The coming campaign will focus not only on events now in play and those we can anticipate but also those that crash-land out of the blue in the coming months. Recent years have given us examples.
At the beginning of 2020, who could have envisioned a pandemic that changed everything worldwide, including the U.S. presidency?
And, just three months ahead of the 2017 gubernatorial election, who foresaw the deadly riot in Charlottesville at the “Unite the Right” rally organized by white supremacists?
Both affected campaigns in those respective years enormously (perhaps decisively), both times in favor of Democratic candidates.
Through the limited view into the future that today’s headlines afford us, the most likely potential game-changer for the 2021 race began to materialize at the end of December, and it’s no stretch to say it is a matter of life and death.
In mid-December, Virginia began distributing the first coronavirus vaccine allotments for priority recipients: front-line health-care workers, nursing home residents and people with compromised health conditions that make them highly vulnerable to death or serious illness. State officials had expected to receive about 480,000 doses from the federal government — enough to provide the first of two required doses for those in the first tier. Yet the federal government shipped about 200,000 fewer doses than that, and the vaccination process slowed substantially because of logistical issues. As of Thursday, nearly 4,000 Virginians had received both of the required two vaccine doses, and nearly 136,000 had received the first of the dose, according to the state Department of Health.
The inauspicious start — among the nation’s slowest — was perhaps unsurprising considering the complicated and massive logistical challenge for a state bureaucracy with a checkered record on deploying large-scale projects. Continued delays and cost overruns at the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, enormous lingering backlogs of coronavirus-related unemployment benefits claims at the Virginia Employment Commission and major failures in the 2014 and 2016 elections by the Virginia Election and Registration Information System, or VERIS, are just several that hardly inspire confidence.
The federal government’s role ends when it turns the initial vaccine allotment over to Virginia officials. From there, the state must find a way to expeditiously get hundreds of thousands of vials of the vaccine from a central delivery point into patients’ arms in every corner of the commonwealth, while keeping one of the vaccines at a super-cold minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit.
Succeeding or failing at this critical task just as the coronavirus spikes toward what epidemiologists predict to be a horrifying wintertime surge can make or break the party in charge. For better or worse, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) — entering the final year of his single, nonrenewable term as the nation’s only physician governor — and, by extension, his Democratic Party, will own the outcome.
Botch it, and it’s hard to imagine this not metastasizing to the Democratic nominee next fall, giving the GOP a golden opportunity to win its first statewide election in a dozen years and regain at least a few seats in the Democratic-dominated House of Delegates, also up for election in the fall. Pull this off smoothly, however, and Democrats’ eventual nominee will enjoy a significant tail wind sailing into November, representing a brand that knows how to get things done. That’s particularly true with a lightning-rod Republican state senator running for governor as a Trump loyalist who has advocated that the president declare martial law to stay in office illegally.
That presupposes an even greater development over the next 10 months. Another Virginia General Assembly as chaotic as the largely virtual and socially distanced special session that ended recently could yield compelling new issues of its own. Virginia’s newly authorized, supposedly independent redistricting commission, meeting for the first time, faces a rushed turnaround in redrawing Virginia’s 100 House of Delegates districts in time for the fall elections plus state Senate and congressional boundaries. And who knows how deep a toll the coronavirus surge will take on Virginia’s economy and, by extension, state government revenue?
The demanding task immediately before us presents the clearest test of governmental effectiveness and proficiency that Virginia has had in decades. And the ultimate judgment on whether the Northam administration passed or failed will be rendered on Nov. 2.