North of Fredericksburg is a House of Delegates district drawn in 2011 to elect Republican Bill Howell, speaker from 2003 until 2018. He was propped up by a 2-to-1 GOP majority that was reduced to two seats by the anti-Donald Trump tsunami that swept in Ralph Northam and 15 new Democrats.
Over the past decade, as the Washington suburbs have crept south, the district has become quite swing-y. It tipped Republican for governor in 2013 but Democratic four years later.
It went Democratic for U.S. Senate in 2012; Republican in 2014 and 2018. Democrat Barack Obama nearly won it in 2012. It backed Trump in 2016.
But the district also is a petri dish in which poisonous intraparty Republican politics has mutated, becoming more lethal.
This cost Howell’s hand-picked successor, Bob Thomas, the nomination after a single term to Paul Milde. Thomas’ cave on health care — he voted for Medicaid expansion after vowing to oppose it — was more alarming to party purists than Milde’s resume as a hard-right activist with a criminal record.
Welcome to the silly season.
At the traditional Labor Day start of what could be an untraditional election year, it’s Republican cannibalism that has Democrats, who think they have shot at the Thomas seat, wondering whether there’s more than hostility for Trump that could hasten a take-back of the House and Virginia Senate.
Running from Trump rather than with him, Republicans are pegging their survival to supposed constants. Among them: the strength of the shrinking GOP vote is magnified by low turnout and gerrymandering.
There is much to suggest the state of the race in 2019 — the Milde-Cole contest and another 20 or so for the House and Senate that both parties say are decisive — is anything but staid.
Competition has accelerated largely because Democrats have been emboldened by presidential, statewide and congressional victories since 2001 that are stranding Republicans in the countryside.
This year, for 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats, there are 91 Democratic candidates, 72 Republicans. For Republicans, it is essentially unchanged from the previous House-Senate cycle in 2015. That’s when Republicans challenged Democrats for 73 seats. Four years ago, Democrats had only 56 candidates. Those elections affirmed GOP majorities in both chambers.
The swelling voter rolls could be a harbinger for November.
Though the total turnout in House-Senate years usually is around 30%, with participation in some districts in single digits, in this cycle there’s been a sharp increase in registration from 2015.
So far, more than 470,000 people have been added to the rolls from four years ago. From the 2011 House-Senate cycle to 2015, the increase was 80,000. It’s a safe bet the growth is where the population is growing: the Democratic-trending suburbs, where several Republicans are threatened.
Competition has been enhanced by court edict in roughly a dozen House districts, including those of Howell’s successor as speaker, Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, and the House budget committee chairman, Chris Jones of Suffolk. A federal court redrew the seats, having ruled that Republicans illegally manipulated lines to isolate black voters traditionally hostile to the GOP.
Cox’s new district leans slightly Democratic. The Jones seat has a Democratic majority of about 30%.
Incumbency, vast treasuries and nonstop advertising — in print, online and over the air — could save these senior Republicans, particularly against comparatively inexperienced Democrats. That Cox and Jones are watching their own backs means they might not be able to help other Republicans with dollars and services.
Money is another reminder of the shifting partisan terrain.
In early summer, Republicans and Democrats were virtually tied in fundraising, with the former having collected $6.4 million; the latter, $6.2 million. At the same point on the calendar in 2015, Republicans had more than twice as much as Democrats — $6.5 million to $2.8 million.
But as Virginia enters the fall finale, the pace of fundraising and spending, especially by pressure groups, is quickening. The May mass slaying at Virginia Beach city hall — and the incident’s still-uncertain impact on the gun debate — means both sides will commit cash to legislative races.
Mike Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund has pledged to spend $2.5 million here. The National Rifle Association is showing only $15,000 in donations to Republicans so far. The figure is expected to increase rapidly.
So, too, are references by Democrats to the national Republican whom state Republicans would rather not hear about: Trump. His disapproval rating in Virginia is nearly double his approval rating.
One of the Democrats playing the Trump card might be Northam, who — because of the blackface calamity — knows what it’s like to be underwater in the polls. But he’s nudging back toward 40%. A sign all is forgiven?
We’ll get the answer Nov. 5.