By Jim Ellis
Nov. 10, 2017 — Now that the political dust is settling over the Old Dominion, we are better able to analyze the Democrats’ Virginia victory.
While Democrats retained all three of the statewide positions they previously held: governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, they almost succeeded (and, still may) in capturing the state House of Delegates. Prior to the vote, this was thought to be an unattainable task for one election. Though most of the news analysis suggests the result translates into a statewide backlash against President Trump, looking deeper into the numbers indicates that such may be only partially true.
It appears the Democratic sweep came about largely because of overwhelming strength in Northern Virginia. While the anti-Trump analysis may be too simplistic to explain the entire state’s voting pattern, we can ascertain that such is the case in the northern sector.
To re-cap the House of Delegates, Democrats teeter on wresting the majority away from Republicans. Two of the races have turned the Republicans’ way as the final canvass in Fairfax County and Newport News have placed the GOP incumbents ahead by just a few votes, 12 to be specific in the latter case.
Five campaigns, including the two aforementioned, are not officially called. Should all of the current race leaders remain in their respective positions through what are sure to be recounts and legal challenges, Republicans will maintain a 51-49 chamber majority, meaning a huge net gain of 15 seats for the Democrats.
As we mentioned before the election, geographical turnout would be the determining factor in deciding the statewide and district results. For the Democrats to win big, they would need major voter participation coming from Northern Virginia. That proved true.
Comparing 2017 with the last governor’s race (2013), we see a statewide turnout that is 16.3 percent larger, this from a place whose population grew about 2.5 percent during that same time interval. But, in the northernmost large localities: City of Alexandria, counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, and Stafford, the turnouts were much larger. Loudoun County saw a 31 percent increase, Alexandria and Arlington better than 26 percent, Fairfax over 22 percent, Prince William 21.3 percent, and Stafford 19 percent. These numbers explain the landslide Democratic victory.
As mentioned above, Democrats gained a net 15 Delegate seats, picking up three open Republican districts and defeating a dozen GOP incumbents. Ten of the 15 were in Northern Virginia. The remainder came from Henrico County (2), Virginia Beach (2), and the Southwest (1).
Though the Democratic turnout produced a wave effect for them, GOP turnout did not lag. Their statewide candidates received more votes than previous winning Republicans.
In gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie’s case, he exceeded former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) vote total by just under 10,000 votes. This is significant because McDonnell won the election in 2009, the last Republican to win the top Virginia statewide office, while Gillespie lost by eight percentage points — a raw-vote margin of more than 231,000 votes — to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. This year’s GOP lieutenant governor candidate, Jill Vogel, actually recorded the highest number of votes ever for any Republican candidate in a gubernatorial election year, which was good only for a six-point loss in 2017 to Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax (D). These examples illustrate the Democratic turnout strength.
Nationwide, the news was good for Democrats, but not as earth shattering as we found in Northern Virginia. In an area dominated with government employees and contractors, it is not particularly surprising to see a negative reaction to a new administration committed to changing the way operations are executed within the federal government. Seeing the geographical segmentation from Tuesday’s votes tells us that a backlash from the administration’s top change target in the one specific region is the baseline explanation for the end results.