Bellwethers to Watch in Virginia


All right, so if you’re like me, you’re going to be following the VA returns tonight even though early returns may not be all that predictive of the final result. We know from the past few VA statewide races that the Dems rack up huge margins in northern Virginia, which reports consistently later than the rest of the state. As a result, the overall returns do tend to creep toward the Dems as the night moves on. But are there better data points to look at? Why, I’m glad you asked!

There are three fairly recent statewide elections in VA to base our assumptions off of: Trump/Clinton in 2016, Gillespie/Warner in 2014, and Cuccinelli/McAuliffe in 2013. The political climate in the last four years, however, has seen some dramatic shifts. As a result, I hesitate to pin all of my hopes on a single bellwether for the race, as we don’t even know whether the map will align with the most recent race, the race that included Gillespie as a candidate, or the only gubernatorial race on the ballot. As we wait for Fairfax and Prince William to come in, here are some likely early-reporting places you can look to get a sense of how the night will go:

1. Montgomery County (Trump -1, Gillespie -7, Cuccinelli -2)

Home to Virginia Tech, Blacksburg is one of the few blue dots in Virginia that is not independently governed, which makes the broader county one of a surprisingly low number of true swing counties in the state. (Note that Warner was the only Dem not to just squeak by, which is a theme that’ll recur later.) If Gillespie is ahead in Montgomery County, it’s likely to be a very uncomfortable wait for Northam, but if Northam is approaching double-digit margins, it’s a good sign for him.

2. Margins in Fredericksburg

As I alluded to in the previous section, many of Virginia’s cities are administered independently of county government, which leads to the Dem and GOP portions of any urban area ending up in separate reporting jurisdictions. While this effect is most pronounced in the independent cities in the western side of the state, there is a convenient mirror image further east:

Fredericksburg City: Trump -26, Gillespie -20, Cuccinelli -22
Spotsylvania County: Trump +17, Gillespie +21, Cuccinelli +17

Spotsylvania County is immediately south of Fredericksburg, and my understanding of the county is that it is relatively homogeneous. (VA folks, please feel free to correct me.)

Note the correlation between the combined margin and the ultimate statewide margin of each race (Gillespie was the closest to winning, Trump the farthest). So as returns come in, if the Republican margin in Spotsylvania is larger than the Democratic margin in neighboring Fredericksburg, that’s a very good sign for Gillespie. But if the margins are getting run up in Fredericksburg, or if Spotsylvania is +15 or less for Gillespie, Northam should be feeling pretty good.

3. The Rural West

A lot of people are assuming that the Gillespie/Warner map from 2014 will be the most similar to the one this year if the race ends up being close. (Gillespie lost that race by less than a percentage point.) There are two reasons I think this is unlikely. First, Mark Warner was, and has always been, a candidate who does very well in rural areas relative to other Democrats. Second, these areas were very Donald-friendly in 2016, tilting toward Donald bigly. That massive difference is going to have to reconcile itself somehow today.

Here are three counties to watch:
a) Lee County: Trump +63, Gillespie +29, Cuccinelli +49
b) Dickenson County: Trump +56, Gillespie +14, Cuccinelli +27
c) Buchanan County: Trump +60, Gillespie +22, Cuccinelli +37

These three counties are all along the far western border with Kentucky, so they should be fairly easy to spot on the map. I expect Gillespie to pull closer to Cuccinelli numbers in these counties tonight, as I think his weakness in these counties in 2014 was more a function of Warner than him. Therefore, I think, there are two possible notable results this far out:

i) Gillespie fails to pull +30 in these counties in a repeat of 2014. This might mean that Northam is similarly strong to Warner in the rural areas (not implausible), or it might mean that Gillespie is just a weak candidate in rural areas (seems less plausible to me), but either way, it likely means that Gillespie is in for a long night.

ii) Gillespie racks up +50 or more in these counties in more of a repeat of 2016. This might mean that Northam is following the Democratic Party in truly concentrating votes in urban areas, but as a broader matter, it means that Gillespie’s tactic of making overtures toward Trump’s voter base has been more successful than what we’ve seen from the limited special elections we’ve seen earlier this year. We could see a GOP doubling down of this tactic in 2018 in this scenario, even if Gillespie ends up losing the state.

Separately, given partisan turnout in 2015 and the resulting legislative splits, I think it’ll take a minor miracle to flip the House of Delegates (currently a 66/34 split, and thus the Dems need +16 to get there). My guess is that if the top of the ballot is close, it’ll be Dems +8 or so (which would leave a 58/42 split). In order to see the chamber flip, I’d estimate that the gubernatorial needs to be Northam +8 or 9 in order to get there (given what districts are likely needed in order to find a path to 50 seats). That’s not out of the question tonight given the polling rebound in the last 48 hours, but it’s definitely not a likely scenario.

I’m not holding out much hope, but I’ll be particularly watching Chris Hurst in District 12 (a rural district of the type that Dems will need to figure out how to win moving forward) and Cheryl Turpin in District 85 (a district she narrowly lost in a special election last year) to see whether the Dems have any chance at 50. I think both seats are definitely a stretch to win, but they’re absolute must-gets for a path to 50.

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