By Erich Wagner (File photo)
Sen. Mark Warner (D) will represent Virginia on Capitol Hill for another six years, after Republican challenger Ed Gillespie conceded the close race last week.
Warner declared victory on election night, but with a mere 16,000-vote margin between the candidates, Gillespie waited until officials canvassed a number of precincts before deciding a recount would not be worthwhile.
“The votes just aren’t there,” Gillespie said November 7.
As of press time, Warner held a nearly 18,000-vote lead in the contest. Still, many pundits and wonks were surprised by how tight the race was — Warner consistently held a comfortable lead in pre-election polling — as well as by the low turnout.
Geoff Skelley, a veteran analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, was still trying to wrap his head around the numbers nearly a week later. Last year’s gubernatorial election actually outperformed last week’s midterm, a rarity in modern politics.
“If you look at 2006 and 1994, where there was a competitive midterm Senate race, both had much higher turnout than the governor’s race the year before,” he said. “Right now, the Virginia Senate race is at 2.18 million total votes, but the governor’s race last year was about 2.24 million. Needless to say, this would certainly be a different pattern from the last two midterm Senate races.”
Skelley wondered if perhaps the poll numbers, which showed Warner ahead by as many as 10 points on November 1, caused some Democratic voters to become complacent.
“I wonder if that, in the end, upset the apple cart, so to speak,” he said. “Given the political environment, Republican voters are more likely to show up and vote no matter what — they’re most unhappy and most displeased with the status quo — so I wonder if the Dems saw the numbers and just stayed home.”
Another theory Skelley had seen floated by campaign watchers was that Warner didn’t focus enough on his base in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads regions.
“When [Warner] won the governorship in 2001, he won a number of rural counties, particularly in the southwestern part of the state,” he said. “Warner got swamped in those places, because the political reality has changed. In Virginia now, if you’re a Democrat, your first, really your only priority should be to turn out the voters in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond.
“I wonder if there was a miscalculation by the Warner campaign about that.”
Although the percentage of Democratic votes from Northern Virginia was relatively flat compared with last year — turnout increased slightly in Alexandria — turnout in the Norfolk area plummeted.
“Turnout was down almost a full percentage point in the Hampton Roads area, which actually leads to another important data point: the lowest turnout of any [Virginia] congressional race was the 3rd District in that area,” Skelley said. “It’s the only majority black district, and it has huge ramifications for Warner.
“Perhaps there was no competitive congressional race. Maybe Warner didn’t focus on the area as much as they should have in terms of turning out African-American voters. But if turnout is slightly more normalized there, maybe he wins by at least a couple points or something.”