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Mark J. Rozell column: Virginia may help Democrats regain control of the House
ELECTION 2018

Mark J. Rozell column: Virginia may help Democrats regain control of the House

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With the congressional midterm elections just weeks away, it’s remarkable that political pundits are discussing the possibility Democrats might pick up four Virginia congressional seats held by Republicans, including the long-standing GOP bastion 7th District, anchored in the Richmond suburbs.

In Virginia, it is rare for so many congressional seats to be up for grabs.

But the political landscape is different this year, given the looming presence of President Donald J. Trump, who has both fired up a loyal base and energized his opponents.

In a recent Washington Post-Schar School of Policy and Government poll, voters in 69 battleground congressional districts nationwide said that Trump is “the most important issue” in their vote this year — more important than the economy, health care, or immigration.

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The poll identified the following as “battleground” contests in Virginia:

7th Congressional District — including much of suburban and increasingly Democratic Henrico and Chesterfield counties, but also stretching into reliable Republican territory in Culpeper. The district has been a GOP stronghold since 1980, but Democrat Abigail Spanberger has mounted a well-financed and aggressive campaign to unseat two-term Republican Rep. Dave Brat. Political survey aggregator fivethirtyeight.com says the 7th leans Republican, but gives Brat only a couple of percentage-points advantage.

10th Congressional District — stretching from blue suburban precincts in the D.C. metro area westward to Winchester and the West Virginia line. Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, seeking her third term, has walked a political tightrope, distancing herself from Trump, unpopular with the multitude of federal workers and contractors in her district, even as she supported Trump’s legislative agenda. Fivethirtyeight.com calls the 10th a likely win for Democrat Jennifer Wexton. The Post-Schar School survey says Democratic nominee Wexton is up by 12 percentage points.

Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Taylor seemed to be on an easy re-election path in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore. But Taylor’s campaign workers were caught circulating petitions to get an independent on the ballot to siphon away votes from Democratic candidate Elaine Luria. Initially dismissing the episode as “a nothing-burger,” Taylor has been silent since a Richmond judge ruled that the candidacy petitions included forged names — and appointed a special prosecutor. Fivethirtyeight.com says the district leans Republican, but Taylor’s margin is slim.

The big surprise on the “battleground” list is Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, a wedge of rural, GOP heartland sprawling from the D.C. exurbs through the Piedmont to include a huge swath of Southside Virginia. Republican Tom Garrett is quitting Congress after just one term, leaving an open-seat contest between Republican Denver Riggleman and Democrat Leslie Cockburn, who made national headlines when she revealed Riggleman is a fan of “Bigfoot Porn.” (You can’t make this stuff up.) Fivethirtyeight.com rates the 5th as a toss-up, and gives Cockburn a narrow advantage.

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For most of this century, Republicans have held most of Virginia’s 11 seats in the House, comfortable in far-flung rural districts. Democrats have held on in eastern population centers. The current Virginia lineup in the House includes seven Republicans and four Democrats.

A four-seat partisan swing would be big news. The political makeup of Virginia’s congressional delegation has been remarkably stable over the years, even after major national events.

Virginia Democrats picked up only two seats in 1974, after the Watergate scandal. Republicans gained just one seat here during the big GOP “Contract with America” revolution in 1994. Democrats seized three GOP-held seats during the Obama wave in 2008, but Republicans grabbed them back two years later in the backlash against Obamacare.

Election Day 2018 will help tell us if Virginia is still trending blue. The Old Dominion was the only state in the old South to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2017, the anti-Trump tidal wave denied Republicans yet another round of statewide offices and nearly swept away the GOP’s once-iron grip on the House of Delegates.

Democratic congressional candidates this year also have something Republicans don’t: a popular candidate at the top of the ticket, Sen. Tim Kaine.

Combining public polls on the Virginia U.S. Senate contest, RealClear Politics gives Kaine an 18.5 point lead over Republican Corey Stewart. Kaine’s voter mobilization effort also is expected to benefit his fellow Democrats down ticket.

Nationally, Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to regain control of the House of Representatives. With as many as four of those seats up for grabs in Virginia, look for a lot of national media attention here on Election Night.

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Reach him at mrozell@gmu.edu.

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