VA Special Elections 2017: Tight Race in District 85

Key Takeaways:

  1. Democrat Cheryl Turpin has a good shot to reclaim House of Delegates District 85 from Republicans for the first time in more than thirty years.
  2. The race should be tight – recent elections in the district have all been within 1 to 8 percentage points.
  3. A win by Turpin would be a foreboding omen for Republicans, who will be playing defense in 17 districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
  4. The winner of the race will likely need to mobilize 3,800 to 5,700 voters.

On January 10, Virginia will have its first elections of 2017. Special elections will be held for House of Delegates (HoD) District 85, Senate seat 9, and Senate seat 22. The most exciting of these races – from a horserace perspective – is the HoD 85 election.

In District 85, Democrat Cheryl Turpin, a school teacher, is challenging Republican Rocky Holcomb, a sheriff, for the small Virginia Beach HoD seat in southeast Virginia. This race is important for a number of reasons.

First, this will only be the fifth time Democrats have contested this seat since 1982 (as far back as the VA Board of Elections data goes) and only the second time the Dems have fielded a candidate this century. In 2013, Democrat William Dale lost to Republican Scott Taylor 43.5 percent to 56.3 percent (Taylor, who won again in an uncontested race in 2015, is vacating the seat after being elected to the US House of Representatives in 2016).

Recent Electoral Results: House of Delegates District 85

Second, recent elections in this district have been very close. Hillary Clinton nearly won it in 2016, Obama and Romney split the district in 2012, and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine won here in 2012.

Third, and most interestingly, the race in HoD 85 may be a harbinger of things to come in November. Will Democratic turnout plummet, like it typically does in off-year elections, or will the election of Trump light a fire under Democrats’ butts?

Both candidates will have had limited time to campaign, so the race in a competitive district may help us get a sense of Dems’ and Republicans’ baseline for 2017. If Cheryl Turpin can win by a few percentage points, turning the seat blue for the first time since 1983, Republicans should be concerned about other swing districts.

A Rocky Halcomb win will suggest Virginia politics as usual may persist in 2017 – with Democrats showing up for off-year elections less often than Trump attends intelligence briefings. (Also, as the District represented by Robert Tata from 1983 to 2013, Rocky Holcomb must take some comfort in knowing many voters in the district appreciate a crazy name.)

What Victory may Look Like – Mobilizing 3,800 to 5,700 Voters (?)

While it is impossible to know what turnout will look like until January 10, the winner in this race will likely need to mobilize between 3,834 and 5,691 voters to win the seat. This projected range is a rough estimate based on a review of data from recent elections in HoD 85 and an analysis of the average drop off between November elections and special elections held during other times of the year.

District 85 has not had a special election in recent history (at least that I’m aware of), so projecting voter turnout is a bit of a crapshoot. Nonetheless, we can review turnout in general elections in HoD 85 and use special elections in other districts as a guide for how turnout may differ.

District 85 Redistricting: Pre and Post 2011

While the border of HoD 85 changed with the redistricting plan approved in 2011, there is considerable overlap between the pre-2011 District and the post-2011 District (see the map: purple is the pre-2011 district and orange is the post 2011 district). The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), a nonpartisan transparency organization, assesses that the changes made the District ever so slightly more Democratic (0.4 percent). Given the relatively similar boundaries of the District pre and post 2011, I will use data from 2001 to 2015 to analyze turnout in the HoD 85.

Since 2001, Republicans have won the HoD 85 with an average of 11,168 votes, though they only faced a Democratic challenger once (in 2013). In that election, Republican Scott Taylor won with 11,041 votes.


HoD District 85 Elections: 2001 to 2015

In HoD elections immediately following Presidential election years, however, Republicans have received an average of 14,901 votes in District 85. So 15,000 votes would be a reasonable target for Cheryl Turpin in a November election. That is no small task in a district with 53,578 voters and so little time to campaign.

Turnout in special elections, however, tends to be considerably lower than in November general elections. In HoD special elections across the Commonwealth in the same period (2001-2015), only 58 percent as many voters showed up in special elections compared to subsequent general elections, on average.

Special vs. General Election Turnout: 2001 – 2015

If HoD 85 behaves like the average district in a special election, we would expect only 58 percent of the 13,219 who voted in HoD 85 (on average) in general elections to show up – that would be 7,667 voters Turpin and Holcomb are fighting over.

That number, though, may be too low. In the only election in HoD 85 that was contested (that 2013 race mentioned earlier), 19,622 voters went to the polls. Fifty eight percent of 19,622 is 11,381. As such, it appears that between 7,667 and 11,381 voters may decide the future of HoD 85 (at least until we do this all over again in November).

Both Cheryl and Rocky will be fighting to mobilize 50 percent plus one of this reduced electorate – i.e. 3,834 to 5,691 voters.


Any confidence in the relative precision of these figures should be heavily tempered by a few aspects of the data and the present political atmosphere.

First, as noted previously, we have no data on special elections in HoD 85, so we do not know if this district may behave differently than the averages suggest.

Second – and reinforcing the first caveat – drop off between general and special elections is highly variable, suggesting that different districts behave quite distinctly. While an average of 58 percent as many voters showed up in special elections as did in general elections, the range is vast – 6 percent to 288 percent (see table above).

And third, this year may just be different due to the Trump card. Trump is a polarizing figure who narrowly won the district. Democratic voters may be particularly motivated to claim their first victory in the state following the disastrous 2016 election. Add to this that turnout is much higher in HoD 85 in elections following a Presidential race. The same may be true for this special election.

Democrats’ tendency to stay home in these odd-year elections, however, is strong. Turpin’s campaign has their work cut out for them.


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