Numbers don’t lie. Here’s some of the truths they tell about Virginia’s recent legislative elections which put Democrats in charge of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since 1995:
Over the past two decades, about 30% of Virginia voters have cast ballots in years when the House of Delegates and state Senate are on the ballot. During the 2015 cycle, 29.1% of registered voters went to the polls. This year, turnout was about 43%, according to preliminary estimates. In raw numbers, that means 1,509,864 Virginians voted in 2015. This year, raw numbers show 2,278,078 people voted. That’s 768,214 “extra” voters over 2015. The bad news for Republicans is that a disproportionate number of those additional voters supported Democrats.
Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham blamed Virginia’s results on “foreign-born” voters in Northern Virginia. Virginia’s demographics are certainly changing but this is a pernicious argument. If foreign-born voters are voters, then that means they’re American citizens — which means they’re, well, American, and the “foreign-born” appellation is irrelevant. That’s the central premise of the United States — anyone can become an American.
There’s no reason why immigrants would automatically be left-of-center voters (historically some immigrant groups have tended to be conservative voters) — except that they’ve been driven away by the ugly rhetoric of some in the modern-day Republican Party under Donald Trump. Do Republicans want to be a party of conservative ideas or a party of ethno-nationalism? If the former, there’s no reason why they can’t be competitive in the future. If the latter, then demography — not Democrats — doom them to permanent minority status.
A study by The Washington Post found that more than half the state’s foreign-born population lives in just three counties — Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. That doesn’t explain the seats Democrats won in Richmond and Hampton Roads. Nor does it fully explain the Democratic victories in Northern Virginia. And it definitely doesn’t explain how Democrat Chris Hurst won a Republican seat in the New River Valley in 2017 that helped put his party on the cusp of a majority in the House.
The Post points out that about 14% of the registered voters in those three counties are naturalized citizens — but that number leaves out 86% of other voters. The real explanation is more like this: Northern Virginia is home to a disproportionate number of college-educated voters, and it’s those voters who have been realigning from Republican to Democratic.
It’s instructive to look at the fate of Tim Hugo, the last Republican legislator from “inner” Northern Virginia — Fairfax County and east. He was first elected in a special election in 2002 and routinely reelected thereafter. Some years he didn’t even draw opposition. In eight elections, no Democrat running against him polled more than 9,903 votes. In 2015, Hugo’s Democratic opponent polled only 5,781 votes. Hugo that year won 10,875 votes. This year, Hugo got even more votes — 14,457. But his Democratic opponent got 15,913 votes — more than double what the Democrat won there in 2015.
This was a district the Republican statewide ticket for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general carried as recently as 2013. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate carried it in 2014. It seemed a safe Republican seat. Then something happened: In 2016, a district that had been voting Republican suddenly cast only 43% for the Republican nominee for president — Donald Trump. In every statewide election since then, Democrats have carried the district — by the double digit margins that Republicans used to win by. Hugo barely held on in 2017 and this year was swept under. Did Trump cause that realignment or merely hasten it?
How did Glen Sturtevant and Geary Higgins lose? These are the two seats that cost Republicans their majority in the state Senate — Sturtevant held a seat in Richmond and its suburbs; Higgins was the GOP nominee for a seat that Republican Richard Black had long held in Loudoun and Prince William. Black’s was a reliably Republican district that suddenly flipped. In 2014, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate took 54% of the vote here. In 2016, Trump took just 44% — and no Republican has won it since.
Sturtevant was in a trickier position. His district had been voting Democratic in other elections but voters were content to send Republicans to the General Assembly. He had a close contest four years ago, winning 27,651 to 26,173. This year turnout surged by 48%. Sturtevant expanded his vote to 37,737. But his Democratic opponent, Ghazala Hashmi, grew the Democratic vote even more — from 26,173 in 2015 to 44,548 this year.
One way or another, the same pattern repeats in other districts: Turnout was up in ways that helped Democrats. So, is this the “new normal,” or will future elections revert to lower turnouts of the past? That answer may be revealed by another number: 2020.
— Adapted from The Roanoke Times