On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Stakes are high in this off-year election, with every seat in the General Assembly up for grabs on November 8. Depending on the outcome, all branches of the Virginia government could land in the hands one party for the first time in 150 years. But with many candidates running unopposed and new district lines causing confusion, voter turnout is likely to be low. We’ll get insights into the politics at play and how the outcome could change the dynamics in the Western Hemisphere’s oldest legislative body.
- Quentin Kidd Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Government, Christopher Newport University
- Michael Pope Northern Virginia reporter, WAMU; political reporter, Connection Newspapers
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhoa. From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, George Pelecanos, the go-to novelist and producer for all neighborhoods and characters Washington, Baltimore and New Orleans, but first, Virginians head to the polls November 8th for an off-year election.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAll 140 seats in the general assembly are up for grabs, but more than half the candidates are running unopposed. And with no big statewide issue for candidates and constituents to buzz about, voter interest is low. But there's more at stake than meets the eye. If Republicans gain just two state Senate seats, the GOP will hold a majority in both legislative houses and control the Commonwealth's executive offices for just the second time in 150 years.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the possible developments is Michael Pope. He's the Northern Virginia reporter for WAMU and political reporter with the Connection Newspapers, which publish 16 titles in Northern Virginia. His latest book "Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C.," was published earlier this year. And, Michael, glad to have you aboard, and we look forward to talking about the "History of Alexandria, D.C." at some point.
MR. MICHAEL POPEHappy Halloween.
NNAMDIHappy Halloween to you also. Joining us by telephone from Newport News, Va., is Quentin Kidd. He's a professor of political science and chair of the department of government at Christopher Newport University where he also heads the Wason Center for Public Policy. His book "Civic Participation in America" will be released in late November. Quentin Kidd, thank you for joining us.
PROF. QUENTIN KIDDIt's good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
POPEWe're talking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to join the conversation, send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or a tweet, @kojoshow. If you are of Virginia voter, we'd like to know what races you've been following this election cycle. 800-433-8850. Michael, Virginia has a pretty relentless election cycle. How interested are Virginians in the coming elections?
POPEI think it's fair to say not very interested at all. If you look at the numbers, I think it's interesting. I'm sure you think it's interesting.
POPEMany of our listeners, I'm sure are interested. But the turnout projections are very low. Fairfax County, one of the largest, you know, municipalities in Northern Virginia, is expecting about 35 percent voter turnout. The -- this particular cycle tends to be the lowest turnouts, nonpresidential year. There are no statewide races on the ballot. And so if you look back in history, the last two cycles, 2007, Fairfax County had a 33.3 percent turnout.
POPE2003 had a 32.8 percent turnout. So, you know, that -- it's likely it's going to be around 33 percent. I think election officials, when I asked them for a number, they said 35. I think they are being optimistic.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Quentin?
KIDDWell, yeah, I would completely agree with the optimistic assessment. Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, generally, has more competitive elections going on than many other parts of the state. So I think we'll see parts of the state where turnout is as low as 10 percent or lower because there are whole swaths of the state -- 75 percent of districts for House delegates races are just unopposed by the two major -- that aren't -- that -- where the two major parties don't have candidates facing each other.
KIDDAnd so in races in those areas, there just isn't a reason to turn out. If you're, you know, the typical voter, if you're a diehard supporter of whoever the incumbent is, and I suppose you could turn out to show support. But other than that, there's no reason, you know, to turn out.
POPEMany of the races or many of the jurisdictions, like Alexandria, for example, have uncontested seats or only marginally contested seats. So when I asked the Alexandria voting officials for their projections, they said 15 percent.
NNAMDIWhoa. Well, if you think more optimistically this, if you think the turnout will be higher than 35 percent, tell us why. 800-433-8850. Quentin, voters may be complacent because they're content. You recently ran a poll that found almost half of Virginians think the Commonwealth is moving in the right direction, way more than the number that said the same for the country as a whole. What's Virginia got going for it?
KIDDWell, Virginia hasn't had a lot of contention when it comes to cutting budgets, which every state has had to do over the last several years. Republicans, Democrats and the House delegates have largely done that in a way that most Virginians perceived as fair, and they look at places like Ohio and Wisconsin where budget cuts have led to huge fights, recall votes and stuff like that. And they compare that to what's been going on in Richmond, and they say, well, things haven't been so bad.
KIDDI think, generally, people think that stuff like budget cuts have been done fairly in Virginia, but also, I think it's fair to say Virginia's economy hasn't suffered as badly as some of these other state economies have. The housing bubble, while it was really bad in some parts of the state, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, it wasn't as bad in the state as a whole as places like Florida or Nevada.
KIDDAnd because of the massive amounts of federal spending that go on in Virginia, the economy has while slow down, not slow down as much as it has in many other states. So I think, on the whole, that's reflected in those approval numbers that we see out of voters in Virginia.
NNAMDIMichael, a third of Virginians are in new House district and Senate district lines were just redrawn as well. How much of a role will redistricting play on November 8th?
POPEWell, redistricting is going to play a major role, especially in the hotly contested Senate races. The maps were redrawn this year. The first round, I believe, were vetoed by the governor, so there was another round that was made. And the calculus of the Democrats that were in charge of drawing these maps was to maximize the number of seats in Northern Virginia and where all the Democratic votes and minimize the number of seats in the rest of Virginia where the Republican votes are.
POPESo it's kind of a gamble, really. You're trying to get as -- run the numbers, essentially, in Northern Virginia. One interesting thing about the lack of competition is that only 27 out of 100 House seats actually have competitive races, and only 24 out of 40 Senate seats have competitive races. So that's -- that means if you live in Virginia, you have a one-out-of-four chance of living in a district that has a totally uncompetitive House race.
POPEAnd you have a 50 percent chance of living in a place, Senate district with a competitive Senate race, so all the focus and attention is going to these competitive races.
NNAMDIQuentin, a recent Washington Post editorial heralded the death of the two-party system in Virginia. Is that an astute observation or an exaggeration?
KIDDWell, you know, I tend to think those sorts of predictions are a little, you know, are exaggerated. I mean, I don't think that we're going to see the end of the two-party system in Virginia because of redistricting. But what redistricting does do is it distorts the competitive nature of the state. You know, Virginia is a slightly right-of-center state. It isn't a way-right-of-center state.
KIDDAnd so redistricting, the way it was done this last go-around, Republicans controlled redistricting in the House. Democrats control it in the Senate. The two sides agreed not to fight each other over their respective chambers. So rather than heralding the end of the two-party system, I think what we might end up with is a chamber that -- a House chamber that's entrenched by Republicans, and a Senate chamber that's entrenched by Democrats.
KIDDAnd so, you know, that's an entrenchment of a split government or a divided government rather than the end of a two-party system. The larger point The Post is making, though, is that redistricting distorts the political process, and I agree with that. I think redistricting is -- the way we do it now is really damaging to the sort of competitive political process that we want in a democratic society.
NNAMDIDid your district change as a result of redistricting? Call us, 800-433-8850. Tell us how you feel about the shift if indeed it did change. 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Michael, redistricting may be confusing enough, but voters in the 39th District, which includes Alexandria, also have Senate candidates whose last names are just one letter off. Please explain.
POPEBaker, Barker, right, yeah. Imagine when you're confronted by that when you go to the poll. The incumbent there is a guy by the name of George Barker, who incidentally enough was in charge -- one of the people that led the mapmaking effort, and his Republican opponent is Miller Baker. So they're looking at a Barker-Baker race. That's -- by the way, the -- when you look at these maps, one of the interesting things to look as the shift of the old district versus the new district, that particular district, the 39th District, now stretches into vote -- Democratic vote-rich Alexandria.
POPEThat's -- I'm sure that's why it was drawn that way. And it's 1.7 percent more Democratic than it used to be. In other words, the old district voted 54.5 percent for -- by McDonnell. The new district voted 52.8 percent for McDonnell. So a lot of these new maps all over Virginia, what's at play here is the percentage that changed between the old map and the new map.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on Virginia elections. If you have already called, stay on the line. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Did your district change as a result of redistricting? Let us know how you feel. You can also send email to email@example.com., or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the elections upcoming in Virginia on Nov. 8 with Michael Pope. He is a Northern Virginia reporter for WAMU and political reporter with the Connection Newspapers. His latest book, "Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C.," was published earlier this year. And Quentin Kidd is a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Government at Christopher Newport University, where he also heads the Wason Center for Public Policy.
NNAMDIHis book, "Civic Participation in America," will be released in late November. We'd like to go directly to the telephones. We will start with Ethel in Prince William County, Va. Ethel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ETHELWell, thank you for taking my call. I don't know which one of your guests made the statement, but he said that there really is no reason for people to go to the polls. And I disagree with that. I wish that there could be more positive spin on this because there is great reason, at least where I live in Prince William County, for people to go out and vote. So I'm just making the statement that people should be encouraged to go out to vote instead of hearing statements that there is no reason to go out to vote. Make your comments and I will take them off the air.
NNAMDII would like to ask you a question, however, if I may, Ethel.
NNAMDIWhat do you see is the biggest issue in your district?
ETHELThe biggest issue in my district, well, we really have -- I live in a senior community, and I'm concerned about the way that our politicians will vote on things like Medicare and Social Security and taxes. Those are my concerns.
NNAMDIOkay. Just wanted to make sure you had a reason to go to the polls. Ethel, thank you so much for your call. Care to comment on Ethel's comment, Michael Pope?
POPEShe's got a great reason to go to the polls because one of the most contested Senate races stretches from Fairfax County into Prince William, and that is the Senate 36th District. The incumbent there is Toddy Puller, and there's a Republican opponent, Jeff Fredrick, the former chairman of the Republican Party and...
NNAMDIControversial in his own right.
POPEVery controversial in his own right. I believe he was pushed out as chairman after the Obama election, after the Democrats took Virginia. And so on the campaign trail, one of the interesting things I've noticed that he has done at these voter forums is try to cast the incumbent in that race, Toddy Puller, as someone who hasn't done enough for revitalizing the Richmond Highway Corridor, the Route 1 corridor, because there's been a lot of studies that have happened and from -- there's been a lot of voters down there who feel like there hasn't been a lot of action.
POPEAnd so on the campaign trail, Fredrick has been trying to attack Sen. Puller, saying she hasn't done enough. If you want 20 more years of study, you should elect Toddy Puller, but Jeff Fredrick will say, if you want action, that you should elect him. So perhaps color lives in the state -- Senate -- State Senate 36th District, and for that, she would have very good reason to go to the polls.
ETHELEthel, thank you very much for your call. Here is Quentin Kidd.
KIDDYeah, no, I was gonna say, I mean, Ethel may be fortunate enough to be one of the 50 percent of Virginians who live in a competitive Senate race or one of the 24, 25 percent of Virginians who live in a competitive House race. The point of that earlier comment was that if you don't live in a district where there is a competitive race, you don't have a choice, and it's a choice that makes the reason to vote.
KIDDIt isn't, you know, civic duty is important, or a sense of civic obligation is important. But if you don't have a choice, then your civic obligation, your civic duty isn't really going to anything.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call, Ethel. Michael.
POPEYeah, there's a side light to this, which is also very important, is that we're focusing our attention here on these House and Senate races. But in jurisdictions across Virginia, there are also school board elections and races that don't garner a lot of attention but are very important, like for example, clerk of court races. And Alexandria has a clerk of court race. The longtime incumbent Ed Semonian was originally elected in the 1970s, late 1970s. He's never had a Republican opponent ever until this year.
POPEThere's a former chairman of the Republican Party down in Alexandria. His name is Chris Marston, and he is challenging Semonian. Now, here's a race that would not have garnered a lot attention normally, and many people that live in Alexandria actually have non-contested races or only marginally contested races. And so, therefore, there might not be that much pushing them to the polls. So this clerk of court race that would otherwise be not very competitive actually becomes competitive because of the low expected turnout.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, again, about some of the confusion that results from redistricting. Here is Ellie in Sterling, Va. Hi, Ellie. Go ahead, please.
ELLIEHi, yes. This area that I live in in Sterling has a contested race with people that I'm not familiar with in both the Senate and the House of Delegates. So it does force you to pay a little bit more attention to what's going on than you normally would.
NNAMDIYou're in the 31st District, Ellen, and you're saying -- Ellie, and you're saying you're not familiar with these individuals because of redistricting?
ELLIERight. Last year, it was Tag Greason was our delegate, and Mark Herring was our senator, and both of them got redistricted out of the area which I live. So now I'm looking at a Senate race between people that I don't know much about. One is Caren Merrick and the other is Barbara Favola. So I have some concerns about, you know, what our little part of Loudoun County can depend on from people who really don't live in Loudoun County and don't have any connection. So (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIEllie, you raised an interesting question. I'm going to put you on hold and see if you wanna follow the advice that will be offered by our next caller, Jerry. Here is Jerry in Arlington, Va. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JERRYThank you. Yes, I can tell the lady in Loudoun County that if she votes for Barbara Favola, she'll get a lady very experienced in government. She's been chairman of the Arlington Board three times, been in the Arlington Board for 14 years. She's been on the Metro board. She understands transportation issues, environmental issues, and I think she will be very happy with the results. I am calling because I'm a father with a daughter, and Miss Merrick has taken positions that are antithetical to woman's right to choose.
JERRYWhat the governor has been doing in Richmond and the House in putting out these picayune regulations about planned parenthood clinics, et cetera, is harming the right of women to choose whether to be pregnant or not. That is a constitutional decided right under Roe versus Wade and the Republicans are taking the back door. So vote for Barbara Favola.
NNAMDIWell, Jerry, thank you very much for your call. I'd like to hear from both of our guests before I go back to Ellie because this is one of the races you are watching. Is it not, Michael Pope?
POPEThis is one of the hotly contested races in Northern Virginia. Barbara Favola has been a member of the Arlington County Board since 1997. Caren Merrick is a very successful Republican businesswoman. I believe she actually intended to run against somebody else. But when the maps came out, she decided that -- well, not decided but she found herself in a district that she ran against Barbara Favola. There's been a lot of money and attention directed at this.
POPEThe maps are significantly different than the existing district, which is retiring State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple, so it's an open seat. And it changed also very dramatically in terms of the vote totals. Of these contested races that I'm looking at, the -- this one changed the most, 9.7 percent change between the old district and the new district. That's -- so the old district voted for McDonnell only 34.7 percent of the old district, very Democratic Arlington County we're talking about.
POPEThe new district voted 44 percent for Bob McDonnell, so that's a 9.7 percent Republican change. A lot of people think that gives Caren Merrick a good shot of winning.
NNAMDIEven though Mary Margaret Whipple endorsed Barbara Favola, the district has changed. Care to comment at all on that, Quentin Kidd?
KIDDYeah. Well, it's one of those -- it's one the districts that was so -- on the senate side, that was so heavily Democratic that the Democrats, in the process of redistricting, felt like they could safely take part of that Democratic -- those Democratic precincts and put them in other districts and make this a little bit more Republican and still win it. So, you know, Democrats are banking on winning this.
KIDDYou know, it's a long standing Democratic seat, but, you know, in this election cycle, there's a lot of energy on the Republican side and so shifting this district 10 percent Republican makes it a very competitive race. As Michael mentioned it, it's one of the most competitive in the state right now.
NNAMDIJerry, thank you very much for your call. Ellie, have we helped you at all or did we just waste your time? Ellie, are you there?
ELLIEYes, I am.
NNAMDIDid you find that conversation useful?
ELLIENot particularly. My concerns are -- well, truly. I think the two issues that I'm most interested in, at least in Sterling, are jobs, jobs and jobs.
NNAMDII hear you.
ELLIEThe one thing that I got from the material that I've received in the mail is that Caren Merrick has created jobs and has a track record. So that was of interest to me. Transportation, from my perspective, is also a big issue. I don't -- I haven't gotten any sense of -- I haven't gotten a lot of material from the Favola campaign actually, and the only material I did get was, sort of, a tax material.
ELLIESo I didn't really get a lot of information from them regarding what she would do. And my feeling was that since she has been so entrenched in Arlington for so long that people in Loudon County will never see her, never hear from her, and she won't have very much interest in any of the things that concern us like transportation and like jobs. And that's, sort of, been my feeling to date.
NNAMDIEllie, thank you very much for sharing that with us. Obviously, that is a competitive race in there. There's gonna be a lot of arguments made over the next week or so on both sides of the issue. Quentin, district lines for officials who serve within the commonwealth are already reset, but congressional redistricting for Virginia has yet to be finalized. How will this upcoming election affect the way those lines are redrawn?
KIDDWell, dramatically. One of the reasons that Republicans are targeting the Senate so seriously and spending millions upon millions of dollars on the Senate is that the House and the Senate -- state House and Senate agreed on House and Senate lines, redistricted lines, but they couldn't agree in congressional lines. The House of Delegates proposed one plan, the state Senate proposed another plan.
KIDDThe two plans weren't in agreement, and so we're, you know, everything is stalled right now. If the Democrats retain control of the state Senate, then that stall continues, and it likely goes to the Justice Department or to the federal courts because the House and Senate won't be able to agree on those lines.
KIDDHowever, if Republicans can take the Senate, if they can take control of the Senate, even if they can even up the senate and use Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote in the Senate, then they're gonna quickly approve the lines -- congressional lines, that were passed by the House of Delegates and everything will be settled going into the 2012 election cycle. So there's a lot riding on these state senate elections. Among the things riding on it is redistricting at the congressional level. And so that's the reason that you see such intensity on the Republican side -- on the Senate side for Republicans.
POPEThe Republicans really feel like the momentum is with them, and they feel like they've got the Democrats playing defensive. They really only need to pick up on three or so, I think, to get a majority. They also need to hold two seats that they currently hold that are open seats. So they feel like, you know, they're right on the edge of potentially winning this thing. And a lot of people that watch this stuff pretty closely think that it's a tossup whether or not the Republicans are going to be able to take control of the Senate.
KIDDYeah. If you look at, you know, the I -- some polling that I did two weeks ago, we asked a generic question about paying attention, how much attention people were paying to the races. And the Republicans have a really strong advantage, an intensity advantage, when it comes to paying attention to the races. So, you know, Michael is right. The intensity level is on the Republicans side right now.
KIDDAnd I think -- what I hear Republicans saying is they're hoping that this intensity level turns into a mini wave in that they can sweep through a couple of the four races that they've really targeted and retain those two open seats that Democrats moved in their process of redistricting, the 13th seat and the 22nd seat. And so the sense is, amongst Republicans, that they have the advantage. Democrats are playing defense right now. Everything is gonna come down ultimately to turnout, which side gets their voters out. And I think, you know, that's where all of the energy turns to in this last week.
POPEThe Republicans feel like they've got intensity. They've also got quite a bit of money that they're putting at this race. The Caren Merrick race, for example. The Republican Party gave her about $54,000. Bob McDonnell's political action committee, Opportunity PAC, gave Caren Merrick $25,000. And then Caren Merrick, being a successful businesswoman, gave herself $51,000.
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you talked about all of the other races because here is what Carol in Falls Church, Va., would like to talk about. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLYes. Hi. Thanks so much, Kojo, for talking about -- letting us talk about this. And I think I wanna get people out to this -- I'm talking about the Mason District supervisor race, where it's David Feld against incumbent Penny Gross. Penny Gross has been in there for 16 years and the amount of progress in older established neighborhoods is (word?). And I think her intention has gone out and our money has gone to Tysons.
CAROLWe don't have transportation, clogged roads. It's -- the services are really bad. And I'm a Democrat, but I -- there is a lot of Democrats that are voting for David Feld because we just -- we need to change something -- somebody paying attention to establish community in the Mason District, Bailey's Crossroads area. So that's...
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Carol. We're almost out of time, but, Michael, both you and Quentin talk about the other races. The board of supervisor races in Fairfax County, the circuit court clerk's race in Alexandria that you mentioned earlier are all important. Interest in these races may be stronger outside the commonwealth, however, than it is within. What will politicos be looking for on election night and might it tell them about next year's elections?
POPEPeople always think about Virginia and New Jersey being bellwethers politically. My own personal thought on that is that it's more of a vacuum, an information vacuum. In the absence of other stuff going on, people look at New Jersey and Virginia as sort of leading the way. In terms of what to look for on election night, the -- all of the interest and focus will be very tightly directed at the Virginia State Senate and whether or not the Republicans can pick up three seats and get control of the Virginia Senate, which could radically change the political dynamics in the commonwealth.
KIDDYeah, I agree. I mean if Republicans take the Senate -- if they take three seats and capture complete control of Virginia government, then that really sends a mini shockwave probably, you know, a second earthquake through the D.C. region because it says a lot about the political landscape headed into 2012. And I think that's part of the reason that there's a lot of attention in Virginia right now. And I, you know, I agree with the other -- Michael's comment about the information vacuum.
KIDDWe have 24-hour news cycle and that news cycle needs report on something. But I, you know, if Virginia is gonna be one of the seven states that determines who the next president is gonna be, then what happens in these state elections right now is important because the campaigns that are gonna compete in the 2012 cycle in Virginia are gonna need to know what the terrain is that they're competing on, and that's what we'll know a week and a day from now.
NNAMDIQuentin Kidd is a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Government at Christopher Newport University, where he also heads the Wason Center for Public Policy. His book "Civic Participation in America" will be released in late November. Quentin, thank you for joining us.
KIDDYou're more than welcome. Take care.
POPEMichael Pope is Northern Virginia reporter for WAMU and political reporter with the Connection Newspapers. His latest book, "Hidden History of Alexandria D.C.," was published earlier this year. Michael, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, George Pelecanos. Need I say more? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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