Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
“The success of any great moral enterprise does not depend upon numbers.”
— William Lloyd Garrison, 19th-century American
abolitionist and social reformer
Not many contemporary Americans would mistake either of the nation’s major political parties as a “great moral enterprise.” The pursuit of individual or collective political ambition is all about numbers.
The quest for power leads politicians to study numbers, cultivate numbers, obey and elevate numbers over principle, never mind pols’ claims to moral convictions.
It must be sobering these days for Virginia Republicans to look at the numbers. In the short term and long term, the numbers do not line up in their favor.
For Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor this year, there are some numbers that could cause sleepless nights:
542,816 — The number of Virginians who voted June 13 in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, compared with the 365,782 who voted in the Republican one. The record Democratic turnout is a clear indicator that Virginia Democrats go into the fall campaign with an enthusiasm advantage over Republicans.
155,466 — The number of Virginians who voted for Corey A. Stewart, not Gillespie, in the Republican primary.
Everyone expected Gillespie, the favorite of the GOP establishment, to cruise to an easy nomination victory. After all, he had led the Republican National Committee and became a GOP hero when he nearly defeated the seemingly unbeatable Mark R. Warner in Virginia’s 2014 U.S. Senate race.
But Gillespie beat back Stewart’s challenge by only 4,320 votes.
Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, is a disciple of President Trump and gleefully embraces the president’s brand of bare-knuckle politics. Stewart mobilized Trump Republicans in Virginia with harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration and political correctness, as well as an unapologetic defense of Virginia’s Confederate heritage.
Gillespie needs Trump Republicans’ support to have a chance in the general election in November. Winning their loyalty will be a challenge given that Gillespie has always kept Trump at arm’s length.
Stewart is doing Gillespie no favors. In post-primary interviews, Stewart called Gillespie “boring” and only grudgingly acknowledged he will vote for the GOP nominee. Stewart says party unity is not his highest priority.
36 percent — Here’s where it gets even trickier for Gillespie. Thirty-six percent is Trump’s approval rating in Virginia in the most recent Washington Post-Schar School statewide poll.
With Trump so unpopular, Gillespie runs the risk of alienating Virginia moderates and independents if he appeals too openly to Trump voters.
5 percentage points— Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory over Trump in Virginia last fall. The Old Dominion was the only Southern state to support Clinton. And remember that Barack Obama carried Virginia in 2008 and 2012.
2009 — The last time a Republican won statewide in Virginia. Today, Virginia’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and U.S. senators are all Democrats, thanks to blue-voting majorities in urban and suburban eastern Virginia, especially the Northern Virginia suburbs, where “government programs” and “government workers” are not considered dirty words.
2018 — As if he hadn’t done enough to undermine Gillespie, Stewart launched a bid for the U.S. Senate next year that will somewhat upstage Gillespie’s campaign for governor this year.
The brash Stewart attracts and revels in media coverage. (Remind you of anyone?) Ask yourself, who’s more attractive to the evening news: the guy talking calmly about income tax cuts or the loud fellow posing with the Confederate battle flag?
2020 to 2040 — Gillespie won’t necessarily worry about these numbers, but other Republicans will. The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service predicts the commonwealth’s population will top 10 million by 2040 (up from the current estimate of 8.4 million.)
Population growth will be strongest in Virginia’s largest urban areas, particularly Democratic Northern Virginia. Our urban population will become younger and more racially diverse — good demographics for Democrats. In Republican rural Virginia, meanwhile, growth will be slower, and in many cases rural counties will lose population.
Now, you knew there’d be a caveat in these musings over numbers. Recall the confidence last fall of the media and pundit community. The numbers overwhelmingly favored Clinton for president; just about everyone was convinced Trump couldn’t win. How’d that turn out?
As American humorist and observer James Thurber noted, “There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else.”