gerry Connolly won easily over Republican Gary Baise for County Board Chair. But the bottom line is that Democratic turnout, even in supposedly deep-blue counties like Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, is not necessarily a given in these “off-odd” election years. Which is why we really need to focus our energies on pushing local Democratic candidates like Loudoun County Board Chair Phyllis Randall, Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Buta Biberaj, Prince William County Board Chair candidate Ann Wheeler, Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Amy Ashworth, etc.