2017 House of Delegates Preview: Dems on Offense in VA

Key Takeaways:

  1. Electoral results from 2011-2016 suggest a motivated Democratic party could contend strongly in 21 House of Delegates races in VA in 2017 – 17 on offense and 4 on defense. The remaining 79 seats appear much safer for the incumbent party.
  2. A clean sweep of these 21 races would give the Dems a 51-49 majority (currently it’s 34-66 in the GOP’s favor), though netting 17 seats in the House of Delegates is historically unprecedented.
  3. Among those 17 competitive seats where Democrats must be on the offensive, only in 6 have Democrats announced their candidacies (according to VPAP).
  4. With nearly a year before the November 7, 2017 election, key unknown determinants of the election include party organizing, voter turnout and the coattails of gubernatorial candidates, and Virginians’ reactions to the Trumpocalypse.

As the shrapnel of the 2016 election continues to ricochet through our social and political institutions, claiming more casualties by the day – Can I get an Emoluments Clause, please? – it is time to take a break.

Let’s hit pause on the cavalcade of misery that is the Obama-Trump transition and take a look closer to home and further ahead: that’s right, it’s time to start fretting over the 2017 races in Virginia.

Oh, how I love VA politics. Just as the rest of the country commences its quadrennial walk of shame away from the brink of partisan rupture to get back to business as usual[1], Virginia, with its off-year statewide elections, is abuzz with the machinations of dozens of candidates and potential candidates for the 100 House of Delegates seats (and for governor, of course; though that race will be covered elsewhere on battlegroundva.com).

What can we expect to see this November? Certainly, Democrats nationwide and in Virginia are eager to roll back the gains made by the GOP at the state level over a better part of the last decade.

Throughout the Obama Administration the Democratic Party performed pretty poorly in state and local elections. When Obama entered office in January 2009, Democrats controlled 59 of 98 state houses[2], held 55 percent of state legislative seats, and Democrats resided in 28 of 50 governor’s mansions throughout the country[3].

On inauguration day this year, Democrats will only control 29 state houses, hold 42 percent of state legislative seats, and only 16 states will have a Democrat leading their executive branch[4].

Currently in the Virginia House of Delegates (HoD), only 34 seats are blue, while Republicans hold the other 66. Some Democrats are cautiously optimistic for 2017. Appearing on the Kojo Nnamdi radio show in early December, Democratic State Senator Adam Ebbin highlighted that “[Virginia is] the only battleground state [where] Hillary Clinton improved performance for the Democrats in 2016 over 2012. So those are good signs. That said, it’s still an off-year – non-federal year – so we’re going to have to work hard to turn out our vote. But there’s a lot of new energy and renewed energy and revitalization of the Democratic Party.”

Moreover, a recent post on the progressive blog, bluevirginia.us, showed that Hillary Clinton won in 17 House of Delegates districts currently held by Republicans and this SWEET map from the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP)a nonpartisan transparency initiative regarding VA politics, shows the districts that could turn blue. The Dems are facing an uphill climb in Virginia, though, and are likely at least two election cycles away from reclaiming a majority of HoD seats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the 2017 Elections will likely be Close

How can we assess Democrats’ prospects in the 2017 election? First, let’s take a look at how volatile swings in the HoD are in general and, more specifically, following a presidential election year. Next, we’ll review recent HoD electoral history to identify the most vulnerable Republicans (and Democrats) and take a look at how voters in these HoD districts have behaved in other elections in the last 5 years to spot other districts that could be in play. Finally, we’ll very briefly preview the candidates who have announced they are running thus far.

Partisan Swings in the House of Delegates

Prior to the 1960s, the House of Delegates showed a great deal more stability between elections:  an average of only 1.5 seats flipped in elections from 1901 to 1960. Since then, an average of 4.7 seats have changed party in HoD elections. Overall, the Republican party has been the biggest beneficiary over the last half century – going from an 89 seat deficit in 1961 to a 32 seat majority in 2015 as the Commonwealth moved to the right and gained a reputation as a swing state.

Since 1960, more House of Delegates seats, on average, flip the year after a presidential election as well:  3.67 seats flip in elections following non-Presidential election years (e.g. 2015, 2011) and 5.43 seats flip in elections that follow Presidential election years (e.g. 2013, 2009).

While this bit of evidence suggests the Democrats may be well-poised to make gains in 2017, it is actually the party that won the immediately preceding Presidential race that has benefitted ever so slightly (on average). The party that won the immediately preceding race for the White House won an average of 0.43 seats in the following HoD races since 1960. It appears the President’s coattails may actually extend, however minimally, into the following election year in Virginia.

That said, this is a pretty small sample size – only 28 elections, 14 of which follow a Presidential election year – and the party not occupying the White House has made moderately substantial gains in elections the year after a Presidential race (GOP +5 in 2009, GOP +6 in 1992). Further, Trump lost VA by more than 5 percent, by last count[5], so his coattails may be non-existent, though GOP voters tend to show up in greater numbers in off-year elections like 2017.

Recent House of Delegates Electoral History

In August 2011, a redistricting plan was signed into law establishing House of Delegates districts. As such, I will only look at the three most recent elections – 2011, 2013, and 2015.

The first thing to note about House of Delegates elections is how many are uncontested. In the last three election cycles, 45 to 63 races were not contested in the November general elections.

 

Of the 130 House of Delegates races that were
contested since 2011, only 26 were won by a margin of 10 percent or less. For Democrats looking to make gains in 2017, the tight races in 2015 provide a starting point. These data suggest they’ll need to make a push in Districts 2, 31, and 32 (these are all districts Hillary won in 2016) while also playing defense in Districts 34, 87, and 93.

 

Winning in those six districts would only net the Dems three seats, so they will want to expand the map a bit. The 2013 elections were quite a bit closer across numerous districts and highlight seven seats where the Democrats should be on offense – 94, 13, 12, 51, 21, 67, and 50 (again, HRC won all of these districts in 2016). Republicans ran unopposed in Districts 51 and 67 in 2015, but will not have that luxury in 2017. Additionally, District 86 turned blue in 2015, but will require resources for defense, though no Republican candidates have yet officially announced they will contest the seat, according to VPAP.

 

 

 

 

Reaching back to the 2011 elections[6], only one additional seat might be considered: District 9. Republicans did not face a Democratic competitor in this district in 2013 or 2015. In more recent elections, this district has veered hard right. In the 2016 Presidential race, Clinton received just 25 percent of the vote, in the 2014 US Senate race Warner received only 36 percent, and McAuliffe only managed 29 percent in 2013. Currently no Democratic candidates are listed for this race on the VPAP.

Other Election Data

As noted earlier, bluevirginia.us and VPAP reported Hillary Clinton won in seventeen HoD districts currently held by Republicans. These include six districts I have not yet mentioned – 10, 40, 42, 72, 60, and 100 – for a total of 17 seats where Dems would be on offense and 4 where they will likely need to play defense.

Netting 17 seats would be the largest victory in House of Delegates history, and would give the Dems the slightest of margins (51-49). If Democrats are feeling particularly ambitious – not an unlikely prospect, given the frustrations of 2016 and the hope that Trump will motivate voters to show up in 2017 – the next chart highlights all districts they might consider, based on voting in the 2014 US Senate race and the 2013 gubernatorial race.

The chart includes the 21 seats previously mentioned, along with 10 other districts[7] that would likely be a bit of a stretch, but that could be in reach with the right candidate and resources (asterisk indicates a seat with a Democratic incumbent). Notably, District 85 is included among these 10 additional districts. The special election to be held in District 85 on January 10 may offer a hint of how much momentum Democrats may be able to harness in November 2017 if Democrat Cheryl Turpin can beat Republican Rocky Holcomb.

Status of the Candidates

As of late December 2016, only 11 races are listed as being contested in 2017 by VPAP, along with the January 10 special election for District 85. This will undoubtedly change.  Some VA progressives have outlined ambitions to field candidates in all 100 districts. Activate Virginia has already begun organizing, with an initial focus on ten HoD districts they hope to flip. Also, VPAP is not entirely current on its list of candidates. For example, Democrat Mansimran Kahlon plans to run in District 13, but is not listed on the VPAP website. Nonetheless, we can take a preliminary look at where things stand right now.

The table below lists the 21 districts that are likely to be competitive. Thus far, Democrats have candidates in six districts held by Republicans and no GOP candidates have emerged in the four potentially competitive seats held by Democrats. Any serious attempt to take a chunk out of the massive GOP majority in the House of Delegates will require strong candidates in all 21 of these races (and probably others).

The Key Unknown Variables

So early in the electoral cycle, any assessment of the race is a bit premature. Trump showed all those who laughed at him through late 2015 and early 2016 just where they could shove their conventional wisdom and early predictions about politics in a post-factual age. For 2017, there are at least three variables that should have a serious impact on the House of Delegates races.

  1. Party Organizing – The results of the 2016 election should energize Democrats for the 2017 cycle, but they will still need to field strong candidates that have the resources to run successful campaigns. If the Dems manage to challenge the 17 Republican incumbents in districts where HRC edged out Trump they will likely have considerable ground to make-up in fundraising and name recognition.
  2. Turnout and Gubernatorial Coattails – Democratic voters show up to the polls in off-year elections less often than Kanye completes a concert. Solving this collective action problem may be the difference between a blue wave in 2017 and sustenance of the GOP majority’s status quo. With the gubernatorial race grabbing more attention statewide, many HoD candidates’ fates may be tied to their party’s performance in the race for governor.
  3. Effects of the Trumpocalypse in a blueing VA – Trump lost VA…by a lot. If Democrats’ worst fears about the Trump administration come to fruition, the “man of the people” from 5th Avenue might just help the Dems solve their turnout problem. Translating frustration with Trump into votes will not be easy though – unfortunately, #InternetActivism (i.e. facebook and twitter rants) is a lot more psychologically cathartic than showing up at the polls knowing which candidates to support.

Note: All data for this post are from the Virginia Public Access Project and the Virginia Board of Elections.

[1]  Is this possible after the acrimonious 2016 race? Will the rise in hate crimes abate?

[2]  Nebraska is not included in these figures, as it’s unicameral legislature is officially non-partisan.

[3]  http://www.ncsl.org/documents/statevote/LegisControl_2009.pdf; Democrats and Republicans also had an even number of seats in 2 state houses as well: (1) the Alaska Senate and (2) the Montana House.

[4] http://www.ncsl.org/portals/1/documents/elections/Legis_Control_2016_Post12_6_1pm.pdf

[5] http://results.elections.virginia.gov/vaelections/2016%20November%20General/Site/Presidential.html

[6] The table does not include the 2011 District 19 race, which Independent Lacey Putney Sr. won with 41.6 percent of the vote against Republican Jerry Roland Johnson (31.7%) and Democrat Lewis Bain Medlin, Jr. (26.6%).

[7] These districts are: 76, 85, 28, 83, 68, 62, 14, 27, 60, and 9 (if we are really stretching).

 

FEEDBACK: Do you have a bone to pick with my analysis? Shoot me an email at battlegroundva@gmail.com.

Are you a Republican or Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates and you’d like to share your ideas on battlegroundva.com? Shoot me an email at battlegroundva@gmail.com.

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