Wait–Could These Virginia Races Also Shed Light On The 2018 Midterms?

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Nov 07, 2017 5:00 PM
Wait–Could These Virginia Races Also Shed Light On The 2018 Midterms?

It’s Election Day in Virginia and the polls suggest that Democratic candidate Ralph Northam has a slight lead as his campaign stumbles across the finish line. The Northam campaign has lost a few wheels in the closing days of this race. First, they seem to have coordinated with the Latino Victory Fund to push an atrocious ad that paints all white voters as genocidal racists. Nothing wrong with the LVF’s in-kind media contribution, which amounted to around $62,000, but Northam tried to paint this as an operation that was outside his campaign’s orbit. The LVF’s disclosure form suggests otherwise. Then, the last minute revelation that he might have exaggerated his military career, specifically the treating of wounded Desert Storm soldiers. That might have not happened. He still has heartburn from environmentalists for not being forcefully against rural energy pipelines and a liberal group, Democracy for America, decided to pull out of the state altogether for Northam after he flip-flopped on sanctuary cities. Before leaving, they called Northam’s campaign racist.

On the Real Clear Politics average, Northam was up six points over Republican Ed Gillespie. That dropped to two points over the weekend, which is why Democrats are getting the willies as we bring this contest to a close. As David Wasserman of Cook Political Report noted, if Gillespie matches his 2014 numbers in the state and can reach or surpass how Ken Cuccinelli did in the rural areas of the state in 2013—he’s governor. Also, Gillespie has a better pocket of support in Democratic-heavy Northern Virginia, which could prove to be critical on the margins. Yes, black voter turnout could sink Republicans in this race, but it’s off year and Democrats removing Justin Fairfax, the black lieutenant governor candidate, from the party mailer seemed to rub a lot of black Democrats in the state the wrong way. The Northam camp said it was because a union didn’t endorse Fairfax, but the optics writes the story. Yet, let’s turn down ticket, where the House of Delegates races could offer some light onto how the 2018 midterms could go—or says some of the data crunchers. First, a brief overview; the GOP usually clinches a supermajority in state legislature races, which means a lot of liberal agenda items, like more gun control and Medicaid expansion, die quick deaths (via WaPo):

It’s also a purple state where Democrats have been winning statewide since 2009, but Republicans hold 66 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Democrats are running in 54 GOP-held districts this year, and scores of groups — some well-financed, some loosely organized, are looking to leave their mark on those contests.

There’s a Democratic super PAC planning to spend $1 million — with an eye to a bigger goal of raising $100 million to take control of state houses across the country.

An organization founded by wealthy Virginia donors and bankrolled by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is beta-testing technology to help low-budget campaigns run more efficiently.

Activists in solidly Democratic states are forming groups to help Virginia from afar, by fundraising and making phone calls.

“We certainly had a lot of support in ’13 and ’15, but the level of the support now is astronomically larger,” said Trent Armitage, the executive director of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus. “It’s in­cred­ibly reflective of the energy we have seen across the country, and the fact that Virginia is first in a post-Trump world is making it even more pronounced.”

Republican state lawmakers and candidates aren’t seeing the same influx of outside groups coming to their cause. They benefit from a massive war chest accumulated after years of controlling the chamber, increased financial support from the long-standing Republican State Leadership Committee and the name recognition and legislative record that comes with incumbency.

“You can bring all the outside money you want, but we have proven our value in governing Virginia effectively while we’ve had the opportunity,” said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who is set to be the majority leader if his party maintains control of the chamber.

Indeed, Mr. Gilbert—just ask Georgia’s Jon Ossoff about the outside money and the false sense of confidence it can bring to a race.  

If you thought this race was rather underreported until zero hour approached, well you probably have no idea what’s going on down ticket. Yet, David Wasserman wrote for NBC News that a ten-seat pickup in these races could mean that the Democrats are on track to retake the House [emphasis mine]:

Of the 66 Republicans, 17 are sitting in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Most of those 17 are in very competitive races that could go either way.

The most sensational race is unfolding in the 13th District, based in some of Northern Virginia's most rapidly diversifying outer suburbs. Republican Del. Robert Marshall, a 25-year incumbent and an outspoken social conservative, faces well-funded Democrat Danica Roem, a local journalist and transgender woman. Marshall has refused to acknowledge Roem as a female.

Another bellwether is the 12th District, anchored by Blacksburg and home to the only competitive race in Southwest Virginia. GOP Del. Joseph Yost, who is regarded as a moderate, faces Democrat Chris Hurst, a former news anchor whose girlfriend, reporter Alison Parker, was fatally shot on live television in Roanoke in 2015.

Virginia's delegate races have often foreshadowed midterm results: In 2009, the GOP's six-seat gain took Democrats by surprise and presaged Republicans picking up the House in 2010.

This year, if Democrats pick up fewer than five GOP-held seats, Republicans would probably take it as a relief. If Democrats pick up between five and 10 seats, it would confirm the House is in play. If Democrats surprise and gain 10 or more seats, it would be a sign they are probably on track to take back the House next year.

Yet, he adds that the difference between a solid night for Democrats in these races rests “on their ability to expand beyond those targets and wrest seats in downstate regions like Richmond and Hampton Roads, where Trump's anti-DC posture is less of a liability.” Doling out ads that paint white rural voters as racists is probably not the best way to pick off these seats. Second, there are other factors at play here, like candidate recruitment. Right now, the Democrats don’t have any candidate who could mount challenges against vulnerable Republicans. And shocker, they’re hitting the wall in white working class districts. Granted, it’s still early. They could still find candidates, but the Democratic path to the majority is not like how it was in 2006, where the party had a decent farm system for candidate recruitment and was able to pick off Republicans in reddish districts. The thought of even reaching out to former Obama voters that voted for Trump is viewed as anathema in progressive circles (via NYT):

So far, nearly all of the biggest Democratic recruiting struggles have been in working-class areas. And Democrats might have too many challengers successfully fund-raising in the most affluent districts.

Democrats have debated extensively about whether they ought to focus on winning back working-class Trump voters or on expanding their gains in diverse, well-educated Sun Belt suburbs. This can be a false choice: They can do both to some extent, especially in congressional elections where individual candidates can run campaigns well suited to their districts. But Democrats, who need a net gain of 24 seats to retake the House, won’t have the option to target districts they held as recently as a decade ago if they can’t find viable challengers.

There is not yet a strong Democratic challenger in David Valadao’s district (the 21st) in California’s Central Valley, the nation’s least-educated Republican-held congressional district (going by the percentage of those with a college degree). It broke for Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points last November. There isn’t a strong challenger in John Katko’s upstate New York district (the 24th), where Barack Obama won easily in 2012 and where Mrs. Clinton won in 2016. These races remain rated as “likely Republican” by the Cook Political Report.

Democrats have notably failed to recruit a strong challenger against the Republican freshman Brian Fitzpatrick, who represents the blue-collar suburbs northeast of Philadelphia. Frank LoBiondo, a moderate 71-year-old, 12-term congressman from an Obama district in southern New Jersey, is the sort of candidate whom the Democrats might reasonably hope to pressure into retirement with a strong challenge. But he won’t be feeling much pressure so long as his top opponent has a mere $9,486 in the bank.

Over all, there are 11 districts (out of the 50 districts that ought to be most competitive, by our estimates) where the Democrats don’t have a candidate who raised $100,000.

Even Wasserman noted that Democrats’ rather high wall they need to climb back in August. And then there’s Third Way’s 2018 assessment that was published in June, which poured salt in Democrats’ wounds after their loss in Georgia’s sixth congressional race [emphasis mine]:

The most important takeaway is that there is no one kind of voter or district that can deliver the House for Democrats in 2018,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way. “There’s been a lot of focus on suburban districts. There’s no doubt that those are important, but there are not enough of them to win the House.”

Hatalsky, who co-authored the report with Ryan Pougiales, emphasized that Democrats still would not win the House even if they could get every single 2016 Clinton voter who backed a Republican House candidate to turn out again in 2018 and cross over.

So, let’s take some of these things with a grain of salt. We still have a long way to go until 2018, but don’t get me wrong—I’m hoping the GOP retains Virginia’s House of Delegates. 

Also, it looks like that LVF ad probably didn't have the impact liberals were hoping for in this race. If Northern Virginia voters saw this, you know the rural ones did--and this was a direct shot at them. The polls are open in Virginia between 6 A.M and 7 P.M.