I almost always take the position that odd-year state races say little or nothing about what will happen in national elections a year or two away. Generally, these elections are very localized, and the fact that a particular party may win a particular state in an odd year does not necessarily indicate a national trend. To wit: Democratic gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey in 2001 were followed by Republican victories in the 2002 Congressional elections.
But I would hedge my normal statement by inviting readers to take a long, close look at what happens in Virginia next month. As astute observers of the political scene may know, Virginia has become, in recent years, a bellwether in presidential elections. In both 2008 and 2012, Virginia came the closest of any state to the overall national margin; in fact, the margin of victory in Virginia for President Barack Obama in 2012 was only 0.02 percentage points higher than his national margin. (Virginia had been 0.98 percentage points more Republican than the national margin in 2008, also the closest correlation between any state and the overall margin).
Now, keep in mind the fact that I’m not talking about the gubernatorial race or the other down-ballot statewide races. Barring some sort of colossal screw-up over the next few weeks, Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, respectively, are shoo-ins to win the governor’s race and the lieutenant governor’s race. Both have consistently led in virtually all polls conducted since the spring. Their victories would be all but certain regardless of whether the national Republican Party was in the process of torching its brand in Washington these days. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is too far right on social issues to appeal to the suburban electorate in this demographically diverse swing state, and the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, has made such crazy pronouncements as to make Cuccinelli look liberal by comparison. And while there have been few polls in the attorney general’s race between Mark Herring (D) and Mark Obenshain (R), Herring does appear to have a slight lead, and he could give the Democrats a clean sweep of the statewide races.
The results of those three races will probably say much less about the prospects of Virginia Republicans than they will say about what happens when your party holds a convention rather than a primary—which, of course, draws only the truest of the true believers—and ends up nominating a bunch of candidates who are too extreme to pass the smell test. And the results of the statewide races probably say nothing at all of what may be coming in 2014 or 2016 on a national level.
But what I would suggest watching very closely is what happens in the Virginia House of Delegates. Currently, Republicans have a spectacularly outsized 65-32 majority (as compared to a 20-20 split in the state Senate, which is not up for election this year). There are two vacant seats, both of which had been held by Republicans, and one independent.
I am not going to suggest that Democrats might take control of the House of Delegates this year. That’s not happening, and any political analyst who would predict that result should have his/her head examined. Democrats would have to pick up 18 seats, and while that kind of swing may happen in Minnesota or Maine, it is unheard of in Virginia. It took Republicans two cycles to go from a 53-45 majority to their current 65-32 advantage, and the 2009 and 2011 elections took place in a period when the Tea Party movement was flying high.
But there are opportunities for Democrats to eat into the Republican edge. The question here is: how much?
Geoffrey Skelley, one of the very talented political analysts at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, did a comprehensive analysis of this year’s Virginia legislative elections on August 8th. By his estimate, it may be possible for Democrats to pick up six or seven seats, which would cut the GOP advantage to something around 60-40. But there are 12 legislative seats currently held by Republicans in districts that went for the president in last year’s elections, and two more where Obama barely lost.
For Democrats to pick up as many as six or seven seats could probably be explained away as a simple matter of political gravity. It is very difficult to see how Republicans could win any more than 67 of 100 House seats in Virginia, even taking into account issues of gerrymandering and inefficient distribution of Democrats. In short, the Republicans have maxed out in the House of Delegates; there’s really only one direction they can go, and it isn’t a good one from their point of view. Democratic pickups this year are to be expected, and would likely be expected regardless of the national environment.
But if Democrats can somehow win more than six or seven seats, perhaps taking upwards of 10 or 11 of the 14 GOP-held districts where Obama won or barely lost in 2012, that would be harder to explain away as mere gravity. It would almost surely indicate an electorate that has turned against Republicans in a major way, in a state that recently has more closely mirrored the national electorate than any other. That would be significant, and that’s why the Virginia House of Delegates is what you should be watching on the night of November 5th.