Arlington Democrats dramatically split their votes in Tuesday’s elections, demonstrating their typically strong support for their party’s candidates in top-of-the-ticket races for the U.S. Senate and Congress but turning away from their party’s nominee for the County Board, the most-contested local office.
County voters supported Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) with 71 percent of the 65,764 ballots cast in the U.S. Senate contest and U.S. Rep.-elect Don Beyer (D) with 66 percent of the 63,147 ballots cast in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District race.
Arlingtonians did not then abandon the ballot — 62,386 voted in the County Board contest between Alan Howze (D) and John Vihstadt, a Republican running as an independent. But in that race, Howze took only 44 percent to Vihstadt’s 56 percent.
Howze won only 13 of the county’s 53 precincts, mostly around Columbia Pike and the Metro corridors. He had lost a special election to Vihstadt in April, when only 22,000 voters turned out. Democrats had hoped that Howze would surf to victory on the strength of the bigger voter participation Tuesday, when a four-year term was at stake. Despite a 48 percent turnout, that did not happen.
Vihstadt based much of his campaign on opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar, a proposed project that Howze supported.
In an interview, Vihstadt said he thought Arlington voters were “yearning for a fresh perspective on a County Board many felt was an echo chamber” and were concerned about spending on a streetcar and other high-cost capital projects at a time when schools are crowded.
He also credited an endorsement of his candidacy by The Washington Post, which he said got the attention of a number of voters.
State Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan (D), who represents part of Arlington County, said Thursday that he plans to introduce a bill in the General Assembly during the next session to allow the county to hold a referendum on the streetcar project.
Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) said he and other board members “have to take stock of what happened.”
“The voters sent a message, mostly about the Arlington-Fairfax streetcar,” Fisette said. “I commit to fully digesting everything that happened yesterday and crafting a response.”
Local Democratic chairman Kip Malinosky said some voters may have mistakenly thought that Vihstadt was a Democrat because his literature prominently featured endorsements from several members of the party and because he presented himself as a “fusion” candidate.
Voters also expressed a desire for “balance” on a County Board that for 15 years, until the April election, was made up entirely of Democrats, Malinosky said.
“We’ve got a lot, a lot of work to do,” he said, before the next county election — one year from now.