Numbers don’t lie. Here’s some of the truth they have to tell about Virginia’s recent legislative elections, which put Democrats in charge of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since 1995:
• Turnout. Over the past two decades, about 30% of Virginia voters have cast ballots in years when the House of Delegates and state Senate are on the ballot. The last two cycle — 2015 — was a hair on the short side, with 29.1% of registered voters going to the polls.This year, though, turnout was about 43%, according to preliminary estimates by the Virginia Public Access Project.
In raw numbers, that meant 1,509,864 Virginians voted in 2015. It’ll be awhile before the State Board of Elections has official numbers for this year, but preliminary numbers show 2,278,078 people voted. That’s 768,214 “extra” voters this year over 2015. The bad news for Republicans is that a disproportionate number of those additional voters supported Democrats.
• Voters who are realigning. Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham blamed the Virginia results on “foreign-born” voters in Northern Virginia. Virginia’s demographics are certainly changing but this is a pernicious argument (as well as a weak one). If foreign-born voters are voters, then that means they’re American citizens — which means they’re, well, American, and the “foreign-born” appellation is irrelevant. That’s the central premise of the United States — that anyone can become an American.
It’s sad to see someone such as Ingraham employ such nativist rhetoric that runs counter to basic American ideals. There’s no reason why immigrants would automatically be left-of-center voters (historically some immigrant groups have tended to be conservative voters) — except that they’ve been driven away by the ugly rhetoric of some in the modern-day Republican Party under Donald Trump. Do Republicans want to be a party of conservative ideas or a party of ethno-nationalism? If the former, there’s no reason why they can’t be competitive in the future. If the latter, then demography — not Democrats — doom them to permanent minority status.
Now, so far, this seems to have nothing to do with numbers, but here are some: A study by The Washington Post found that more than half the state’s foreign-born population lives in just three counties — Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. That sure doesn’t explain the seats that Democrats won in Richmond and Hampton Roads. Nor does it fully explain the Democratic victories in Northern Virginia, either. And it definitely doesn’t explain how Democrat Chris Hurst won a Republican seat in the New River Valley in 2017 that helped put his party on the cusp of a majority in the House.
The Post points out that about 14% of the registered voters in those three counties are naturalized citizens — an important number, to be sure, but one that still leaves out 86% of other voters. The real answer is more like this: Northern Virginia is home to a disproportionate number of college-educated voters, and it’s those voters who have been realigning from Republican to Democratic all over the country — while voters without a college degree have been realigning the other way.
• How Tim Hugo lost. It’s instructive to look at the fate of Hugo, the last Republican legislator from “inner” Northern Virginia — Fairfax County and east. He was first elected in a special election in 2002 and routinely reelected thereafter. Some years he didn’t even draw opposition. In eight elections, no Democrat running against him polled more than 9,903 votes – and even that result in 2013 was something of an aberration. In the last comparable cycle, in 2015, Hugo’s Democratic opponent polled only 5,781 votes. Hugo that year won 10,875 votes. This year, Hugo got even more votes — 14,457. But his Democratic opponent got 15,913 votes — more than double what the Democrat won there in 2015.
This was a district the Republican statewide ticket for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general carried as recently as 2013. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate carried it in 2014. All these Republicans won there by pretty healthy margins —usually in double digits. This seemed a safe Republican seat. Then something happened, and we can pinpoint it precisely: In 2016, a district that had been voting Republican suddenly cast only 43% for the Republican nominee for president — a certain Donald Trump. In every statewide election since then, Democrats carried that district — and by the double digit margins that Republicans used to win by. Hugo barely held on in 2017 and this year got swept under by a realignment. Did Trump cause that realignment or merely hasten it? Likely some of both. Either way, without Trump, it’s tempting to say that Hugo might still be in office. (To believe Ingraham’s argument, you’d have to either believe that all of her scary foreign-born voters suddenly showed up in 2016.)
• How Glen Sturtevant and Geary Higgins lost. These are the two seats that cost Republicans their majority in the state Senate — Sturtevant held a seat in Richmond and its suburbs; Higgins was the GOP nominee for a seat that Republican Richard Black had long held in Loudoun and Prince William. The Black seat mirrors the Hugo experience. This was a reliably Republican district that suddenly flipped. In 2014, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate took 54% of the vote here. In 2016, Trump took just 44% — and no Republican has won it since. In previous state Senate elections, no Democrat had polled more than 23,544 votes. This year, Democrat John Bell won 44,762 — and the election. (Higgins got more votes than previous Republican nominees, but not nearly enough with the bigger turnout.)
Sturtevant was in a trickier position. His district had been voting Democratic in other elections but voters were content to send Republicans to the General Assembly. He had a close contest four years ago, winning 27,651 to 26,173. This year turnout surged by 48%. Sturtevant expanded his vote to 37,737. But his Democratic opponent, Ghazla Hashmi, grew the Democratic vote even more — from 14,189 in 2011 and 26,173 in 2015 to 44,548 this year. That’s a lot of people who weren’t bothering to vote before.
One way or another, the same pattern repeats in other districts: Turnout was up, and in ways that helped Democrats. The big question: Is this the “new normal,” or will future elections revert to the lower turnout of the past? The answer there may be revealed by another number: 2020.