Women carry Democrats to victory in Virginia House races

By: - November 7, 2018 1:24 am

Sen. Tim Kaine and congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger campaigned together in Louisa the week before Election Day. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A surge of Democratic voters knocked three Republican congressional incumbents out of office Tuesday night, but their victories in two of the races were narrow as Republicans saw their own boost in turnout.

An urban-rural divide

As expected, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine crushed Republican challenger Corey Stewart, who ran as a mini-Trump in a state the president himself didn’t win. At the end of the night, Kaine was leading by a 14-point margin.

But Stewart still outperformed the GOP’s last statewide candidate in terms of total votes cast, picking up more than a half million more votes than Ed Gillespie’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign despite being shunned by some establishment Republicans and most House candidates. He also eclipsed the vote totals for unsuccessful 2017 GOP statewide candidates Jill Vogel (lieutenant governor) and John Adams (attorney general).

Stewart won the state’s rural cities and counties by a 20 point margin, but Kaine won the state’s more populous metro areas by 21 points.

Democratic congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Democratic women make history in House

Big turnout in the state’s biggest suburbs was handed three Democratic House candidates, all women, wins over three incumbent Republican representatives, giving Democrats victories in a majority of the state’s 11 congressional seats for the first time since 2008.

One of the candidates will be the first woman elected to represent her district: Abigail Spanberger, who beat U.S. Rep. Dave Brat in the suburban-Richmond-anchored 7th District. Trump won the district and Republicans carried it again in last year’s governor’s race. It will be the first time a Democrat has held the seat since 1971.

Two other candidates will be the first Democratic women to hold their seats: State Sen. Jennifer Wexton beat Rep. Barbara Comstock in Northern Virginia’s 10th District — nother longtime Republican stronghold the party has held since 1981. And Elaine Luria beat Rep. Scott Taylor in the Virginia Beach-anchored 10th District. Democrats last won that seat in 2008.

Republicans fended off a fourth potential win Democrats had hoped would materialize in the 5th District, which stretches from Fauquier County to the state’s southern border. There, Republican candidate and distillery owner Denver Riggleman held a seven-point lead over journalist Leslie Cockburn.

Big turnout turns Virginia’s once Republican suburbs even bluer

Around the state, voters turned out large numbers, especially in the all-important suburbs, where voters have historically decided statewide races.

Democrats won Chesterfield County by 10 points – a locality they won by less than a percentage point in last year’s governor’s race.

And they doubled their margins in another traditionally Republican stronghold: Virginia Beach, which they won by 10 points compared to a five-point lead last year.

High turnout meant long lines at many polling places, including Henrico County’s Short Pump precinct, where the number of votes for Democrats has surged since Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A referendum on Trump

In precincts that saw a surge in Democratic voters, people leaving the polls overwhelmingly described Trump as motivating their decision to vote, citing his penchant for lying, hostility toward women and policies toward immigrants.

“He just foments hate,” said Hollee McGinnis, a social worker who said she doesn’t typically vote in midterm elections but made time to cast a ballot for Spanberger in Henrico’s Short Pump, which saw a nearly 50 percent increase in votes cast for Democrats. “That’s not the country I want to be in.”

The comments mirror concerns that turned up in nationwide exit polls, which found a majority of voters disapprove of Trump and his presidency was the primary issue that drove them to the polls.

Republican turnout not down, just swamped

Many Republican voters drew a distinction between Trump’s policies, which they said they support and view as successful, and his rhetoric, which they cast as distasteful but forgivable.

“I think he could say a lot of things a lot different, but he needs to make his point,” said Chip Naughton, a retired salesman who voted in Chesterfield County’s Edgewater Precinct, which Trump won in 2016 but tilted Democrat in 2017 and again this year.

Fifth Congressional District Republican Candidate Denver Riggleman campaigns at Richmond International Airport with Vice President Mike Pence. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Republicans blame Brat and shifting demographics

In the final days of the race, some Republicans privately blamed Brat for running what they described as a terrible campaign. They cited blatant lies in his advertising and a general unwillingness to engage directly with voters, frequently declining press queries and holding comparatively few campaign events, which he did not publicize, citing fear of protests.

In Northern Virginia, they cast Rep. Barbara Comstock’s loss as unavoidable in the face of changing demographics, even as they publicly held out hope that polls weren’t reflecting her popularity in the communities she represents.

But they had held out hope that they would hold on to the 5th and 2nd districts.

Democrats’ massive ground-game

Voters said they were inundated by campaign literature, phone calls, canvassers and text messages – all part of a massive get-out-the-vote operation that Republicans were unable to match.

The effort was funded in part by Kaine’s huge fundraising haul – he reported bringing in more than $20 million in donations to support his run, much of it his campaign said went toward a field operation designed to aid the down-ballot congressional candidates.

“I got 10 text messages, knocks on my door, yesterday, I came home from a weekend away and had five pieces of literature stacked in my mailbox,” said Carole McCullough, a voter in Short Pump.


This story was updated Nov. 8 to reflect the latest unofficial election results and correct a mischaracterization of the support for Stewart in rural localities, where he collected more votes than Republican Ed Gillespie did last year, but saw his margin of victory compared to Gillespie’s shrink by eight points.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.