The Real Crystal Ball

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

Category: Southwest Virginia

The 6th District Fiasco

If you haven’t yet, check out the discussion my previous diary created at Blue Virginia with Southwest Virginia’s own Isaac Sarver, President of the Virginia Young Democrats and a rising star in Southwest Virginia politics. I will be working on getting more of Isaac’s response to my points soon, but for now I promised a discussion of the 6th District, so here it is.

Back in 2005 Republican Anne Crockett-Stark knocked off incumbent Democrat Bennie Keister in the 6th District. Keister had been barely holding onto office in the first place, winning the open seat in 2001 with 51% of the vote and winning reelection in 2003 by just 49 votes. In both races Keister had a significant financial edge over his Republican challengers, so it’s no surprise that when Republicans targeted the race heavily in 2005 and outspent him they pulled off the win.

Let’s take a look at Keister’s performance.

When he won in 2001, he was running behind Mark Warner at the top of the ticket. Warner won the district with 53%, two points ahead of Keister. In 2005, Tim Kaine was winning 45% of the vote, close to the 46% that Keister lost with downticket. Keister was pulling off narrow victories in a district that was shifting from supporting local Virginia Democrats to won that was Republican up and down the line, but it was still competitive for even Tim Kaine in 2005. But even when outspending his Republican opponents almost three to one, Keister never was able to put this district away. Republicans smelled the blood and came after him with a vengeance in 2005.

Democrats contested the seat again in 2007 and lost, but kept it from being a blowout. But in 2008 Obama was blown out of the water here. His 37.5% of the vote was just a hair above Kerry’s 36.8%. This district is hostile to national, liberal Democrat. And all signs pointed to the district getting worse for Democrats.

In 2009, Virginia Democrats saw a district that was trending away from the party with a battle hardened Republican incumbent and wisely decided … to throw more money at it.

Wait, what?

Break it down.

Mark Warner in 2001 won the district with 53% of the vote. Even if Creigh Deeds rebuilt something resembling the Warner coalition from 2001, the change in the district over the years was going to make it unlikely that he would win the district. A strong Democratic challenger might be able to run ahead of the top of the ticket, but they would be going up against an entrenched Republican. That’s assuming Deeds is doing well at the top of the ticket, instead of being shellacked.

I don’t fault the party for trying to find a strong candidate and making sure that the seat was contested. But once the alarm bells were going off in Richmond about the McDonnell tsunami heading their way, they needed to prioritize districts and try to defend incumbents first, not invest in a seat that was always going to be a reach.

In late October, 2009, the Democratic House Caucus put in over $80,000 to Carole Pratt’s campaign. Pratt, a retired dentist, might not have had much going for her in terms of political connections in the district, but she was the mother of the House Caucus Director at the time, Matt Mansell. Matt is now lobbying for the Medical Society of Virginia and I can only thank him for leaving campaign politics to the professionals.

In a year in which several incumbent delegates were dragged down to defeat by Deeds, four stand out for the narrow margins of their defeat: Mathieson, Valentine, Vanderhye and Nichols. Republicans probably would have targeted them for defeat through redistricting, and liberal Democrats like adulterer David Englin would defend that as fair, but I bet most Virginia Democrats would prefer to have had a chance at keeping those four around instead of supporting Pratt, who got blown out with less than 35% of the vote. Pratt was the 6th largest recipient of support from the House Caucus in 2009, behind Bouchard, Mathieson, Werkheiser, Stevens Miller and Nichols. Don’t you think that money could have been better spent?

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Democrats Start 2013 Behind in Southwest Virginia

ImageDo you think Rick regrets this picture now?

It’s just days away from the candidate filing deadline for the Virginia House of Delegates. Many Southwest localities have a tradition of conventions, not primaries, so the impending doom facing Virginia Democrats may actually be delayed beyond March 28th. But from this vantage point Virginia Democrats are starting out from way behind in Southwest Virginia. Longtime popular Democrat Joe Johnson has called it quits, getting out while he’s still ahead.

Here’s how bad this news is for the Democrats.

Johnson has not been challenged since 1989. George Bush was President then. No, the OTHER George Bush.

Here’s just a brief glimpse of how the 4th District has changed in recent times, not even going back to the last time Michael Dukakis was on the ballot.

In 2004, that other Massachusetts liberal running against a Bush received 34.4% of the vote in the 4th District. Only 13 other districts were more Republican than the 4th that year.

The following year, 2005, Tim Kaine received only 36% of the vote against Southwest Virginia’s own Terry Kilgore. Local Virginia Democrats tend to do better than liberal national Democrats, but Kaine was facing off against a well known Southwest Virginian Republican. Kaine managed to run ahead of Kerry, although not by much. But it was still better than his performance in three other Delegate districts, all in Southwest Virginia, where Kaine ran behind Kerry.

In 2008, Barack Obama made history by winning Virginia, the first time a Democrat had won the Commonwealth since 1964. Despite running ahead of Kerry across the nation and the Commonwealth, he managed to finish only at 34.7% in Johnson’s 4th District. Only six districts were more Republican.

Redistricting actually made the 4th more Democratic, as Republicans sliced up Southwest Virginia in order to eliminate at least one Democrat. Creigh Deeds, the country lawyer who honed his rhetoric for rural jurors, won 26.9% under the old lines but jumped to an impressive 32.3% under the new lines. Deeds Country!

In 2012, the 4th was one of three Southwest districts to swing sharply to the right. Obama received only 30% of the vote, down almost 9 points from his 2008 performance. Which was already disappointing when compared to Kerry’s performance. Which set an extremely low floor that Kaine only barely outperformed in 2005. Which only looks good for a Virginia Democrat when compared to Creigh Deeds.

Unless Mark Warner himself runs for office, this seat is going to be gone, gone, gone for Virginia Democrats. Johnson would have been in for a tough fight if Republicans had ever ran against him. Much like Phil Puckett he might have been able to hang on, or he could have joined Rick Boucher in the formerly elected Southwest Virginian Democrats club. But this is a very big uphill climb for any local Democrat when you consider that they will be swimming upstream against an overwhelming landslide for Republicans at the top of the ticket.

To put this in perspective, in 2008, when Barack Obama was losing this district with 39% of the vote, Mark Warner was running 22 point ahead of Obama and winning with 61% of the vote. That was Mark “I love Southwest Virginia so much my blood is a blend of NASCAR fuel and coal” Warner running against the world’s most incompetent Republican candidate. And that was before Obama’s “War on Coal,” the defeat of Rick Boucher, and an even sharper swing to the right in Southwest Virginia.

Today, the Democratic brand is much, much weaker in Southwest Virginia and you need to find a candidate with the sort of independence that a Mark Warner has. Tim Kaine ran 4 points ahead of Obama in this district in 2012, but still lost the district. The local congressional candidate, who never had a chance and never had any major support, ran 10 points ahead of Obama … and still lost the district.

In 2009, multiple incumbent delegates ran significantly ahead of Creigh Deeds. Ward Armstrong ran 22 points ahead of Creigh Deeds, Lynwood Lewis ran 23 points ahead, Albert Pollard was 18 points ahead, Paula Miller in Tidewater was 18 points ahead, Shannon Valentine in Lynchburg ran 11 points ahead of the top of the ticket, Bill Barlow ran 11 points ahead, and Dan Bowling ran 10 points ahead in the 3rd District. This list includes some incredibly strong and popular incumbents. You would need someone on the Armstrong, Lewis, Pollard and Miller range of popularity in spite of an unpopular top of the ticket in order to win the 4th District. And you’d need to find that level of popularity without a history of incumbency. In 2009 no Democrat in an open seat ran that far ahead of the top of the ticket. Luke Torian, 4 points ahead of Deeds, was the only one to run well in a competitive district. And 4 points ahead of Terry McAuliffe means you’re still blown out of the water in the 4th District. I would be shocked if McAuliffe breaks 35% in this district.

Even back in 2005, when Democrats were doing well in Virginia, not a single Democrat in an open seat managed to run ahead of Kaine by double digits. Lowell Fulk, an incredibly strong and popular Democratic candidate in Rockingham/Harrisonburg, ran 6 points ahead of Tim Kaine, the best for any Democratic challenger in an open seat in 2005. He still lost, and this district is MUCH worse for Democrats than the 26th. Having ran before, Fulk started off with significantly higher name ID than his opponent. And he still lost. He managed to run 6 points ahead of the top of the ticket. To keep the 4th, Virginia Democrats need to find someone who could run closer to 20 points ahead of the ticket.

Let’s summarize.

Even if he wins, McAuliffe is going to be lucky to break 35% in this district. Something closer to 30% is more likely.

It would take an incredibly strong Democratic challenger to run far enough ahead of the ticket to make this competitive. Finding someone who’s not an incumbent and who hasn’t run before yet is somehow that popular seems nigh impossible.

Even if you find the right candidate, it would be a tough fight, in which Virginia Democrats would be sinking resources into an area that does little to help the top of the ticket, and will elect a “Democrat” who will always vote against gun control, always vote for the interests of the coal industry, and will frustrate the socially liberal, tree hugging activists who make up a large part of the Democratic base.

Is it worth it?

There’s a Part Two to this post coming soon, talking about the 6th District. Stay tuned.