What did we learn from Tuesday’s primary elections? Here are five takeaways:
1. Neither party lurched as far to the left or right as it could have. The two biggest establishment figures in both parties survived challenges.
On the Democratic side, 79-year-old Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County — who very well could be Senate majority leader should his party win control of the chamber in November — faced his first primary opponent in 40 years. Yasmine Taeb charged that Saslaw was out of touch with where the Democratic Party is today — too supportive of Dominion Energy and the death penalty, for instance.
Saslaw survived, but barely. He couldn’t even muster a majority of the vote — he finished with just under 49% to Taeb’s 45.5%. A third candidate took the rest, leaving everyone to wonder: What if this had been a two-person race? Would those other votes have gone to Taeb? Or would those voters not have voted at all? People can speculate all they want, but they won’t have to speculate about this: Saslaw, however close a call he had, will be going back to Richmond.
On the Republican side, Emmett Hanger of Augusta — co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — easily brushed aside a more conservative opponent. Some conservatives were incredulous that they could not rid themselves of Hanger, who had committed the ideological sin of supporting Medicaid expansion. After the votes were in, the Culpeper Republican Committee posted on Facebook: “In the end Virginia’s open primary was too much to overcome with the influx of left wing interlopers voting in the Republican primary.”
This is sheer nonsense and just goes to show how out of touch some Republican leaders are with the actual Republicans who vote in party primaries (one reason that many conservative activists prefer not to have primaries at all). Hanger won by a margin of 2,854 votes. Are we really to believe there are that many “left wing interlopers” who voted in that primary? This is a feverish conspiracy theory.
A more rational appraisal of Hanger’s win is that he won this year the same way he won similar primary challenges in the past: He ran up the vote on his home turf in the Shenadoah Valley, which accounts for more than half the district. Hanger carried Augusta County, Rockingham County, Staunton and Waynesboro, often by large margins. He lost east of the Blue Ridge in Culpeper, Greene and Madison counties. Some hardcore conservatives might loathe Hanger, but in the valley, he is quite well-liked — to the tune of 64% of the vote in Augusta and 70% in Staunton. It’s really that simple. In 2007, Hanger took 53% in the primary; four years ago, he took 60%; this year, he took 57%. Measured against a decade ago, he’s actually getting stronger even though he has a more difficult district.
Besides, there is a Democratic candidate in the race this fall. If Democrats really wanted to intervene, they’d have voted for challenger Tina Freitas, hoping that a more conservative Republican might create some sliver of space for a Democrat to pick up votes in the center. That’s not happening, either: Hanger will be back in Richmond, just as Saslaw will be.
2. Few Republicans who voted to expand Medicaid paid a political price. Last year, 23 GOP legislators broke from party orthodoxy and did so. Of those, 19 sought re-election. Only a few faced a primary opponent and, in the end, only one or two lost. Del. Bob Thomas, R-Fredericksburg, certainly lost Tuesday; Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover County, is involved a disputed contest over party rules. What’s notable is that neither represents a district with a lot of Medicaid enrollees, who are concentrated in Southside and Southwest Virginia. The Republicans there who voted for Medicaid expansion — led by Del. Terry Kilgore of Scott County — actually might be regarded as heroes at home. Ideology does not always fit with the reality on the ground.
3. Democrats really do want to move further to the left. Saslaw won, but couldn’t muster a majority. In many other primary contests, though, the most liberal candidates did win. In Charlottesville, Sally Hudson will replace former House Minority Leader David Toscano; she had billed herself as the most “progressive” candidate. In Harrisonburg, Cathy Copeland was touted as the most electable candidate against Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham County. “Electable” is usually a code word for centrism. Instead, Brent Finnegan won. Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, an avowed socialist, easily won over a more centrist candidate. In Northern Virginia, two longtime prosecutors — in Fairfax and Arlington counties — were swept aside by more liberal challengers. The Democratic Party is being re-shaped in a more liberal image; these are the treacherous currents that Joe Biden will have to navigate as he seeks the party’s presidential nomination. Republicans are secretly (or maybe not so secretly) thrilled; they think the best way to halt Virginia’s color-shift from red to blue is to warn that Democrats are way too liberal for suburban sensibilities.
4. To understand the new Virginia, look in Loudoun County. Four candidates sought the Democratic nomination in the 87th House District around Dulles International Airport —all were first-generation Americans of Asian ancestry. Three had parents from India; one had parents from the Philippines. The winner was Suhas Subramanyam, a former technology policy adviser to Barack Obama. He will face a white Republican in the fall — but this is a district where Republicans lately have only polled in the 30% range. The last Republican to represent that district was David Ramadan, who was born in Lebanon. The Washington Post says this district is now home to 50,000 Latinos, 34,000 residents of Indian descent and a growing number of other minorities whose roots range from Asia to the Middle East. A Republican Party that relies overwhelmingly on white voters is going to have a hard time competing in Northern Virginia, which is another way of saying it will have a hard time competing in Virginia, period.
5. Are elections too dependent on technology? For about two hours Tuesday, no one in Roanoke could vote the regular way because a software glitch prevented election officials from checking in voters on laptops — 368 people had to cast provisional ballots. That doesn’t really matter in a light-voting primary where the outcome wasn’t in doubt, but what if this happens in November 2020, when the whole state, and maybe the whole nation, might hang in the balance?