Six things to watch on election night (or week) in Virginia

By: - November 2, 2020 12:03 am

Voters wait in line at an early voting center in Henrico County on Oct. 20, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With more than two million ballots already cast, Election Day in Virginia might feel more like the culmination of a long process and less like the main event it normally is.

Polling places will open at the usual 6 a.m. start time with social distancing rules in place and masks strongly encouraged.

Unless there’s unexpected drama, Virginia won’t be a make-or-break state on the national stage, with Republicans and Democrats battling for the White House and control of the U.S. Senate.

But there will be plenty of important storylines, even if they unfold over an entire week instead of a single night.

Here are a few things to watch:

Will Democrats’ statewide winning streak strengthen?

In 2016, President Donald Trump got about 53,000 fewer votes in Virginia than Mitt Romney did four years prior. Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by a little more than 5 percentage points.

Polls suggest the Democratic margin of victory in Virginia could nearly double this year, potentially reaching double digits. A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump 52 percent to 41 percent among likely Virginia voters.

“I think that would be extremely telling of the overall national state of the race,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “Trump barely squeaked by four years ago in the Electoral College having lost Virginia by less than 6 percent. If the polls at all project what may happen on Election Day, it’s hard to imagine with nearly double that margin Trump pulling off the same Electoral College victory.”

With a governor’s race coming up next year, the 2020 margin could say a lot about how solidly blue Virginia has become over the last decade.

The Trump phenomenon undoubtedly changed the electorate in some parts of the country in ways that defied predictions and contributed to his upset win. But in Virginia, the change has been working almost entirely in Democrats’ favor, supercharging anti-Trump turnout in state and congressional races that have resulted in suburban Republicans being driven from office en masse. Virginia Democrats kept control of all three executive branch offices in 2017, flipped three congressional seats in 2018, and won majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly a year later.

Gov. Ralph Northam leads a chant of “Blue! Wave!” at a watch party downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

With that recent history, Virginia isn’t seen as a presidential battleground anymore, and the statewide matchup between U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Republican challenger Daniel Gade has drawn relatively little attention.

Two years before Trump took over the GOP, Republican Ed Gillespie came surprisingly close to defeating Warner, losing by less than one percentage point. 

Gillespie went on to become the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2017, losing to Gov. Ralph Northam by nine points in the first year of the Trump backlash. 

In 2018’s statewide race, Republican Corey Stewart lost to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., by 16 points, a lopsided outcome many Republicans attributed to having a uniquely divisive, Trump-style nominee.

If Trump’s margin stays about the same or weakens just slightly, it could boost Republicans’ hopes they can still compete in Virginia whenever the anti-Trump fervor subsides.

If it gets significantly worse, it could give Democrats confidence their recent gains weren’t a fluke, but part of a lasting political shift in support of their policies and what they stand for. And with their losing streak in statewide contests potentially stretching further into a second decade, a rout could lead to louder calls from centrist Republicans for a top-to-bottom rebrand of the Virginia GOP.

Will Republican infighting cost the party another congressional seat?

U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-5th, seen here on the campaign trail in 2018 during an appearance at Richmond International Airport with Vice President Mike Pence. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman’s path to Congress started out strangely. 

Early in the summer of 2018, his Republican predecessor in Central Virginia’s conservative-leaning 5th District, ex-Congressman Tom Garrett, announced he was an alcoholic and abruptly dropped his reelection bid.

That left the GOP with no candidate in a district it was expected to win, a quandary settled via a bizarre nominating committee meeting in a high-school auditorium thrown together in a matter of weeks and decided by a few dozen party faithful. Riggleman, a distillery owner with a live-and-let-live approach to social issues like gay marriage and marijuana, won the nomination after doing battle with a hard-right, staunchly Christian faction supporting former Liberty University law professor Cynthia Dunbar.

After overcoming general-election attacks over his fondness for Bigfoot lore, he was sworn into Congress to represent a sprawling district running through the middle of the state from the fringes of Northern Virginia to the North Carolina border. But his victory proved to be short-lived.

Riggleman, who apparently upset some constituents by officiating a same-sex wedding, lost the GOP nomination this year to former Liberty University athletics official Bob Good, a socially conservative, former Campbell County supervisor who defeated the incumbent at a drive-through convention.

The incumbent’s fall to a challenge from the right pushed what was expected to be a competitive race into toss-up territory.

Democrats feel they have a uniquely strong candidate in Cameron Webb, an African American doctor from Charlottesville who has raised millions more than Good to fund an energetic campaign to flip the district.

But Webb has to gain a lot of ground in a district Garrett won by more than 16 points in 2016 and Riggleman won by 6.6 points two years ago.

Good has sought to paint Webb as a radical who supports defunding the police, which Webb denies. In return, Webb has pointed out that Good voted to reduce his local sheriff’s budget while serving as a county supervisor.

Meanwhile, Riggleman seems to be relishing the opportunity to poke at the GOP’s extremes without having to worry about losing an election. He recently met with Webb at his Nelson County distillery and praised the Democrat’s campaigning style, according to Roanoke Times reporter Amy Friedenberger. He’s also launched a crusade against the QAnon conspiracy movement.

In a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” Riggleman suggested he’s beginning to lose faith in the Republican party, which he said should stop trying to appeal to “people who think ‘Lord of the Rings’ was a documentary.”

Can Republicans win back seats they lost in 2018’s blue wave?

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger as she campaigned against Dave Brat. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger campaigned against Dave Brat in 2018. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, and Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, haven’t had an easy task in their first terms.

They helped Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in 2018 with narrow wins that flipped Republican-held districts. But they’ve both had to balance the priorities of a caucus led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., with the expectations of many pro-Trump constituents.

Spanberger, a former CIA officer whose 7th District runs from Culpeper County to the western suburbs of Richmond, is being challenged by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, a former Green Beret.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, speaks on the floor of the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Luria, a retired Navy commander, is in a rematch with former Congressman Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and state delegate who lost to her two years ago in the Hampton Roads area’s 2nd District.

Like the 5th District contest, both races are seen as highly competitive.

“I think this is where the action is really in Virginia,” Rozell said. “Where we could end up having nailbiters on election night.”

If Republicans gain ground in the House races, it could help offset yet another year of statewide losses. But if they lose all three, Rozell said, it’d be “very telling of the state of the party.”

“That will be absolutely devastating to the Republicans if they get completely shut out that way,” Rozell said.

Democrats appear to have a stronger grip on the third seat they flipped in 2018.

In Northern Virginia’s 10th District, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Leesburg, is facing Republican challenger Aliscia Andrews. But Wexton is seen as a strong favorite after beating former GOP Congresswoman Barbara Comstock by more than 12 points in 2018.

Will voters OK a bipartisan redistricting commission?

Polls show everybody hates gerrymandering. But the constitutional amendment on the ballot this year to change how Virginia conducts its decennial redistricting process has scrambled partisan alliances in ways that could produce unexpected results.

The proposal on the ballot would create a bipartisan redistricting commission with equal representation from both parties and a mix of sitting legislators and citizen members. If approved, the new commission, not the Democratic-led legislature and Gov. Ralph Northam, would be in charge of drawing new districts next year when new U.S. Census data comes in.

Explained: What went wrong with the 11 disputed House Districts, including a Republican delegate’s ‘murky recollection’ in court

When Democrats were out of power in the General Assembly, they were the party pushing loudest for redistricting reform, with many Republicans resistant to the idea of giving up their ability to craft the state’s legislative and congressional maps. There’s been a role reversal after Democrats took control of the legislature in 2019, with many Democrats now adamantly opposed to an idea they see as flawed and out-of-power Republicans strongly backing a proposal that would give them an equal say in the process.

But many voters seem to have missed the memo on switching sides.

Last month, a poll by Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University found 64 percent of likely Democratic voters in favor of the redistricting amendment, and 42 percent of Republicans opposing it.

Considering that the Democratic Party of Virginia opposes this amendment, there seems to be a real disconnect with voters at the grassroots about reforming the way legislative districts are drawn,” Wason Center Research Director Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo said in a news release.

‘A lot at stake for communities of color’: Race takes central role in redistricting fight

The result could come down to strange combinations of groups, with the most plugged-in, partisan Democrats joining with low-information GOP voters to oppose the amendment and strongly partisan Republicans allying with low-information Democrats (and Democrats who have studied it and believe it’s a good idea even if it means less power for their party) in favor of it. 

Apart from the partisan impact, the amendment’s bipartisan supporters say the commission idea, however flawed, is an improvement on the status quo. Opponents say it leaves politicians too much control and should be rejected, with better reform possibly coming later.

The CNU poll showed 20 percent of voters undecided.

Do four Virginia cities want casinos as much as politicians do?

A historic sign over State Street in Bristol, which serves as the Tennessee-Virginia border through downtown. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
A historic sign over State Street in Bristol, which serves as the Tennessee-Virginia border through downtown. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The General Assembly bought in to the gambling hype, passing legislation allowing resort-style casinos in a few selected cities after a report found they could generate up to $260 million per year in tax revenue. Now, it’s up to voters in four cities — Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk — to decide whether they agree it’s a good bet.

Political leaders and major casino interests are backing the ballot referendums in the four cities, pitching them as economic revitalizers for areas badly in need of investment. But there’s been flickers of opposition from anti-gambling groups who see casinos as predatory, residents concerned about community impacts and, in Norfolk’s case, a developer interested in a competing casino project.

Each city already has a chosen casino operator ready to move in if voters give the go-ahead. In Bristol, it’s Hard Rock. Caesars Entertainment is working with Danville. Portsmouth has partnered with Rush Street Gaming. And Norfolk is allied with the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which has special tribal rights but is looking to open its casino under normal commercial rules.

With the projects already lined up and well-funded advocacy campaigns urging voters to yes, the casino referendums are widely expected to pass. The Virginia Lottery has already pre-certified the casino projects in anticipation of the ballot referendums.

Richmond also has the ability to pursue a casino in the future under the recent legalization bill, but the city isn’t holding a referendum this year.

How will the vote counting go?

Some localities are on pace to see more than half of their voters cast ballots before Election Day, an early-voting surge that will upend how votes are counted once polls close.

Unlike some other states, Virginia election officials are allowed to process ballots as soon as they come in, meaning they won’t have to wait until Election Day to start dealing with all the ballots they’ve received since Sept. 18.

“In Virginia, we will be a little bit ahead of the game,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said at a media briefing earlier this month.

But election results watchers should expect things to go differently due to the spike in early voting. Instead of being counted in neighborhood voting precincts, all the early ballots, whether submitted through the mail or in person, will be counted in the central absentee precinct. With so many votes being reported differently, that will make it difficult to compare precinct-level returns with prior results to get a feel for early-evening trends.

Registrars will also still be processing absentee ballots on Election Day and several days after the polls close. However, they’ve been told to report their absentee results by 11 p.m., a deadline that will give observers an unofficial sense of who’s up and who’s down. 

But the early results will probably be less reliable than in years past, and the flood of absentee votes being reported late in the evening could change the numbers dramatically.

If there’s any legal drama during the counting process, it could come down to how late-arriving absentee ballots are treated. Any mailed ballots received by noon on Friday will count if their postmark shows they were mailed on or before Tuesday. But there could be disputes over ballots with missing or difficult-to-read postmarks. In response to a lawsuit from a conservative legal group, a Virginia judge recently issued a split ruling on how those ballots should be handled.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]