By Bob Gibson
A Republican candidate for commissioner of the revenue in Southwest Virginia on Nov. 5 is openly campaigning for the local office as a “Trump Republican.”
Mark Matney, who is running for commissioner of the revenue in Washington County in the heavily pro-Trump rural territory around Abingdon, also sells Trump hats and other items to pay the rent for a local GOP campaign office. When Trump visited Abingdon for a GOP rally in 2016, Matney said sales of Trump gear brought in more than $2,800.
That Matney can advertise his candidacy as a Republican tying his fortunes so tightly to the president illustrates how divergent Virginians views are about Trump — from rural counties where the president remains widely popular to suburban and urban parts of the Commonwealth where he is a drag on GOP candidates.
In Virginia Beach, 332 miles east of Abingdon, a Democratic congresswoman who isn’t on the ballot until next year is using attacks by Trump on her to raise $228,000 for fellow Democrats seeking seats next month in the Virginia General Assembly.
Rep. Elaine Luria, who represents the Second District including Virginia Beach, says when Trump allies came after her with $228,000 in attack ads she decided to raise a similar amount for her party’s state legislative candidates running this fall. This helps nationalize normally quiet legislative races that once were run on local issues more than the highly charged politics of Washington.
Gun control issues remain salient in Hampton Roads in light of last May’s workplace shooting in Virginia Beach that took the lives of 12 people. Luria said a Democratic-led state legislature would be the best way to enact gun-control measures that simply die in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate.
Trump himself is gearing up for 2020 and supporting Vice President Mike Pence’s plans to campaign in Virginia this fall against Democratic congresswomen Luria and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Chesterfield County), who several weeks ago came out in favor of impeaching Trump.
Virginia, which has a rich history of political antipathy toward Washington, is finding itself awash in pro-Trump and anti-Trump messages in the closing weeks of state and local off-off-year campaigns that normally have the lowest voter turnout of any elections due to a lack of statewide candidates.
Now Democrats and Republicans alike are wondering how many voters will be more motivated to vote on Nov. 5 and how many may stay home because of the Trump factor that dominates daily news cycles and increasingly pops up in even local-based campaigns
Trump and Pence may inadvertently further nationalize the state’s Nov. 5 General Assembly and local elections by targeting Luria and Spanberger.
Polls already are showing signs of increasing energy and turnout by voters who normally vote for Democrats or would favor them but tend not to vote in off-off year elections. Voter registration also has shown large increases this year from the numbers of new voters who signed up in 2015.
In 2015, the last election year cycle lacking a statewide race, only 29 percent of the state’s eligible voters went to the polls and more than half the 140 General Assembly’s seats went uncontested.
Political scientists and pollsters who measure partisan enthusiasm are forecasting larger than normal turnout due to factors such as Trump’s ability to raise the emotional stakes that motivate election turnout and the huge increases in women motivated to seek legislative seats.
New-voter registrations soared in the first half of this year, as 111,487 Virginians added their names to the rolls — a 67% jump over voter registrations for the first half of 2015, the last time all 140 General Assembly seats were up for election, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
One Republican with decades of work in Virginia elections said many women are clearly motivated to vote against candidates they see as aligned with Trump but it remains harder to predict whether many GOP voters will show up to vote or decide to stay home.
Both parties have nominated record numbers of women to run for legislative seats. Of the 92 Democratic candidates seeking House of Delegates seats, 48 are women, a tremendous increase to 52 percent of the party’s nominees. Republican leaders note with some pride that they have recruited and nominated a record 14 women — plus two African-American Republicans — for House seats.
In Virginia Senate elections, Democrats have nominated 17 women for the upper chamber’s 40 seats and Republicans have nominated six.
University of Virginia Center for Politics founder Larry Sabato calls the record numbers of women running significant. “The election will be decided on party and issues, but having a majority of women candidates — a first for either party in Virginia — is a plus for Democrats.”
“Women are a majority of the rank-and-file party members, and as candidates women are often perceived as honest, sincere, and hard-working,” Sabato adds.
Women running for the legislature from both parties cite kitchen-table economic issues and fairness and equality concerns among the factors motivating them.
Countering Trump also is a motivating factor for Democratic women. The previous record number of 12 additional women elected to the House of Delegates in 2017 and the even larger number running in 2019 are reshaping the political landscape, says Deirdre Condit, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“In terms of women, the 2017 election in Virginia was like the watershed moment for the country,” Condit says. “It was like a moment where we woke up and went: ‘Wow, that really happened.’”
Virginia Republicans are worried about the nationalization this year’s General Assembly contests, which take place a few months before presidential primaries kick off and may be seen nationally as significant new tests of Trump’s popularity.
As of Sept. 30, the Democrats held a $2.2 million cash-on-hand advantage over GOP candidates in the statewide fundraising numbers tracked by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Sally Hudson, a UVA economist and a Democrat unopposed for a House seat from Charlottesville and portions of Albemarle County, says the campaigns for legislative seats across Virginia this year “are fundamentally not persuasion campaigns. They are turnout efforts.”
Thus, cash being used to try to persuade voters may not be as well spent as on-the-ground efforts to turn favorable voters out to the polls.
Democratic Party dominance in many of the state’s large urban and suburban localities may be a key to which party wins control of the chambers of the General Assembly.
After all, there are not many rural legislative seats where Trump is widely popular held by Democrats and likely targets for GOP pickups.
There are more close contests in the suburbs, where Trump’s name is not likely to be mentioned as often or as favorably by Republicans.
Voter turnout will be key as to whether the balance of power shifts in the General Assembly, notes longtime Richmond political scientist Bob Holsworth. Normally, he says, low-turnout years favor Republicans, but polling and other data show voter enthusiasm on the increase.
In 2017 and 2018, 10% higher-than-normal voter turnout helped Democrats make large gains, Holsworth says.
Reactions to Trump by Virginians who vote this year, and Virginians who stay at home, may decide enough legislative elections to determine which party controls the state legislature in January.
Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center.