A couple months ago, I published this diary giving my race ratings for all 100 House of Delegate seats. Since then, some things have changed, so I thought I’d give a quick update.
Michael Makee is the third candidate Republicans have put up for this election. First, incumbent Mark Dudenhefer surprised a lot of people by not seeking reelection. Then reporting came out that nominee Laquan Austion, who was already seen as fighting something of an uphill battle in a district this blue, had lied about his educational background. By the time Mike Makee was put on the ballot, Democratic nominee Jennifer Foy had already transitioned from her role as grassroots outsider in the primary to professional candidate in the general, and the statewide environment wasn’t looking good for Republicans. It was assumed that Makee was running as a favor just to have someone on the ballot. But it looks like the VAGOP is at least going through the motions to turn Makee into a real candidate. I still think this race is Foy’s to lose, but it looks like she at least has a serious opponent. Mostly out of an abundance of caution, I’m moving this race from Safe D to Likely D.
Somewhat lost in the discussion of the seats that saw big Clinton swings from Obama is that it wasn't just the Trump-Clinton contest at work. It's also the fact that people are pouring into NOVA and Richmond, and it's a younger, educated, and diverse group of people at that. Some of the swing came simply from having a different electorate. And in those areas I've been more bullish on Democratic chances in the HoD. The 10th is not really one of those seats. Clinton flipped a lot of monied, GOP leaning suburbanites from Romney, so it was always a tougher climb. But in the last couple months things have started to fall into place. For one, Gooditis has really upped her game and is getting a lot of state party attention. But a lot of it also has to do with the gubernatorial race. The tighter Gillespie hugs Trump, the looser anti-Trump Republican voters feel bound to the GOP brand. That may be enough of an opening for Gooditis to grab them up. This race moves from Lean R to Tossup.
Incumbent Ron Villanueva was already not having the greatest campaign, having gotten uncomfortably close to losing what should have been a easy primary. And after having depleted $100,000 of his war chest on that, he had to face his first real general challenge in 3 cycles. Since this a Clinton-McAuliffe-Warner district (albeit narrowly on all three) and Villanueva wasn’t winning any personality contests, I rated this district as Lean R, despite Democratic challenger Kelly Fowler’s generally smaller-scale campaign and Virginia Beach’s generally pro-incumbent voting record. Then, only a week after I put the ratings out, a somewhat convoluted local scandal dropped. Villanueva might be facing a death by a thousand cuts scenario. Democratic year, Hampton Roads Democratic nominee, primary challenge, scandal, low CoH, and possibly more. This race moves from Lean R to Tossup.
This race had potential. Granted, not a lot of potential, but potential. In statewide results, this district only had a couple point Republican lean, and it was open. But Bill Howell and the rest of the Republican establishment have done work to get Rob Thomas his victory, while the Joshua Cole campaign is stuck in neutral, barely even raising money. It was always a long shot, but it looks like this one slipped away from us. This race moves from Likely R to Safe R.
This district has traditionally been tough for Democrats. Clinton was the first Democrat to win it since Warner’s 2008 statewide blowout. But she did win it 53-42, and it’s in a growing and diversifying area. I would have ranked it Lean R, if it hadn’t been for incumbent Tim Hugo’s massive fundraising numbers, which were largely a result of his status as house majority leader. Well, Democrat Donte Tanner shifted into overdrive and has narrowed the CoH gap to $168,000 to $79,000, all while running a high quality campaign. Hugo still has a big leg up due to the lean of the district, his incumbency, and money, but it’s not quite enough of a lean for me to call it likely anymore. This race moves from Likely R to Lean R.
The 67th was the tossup district I came closest to rating lean D. It’s 60-34 Clinton, after all. But I held back for a few reasons. For one,the district was only 52-46 Obama. For another, LeMunyon is a strong candidate with a large bank account. And, finally, at that time, Northam was doing his rural “I’m a good ol’ doctor who gunna fix up the state” shtick, while Gillespie was yet to make his Pete Wilson pivot, so there was no guarantee it was going to be an especially Democratic year in NOVA. Well, all that’s changed. Gillespie and his outside allies are mostly ceding NOVA to Northam, who’s using his considerable resources to focus on getting huge margins there. And Karrie Delaney, who was in no way in trouble before, has begun to seriously outshine LeMunyon in fundraising and organization. This race moves from Tossup to Lean D.
Subba Kolla is a good candidate. He’s got connections, a moderate tone, and inside political knowledge. He’s probably the best candidate Republicans could have put up against an incumbent Democrat in a 60-35 Clinton seat. But it’s more and more looking like this is simply the wrong year to take on a Democrat in NOVA. And after a strong start, his fundraising has begun to dry up, raising only $17,000 last period, prompting the VAGOP to step in to fill the gaps. John Bell, the Democratic incumbent hasn’t missed a step and is running the kind of campaign that reminds you why he was one of 2015’s few success stories. Quoting myself from last time, “this has the feel of the year that convinces Republicans the seat is out of reach.”. This races moves from Lean D to Likely D.
This just isn’t the year to be challenging a Democratic incumbent in Virginia. It’s not working out for John Adams, Subba Kolla, or Heather Cordasco. Fundamentally, it’s not any of their faults. The map is so gerrymandered that Democrats are likely to hold very blue districts, and 2017 is shaping up to be a much better year for us than 2015, so there’s not just no low hanging fruit, there’s barely any hanging fruit at all. Cordasco probably had the easiest path to victory of the 3, as the 93rd is traditionally a swing district. She seemed in the game a few months ago, but as the fall’s worn on, it become increasingly clear that it’s just not in the cards, as Northam locked up urban areas and the same amount of money's not there for Cordasco. The lean of this district has prevented Mullin from totally putting this one away, but he’s getting there. This races moves from Lean D to Likely D.
So it seems Gillespie's made a choice. He believes his path to victory is to run up his margins in the rural areas, hope a few anti-Trump Republicans come home, and make up the rest of the difference with a turnout advantage. Is this the smartest move for him individually? Honestly, it may be. If I were running his campaign, I'd probably be telling him to do something similar. He's down and he needs to close that gap somehow. This may very well be his path of least resistance. But in a statewide race, it doesn't matter where your votes come from. They all count equally. That's not the case for the HoD. It doesn't matter how badly Northam loses the southwest of the state by - there are no competitive seats there. But NOVA and the Richmond suburbs are filled with competitive races, and by accepting a worse performance there, Gillespie's putting further pressure on the ticket-splitting abilities of Republican delegates in those regions. And this comes amidst the most vertically integrated Democratic statewide effort in decades. Now is this enough to flip the HoD in a few weeks? I highly doubtful it. Flipping 17 seats in this map is a heavy lift. But Democrats have never had 2017 in their sites for the house. It's always been a two cycle goal. And that requires a good performance this cycle.
What will a good performance look like? Well, it's important to remember everything is relative. HoD seats have been notoriously tough to crack for us, so in one sense, we're bound to pick up a few, so we will have a good night. In another sense, we're almost certainly going to have a Republican led chamber of an Obama-Clinton state, and that's a bad night. But with what we know about where things are right now, where should we put our expectations? At this point, we have 6 seats that seem likely to flip our way, so picking up any fewer than 5 of them will be something of a disappointment. 5-8 would be okay. It would mean Democrats are finally breaking through to the moderate suburbanites or have very high excitement, but it probably also means that this map is just asking too much of us and we'll have to wait for redistricting. 9-13 seats is a good night, probably better than expected. It shows a Democratic resurgence in the era of Trump and means we are in contention for the HoD in 2019. Anything more than that is fantastic, and the kind of night that would send off alarm bells in the headquarters of both the VAGOP and the RNC.