It’s prediction season in Virginia politics, that magical time of year when professional and armchair analysts alike make their guesses on which party will control the General Assembly in January.
One of the more prescient prognosticators is Christopher Newport University’s Rachel Bitecofer, who recently published a preview of the Nov. 5 elections.
Her take: The outcome depends on who shows up to vote.
That may seem obvious. But in Virginia’s off-off year elections, turnout is paramount.
What does that mean for Nov. 5? Bitecofer puts it this way:
Turnout is too unpredictable. If overall turnout exceeds 31 percent, Nov. 5 is likely to be a good day for Democrats.
In 1999, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly were up for election, the then-ascendant Republicans maintained their control of the Senate and won control of the House of Delegates for the first time since Reconstruction.
The partisan makeup of the General Assembly heading into that historic election? It was eerily similar to what we have today.
Republicans controlled the Senate 21-19. In the House, Democrats had a 50-49 advantage, with one GOP-leaning independent.
Turnout in the 1999 elections: 36.1 percent — the highest off-off year election turnout in the Motor Voter era.
Yes, turnout does matter. An expanded pool of enthusiastic voters can make all sort of legislative districts change partisan hands, as they did in 1999 and in 2017.
Will it happen this November? Bitecofer writes that even if Democrats lose some of the House districts they picked up in 2017’s wave election — she says the 10th, 68th and 80th are the most likely to return to GOP control — districts such as the 94th, which the GOP won via a random drawing in 2017, and the redrawn 76th “seem primed to flip to Democrats under even the most modest Democratic turnout surge models.”
But Democrats should not start shopping for chairmen’s gavels just yet.
“Even with the benefits of the court-ordered redistricting,” Bitecofer writes, “if the electorate looks like it did in 2015 in terms of its partisan composition, Democrats will come up short of a majority and may even lose ground.”
Bitecofer says such an outcome is “hard to imagine.”
But we need to keep in mind that Virginia Republicans — despite their increasingly creative efforts to the contrary — aren’t dead yet.
They are only mostly dead. And, as Miracle Max said, “mostly dead is slightly alive.”
The “slightly alive” case for House Republicans includes one of those districts Democrats won in 2017: the open seat 73rd.
In that race, Republican nominee Mary Margaret Kastelberg has been canvassing the more reliably Republican parts of the suburban Richmond district.
That would be a big plus if the 73rd were a Richmond-based district. But it’s not. As Bitecofer notes, the 73rd has a (very) slight GOP lean, and Debra H. Rodman won it over long-time GOP incumbent John O’Bannon 51-48 percent in 2017.
One big factor in that race? Rodman was the first opponent O’Bannon had faced in nine years.
As former Republican Delegate Chris Saxman wrote, “challengers don’t win — incumbents lose.” They lose because they take too much — including voters, volunteers, and turnout — for granted.
Neither candidate in the 73rd is taking anything for granted. So it will all come down to turnout.
If Democrats show up in the same big way they did in 2017 and 2018, then they will party like the GOP in 1999.
But if Republicans can stick to the fundamentals and concentrate on getting their vote out (which they seem to be doing very well in the 73rd District), they just might be the ones dancing on election night.