Special Election in Central VA Holds Key to Senate Control

Key Takeaways:

  1. The January 10 special elections in Senate District 22 (SD 22) and House of Delegates District 85 could have far reaching impacts in the upcoming legislative session, which begins the next day.
  2. Democrat Ryant Washington could upset the partisan status quo in SD22, evenly splitting the Virginia Senate between Democrats and Republicans.
  3. Independent candidate Joe Hines, who is running in SD22, could split the conservative vote and be the key to Ryant Washington’s victory – in roughly half of the special elections in the VA Senate since 1958 in which there were more than two candidates the winner may have benefited from the other candidates splitting the votes.

In less than 48 hours, voters will go to the polls for three special elections in Virginia that could yield important gains for the Democratic party and shake up the balance of power in Richmond.

As noted previously on Battleground VA, the race for House of Delegates District 85 should be tight. In the very blue Senate District 9 (SD9), Democrat Jennifer McClellan’s victory over Libertarian Corey Fauconier is all but certain.

The election in central Virginia’s typically quite conservative SD22 is electoral drama at its best. What would otherwise be a long shot bid by Democrat Ryant Washington is looking ever more competitive with the conservative vote potentially splitting between Republican Mark Peake and the conservative independent candidate Joe Hines.

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The race has added significance as the balance of power in the Virginia Senate all depends on the citizens of SD22. If Washington wins, the Senate will be evenly split between Dems and the GOP, with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam providing the decisive vote on controversial bills.

Recent elections suggest an uphill battle for any Democratic candidate (see table), but Ryant Washington may not be just any Democratic candidate and this may be his moment.

Year Election Democratic Vote Republican Vote Other Vote
2016 President 39.4% 55.4% 4.6%
2015 State Senate No Candidate 95.3% 4.7%
2014 U.S. Senate 40% 57% 3%
2013 Governor 38% 54% 8%
2013 Lt. Governor 47% 53% 0%
2013 AG 40% 60% 0%
2012 President 42% 58% 0%
2012 U.S. Senate 44% 56% 0%
2011 State Senate 58.1% 41.8% 0.1%

Born in Buckingham County in the heart of SD22 and with a track record of winning elections in Fluvanna County (elected sheriff four times; Fluvanna is also in SD22), Washington is well acquainted with the issues facing citizens in his central VA district. Moreover, as a moderate candidate running on a platform of public safety, education funding, and job creation, he strikes a nice contrast to his conservative opponents.

Also, according the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), Washington has outraised his opponents by a considerable margin. He accumulated a war chest of nearly $200K compared to Peake’s $123K and Hines’s $60K.

But what are his chances in reality? Mark Peake is not a completely unknown quantity. He came up just 430 votes shy of winning the Republican nomination for the SD22 race in 2011. Can Ryant Washington really win a tough race in a district where more than 55 percent of voters backed Trump?

Will Hines be the GOP’s Nader in SD22?

The conservative independent Joe Hines’s candidacy, and the Democrats’ hopes that he will split the GOP vote, provide fresh wind in the sails of Ryant Washington’s campaign. But how often do third party candidates act as spoilers in Virginia elections?

There have been fifteen special elections in the Virginia Senate that have had three or more candidates in recent Virginia since 1958. In seven of them the winner of the election received fewer votes than the remaining candidates combined, suggesting it’s possible that third party candidates and independents may have swayed the vote.

This has not happened in the last 25 years, though. Also, this assumes that all those who voted for third party candidates or independents would have otherwise voted for the other major party candidate or coalesced around one candidate, which should not be taken for granted. Some of the voters who turned out likely would not have voted in the election if it were not for a particular third party or independent candidate that excited them.

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VA Senate Special Elections with 3 or more Candidates

Still, in nearly half of the special elections in which there have been three or more candidates, the winner of the election may have relied on other candidates splitting the vote. This is just what may be necessary for Ryant Washington to win on Tuesday.

If we expand our sample to include all VA Senate races (not just special elections), 42 additional races since 1970 have had three or more candidates. In 17 of these elections, the winner received fewer votes than the other candidates combined [1].

With the legislative session beginning on Wednesday and the balance of power in the VA Senate at stake, the results that come in Tuesday night could have an immediate impact on Virginia in 2017.

[1] SD10 in 2015, SD20 in 2011, SD27 in 2007, SD34 in 1999, SD22 in 1991, SD27 in 1991, SD33 in 1991, SD8 in 1987, SD7 in 1983, SD31 in 1979, SD28 in 1978, SD15 in 1976, SD8 in 1975, SD17 in 1975, SD8 in 1971, SD26 in 1971, SD33 in 1971. Data source: VA Board of Elections.

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