After a summer of scandals, we're checking in on the Chancellor's agenda.
Voters in Virginia have cast ballots in the Commonwealth’s primaries. These are the first elections after blackface scandals and allegations of sexual assault among Democratic leadership shook up Virginia politics earlier this year. We take a look at the election results, explore how those scandals shaped the primaries, and look forward to the general election in November.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll talk with playwright and performer Dane Figueroa Edidi about her play "Klytmnestra." It's an epic slam poem, which remixes a classic Greek tragedy for today's world. But first yesterday Virginian's headed to the polls to vote in primaries. So who were the winners and losers and what does yesterday's vote mean for November's general election? Joining me in studio is Jordan Pascale. He is the Transportation Reporter here in WAMU. Jordan, good to see you.
JORDAN PASCALEHey, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDII'm doing well. And joining us by phone is Rachel Bitecofer, Assistant Director of the Wason Center and Political Science Professor at Christopher Newport University. Rachel, thank you for joining us.
RACHEL BITECOFERIt's always a pleasure. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJordan, I'll start with you. You've been covering the primaries. What are your takeaways from yesterday's results?
PASCALEYeah, so I mainly focused on the State House, but incumbents there really kind of held fast in spite of many candidates trying to run to the left. Only two of 14 candidates -- two of 14 incumbents lost yesterday. And we can more into that later. But, you know, turnout in these things are so low in these primaries. Like 10 to 15 percent. So you've got really a small percentage of voters deciding who will ultimately move to the general and then on to the State House.
NNAMDIRachel, what were you expecting going into yesterday's primaries? And what do you think about the results? Were there any major surprises for you?
BITECOFERNo. You know, I knew going into this we were going to be looking to see is there enough energy in the grass roots of these two parties to do, you know, revolutions, right? And when you're talking about turnout, I mean, the big big races attract 10,000 maybe 15,000 voters, but a lot of these races were two, three, 4,000 voters. So it's not hard for the grass roots to stage a rebellion. And, you know, although there was one or two here and there by and large the so-called establishment had a good night last night.
NNAMDIWhat did voter turnout look like overall?
BITECOFERIt looked about normal compared to 2015. There really wasn't -- there's only two races that were held in 2015 before Trump was elected in a similar cycle without statewide offices to pull up turnout. And so there was one Republican race and one Democratic House race to compare and actually turnout for both of those were up over 2015 and by a considerable amount. But I don't know what the overall statewide turnout numbers are. Those are still being crunched as we talk right now.
NNAMDIRachel, the top three elected officials in the Commonwealth, the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, all Democrats, were embroiled in scandals earlier this year. How much if at all did that affect both the Democratic and Republican primaries yesterday?
BITECOFERSo, you know, it is a factor. Certainly the shooting down in Virginia Beach has kind of -- I don't want to say it's alleviated the pressure on Ralph Northam and Justin Fairfax. You know, I really call it the top three scandal. I think what's going on with Mark Herring it's a handy headline especially for national media to call it a top three scandal. But with Northam and Justin Fairfax, I think it's fair to say they're both embroiled in pretty heavy scandals. And, you know, that kind of put a pause on it with a very serious incident.
BITECOFERTheir leadership, you know, for better or for worse both refused to resign, and there's no way for the Democratic Party to force them out of office. There's no mechanization in the legislature to remove them forcibly. So they're still in office and they were the leaders through that crisis. So I think that bought them a little bit of grace period. And I don't know how that's going to reset the atmosphere in the state, because we're still holding funerals down here in Hampton Road.
BITECOFERSo that did change things, but I will say there were two primary opponents in the state that had to -- they were forced into positions where they had to embrace support of the governor to distinguish themselves in their campaigns. One was down here in a Hampton Road's race here, right in the heart of Virginia Beach. And another one was out in Richmond area in the race that Joe Morrissey ended up winning. And both of those candidates did not win. Embracing Ralph Northam, bringing him out, invoking his name, raising money by supporting him, those things did not seem to endeavor voters to those candidates.
NNAMDIWell, we'll talk more about the Joe Morrissey win later on. But, Jordan, what are Virginia voters that you've been talking with -- what do they think about those scandals? Did they think they influenced how people voted yesterday?
PASCALEWell, a couple of days ago I went out with a few State House candidates and Loudoun County and we knocked on, you know, a lot of doors. Only about 10 people answered over a couple hours, but, you know, we listened to a lot of what they had to say and that didn't really come up once. I mean, people were talking about transportation. They were talking about school overcrowding. And just kind of the growth in Loudoun County and how state house candidates are addressing those issues, but none of that came out and I think voters are separating those issues and the Northam, Fairfax, Herring issues. I don't think anybody is going to be suddenly switching to the Republican candidate, because of it. But, like Rachel did say, I think, the Morrissey Dance race maybe had a little bit of that influence. And we'll talk about that more later.
NNAMDIRachel Bitecofer, you're quoted to saying, "We did not see a progressive uprising in a local example of a national trend. Some long standing Democratic incumbents faced challenges from the left." What kind of night in fact did progressive insurgent candidates have?
BITECOFERThey had a tough night in fact. And, you know what, it's true that the low turnout favors progressives. But it's not enough, you have to have some money to reach voters and progressive candidates, outsider candidates -- I mean, number one especially in the Democratic Party, the prescription against taking big money, corporate money, especially Dominion money here in Virginia, cuts off a lot of revenue stream for these candidates. So they have to take small dollar donations and they're going against candidates that are better funded. But ultimately you can have a great message, but if nobody knows who you are and voters show up and they know this guy because he's been in office and they have this other name on the ballot they've never heard of, for many voters that's all it takes is that incumbency advantage.
BITECOFERSo when we look up in your area at Fairfax and Arlington where we did see progressive candidates triumph it's where we saw the most, you know, unprecedented amount of money infusion from the Soros packs come in. And we saw success there. Both of those candidates, these progressive candidates were able to unseat sitting Commonwealth attorneys. But it took, you know, more than a million dollars of seed money to make up that name recognition differential those incumbents had.
NNAMDIJordan, one Democratic power house senate minority leader, Richard Saslaw from Fairfax faced his first primary challenge in 40 years from Yasmine Taeb who only lost by about three percent. Who is Yasmine Taeb and did she distinguish herself from the incumbent?
PASCALEYeah. So Taeb is --
PASCALETaeb, yeah. She's a progressive. She was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and she's a human rights attorney. She's 39. Saslaw is nearly 79. So there was kind of a new blood sort of angle to this. You know, Saslaw is pretty friendly to business, had major contributions from Dominion and Verizon and car dealers associations, home builder associations that sort of thing. Taeb like Rachel said is looking for those small dollar donations. Shunned the Dominion donations, but she was majorly outraised, outspent seven to one by Saslaw, but almost the closest upset of the night. She ended up losing just by 500 votes. Though Saslaw said that was a lot closer than he was expected and told the Associated Press that people just want new people that promise change.
NNAMDIRachel, another place where there was a rare Democratic primary is in the race to replace outgoing Fairfax County Board Chair Sharon Bulova. Lead District Supervisor Jeffrey McKay had Bulova's support, but was only one of four Democratic candidates in the primary. What happened in that race?
BITECOFERWell, you know, again, it's one of those situations where, you know, if you've got a good message. You've got some enthusiasm behind you. You've got a dedicated group of people willing to work on your behalf. You know, there is still -- I would say and this is something that I tell people just till I'm blue in the face, yes, politics are still local and the messaging is local. And as Jordan was talking about when he was knocking on doors in Loudoun County people were talking about local issues, but ultimately the national atmosphere infuses everything.
BITECOFERAnd right now there's just an atmosphere running through the electorate from the top to the bottom where people are not happy with the status quo. And they're looking for other options. And so that's why you saw in the Saslaw race -- I mean, I'm sure the Taeb camp feels really sad today about how close they came to toppling him given how disadvantaged they were, but they shouldn't because to come within 400 votes when you have that kind of differential, I mean, it's an impressive testament to the campaign that they ran, right?
BITECOFERAnd so, you know, it's just another example of, you know, look. Yeah, there was an heir apparent and, you know, it didn't work. And that's certainly what we see with this Morrissey race too where, you know, there's a message coming from the political class that the voters just didn't care to hear.
NNAMDIYeah. Well, let's talk a little bit more about the Morrissey race for people who don't know. One Democratic incumbent, who did not make it past yesterday's primary was Senator Roselyn Dance, who represent Petersburg in the Richmond area. She lost to former Delegate Joe Morrissey, who has, I guess, the least you can say is a pretty colorful history despite having the backing of the Virginia Democratic Establishment. What happened there?
BITECOFERYeah, so what happened there is number one and if you don't know Joe Morrissey in Virginia politics, you know, you should certainly Google him and read his Wikipedia page. It's a rich history full of different lively scandals. But just to keep a long story short, he was serving in the House of Delegates. He had an affair with an underage intern that got him into legal trouble. He ended up marrying that intern. They have children together. And he served his time. You know, he got disbarred from being a lawyer. But he has been in the Richmond community for a long time and really deeply involved in the Richmond community especially the communities of color there.
BITECOFERAnd he's seen as somewhat a local folk hero there. He works very hard giving legal advice and legal aid to people's children. Helping them navigate the criminal justice system. So it's a realist story of retail politics. So, you know, he sought to return to the House through that House seat or that Senate seat.
BITECOFERAnd, you know, she -- this is not the case of an ideological challenge. This is a case of, you know, her just kind of being in the way of his path back to glory. And so, you know, the voters there spoke and very resoundingly. This is not a product of low turnout. This turnout in that race was extremely high. And voters sent a very clear message. They wanted to send Fighting Joe back to the General Assembly.
NNAMDIHe is clearly wildly popular in that district. Jordan Pascale, one Democratic incumbent, though, faced the challenge from his right. How did the race between Democratic socialist Delegate Lee Carter and his challenger Manassas Councilmember and former Republican, Mark Wolfe, go yesterday?
PASCALEYeah, Wolfe got beat pretty badly. I guess about 16 points, like you said, he was a Republican for up until a couple of years ago. And I think kind of voters saw what was happening there. And Carter is not by any means like close in with the Democrats, but he has a hefty social media following. Gets a lot of small dollar donations. And he's kind of one of the poster boys for the Democratic socialists. So he won that nomination and probably will be back again in November.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here's Sarah in Arlington, Virginia. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAHHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to go back to a comment that you had made about the amount of money being spent in elections. And what I found for Arlington Commonwealth attorney was that I was receiving five, six, seven unsolicited spam text messages from the progressive candidates and it was overwhelming just the amount of marketing. And it was just so difficult to find the actual substance of the candidates. That was more difficult than being on the receiving end of all of the marketing.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about that, Jordan Pascale.
PASCALEYeah. So she mentioned the Commonwealth attorney races and I was also getting, you know, I don't even live there, but was searching the names. And, you know, they're popping up in my Instagram feed of, you know, these couple of candidates that had gotten a lot of money in Arlington and in Fairfax County where this George Soros PAC, the Justice and Public Safety PAC hoped to get folks in that would support criminal justice reform, decriminalizing marijuana, you know, getting rid of cash bail that sort of thing. They pumped a million dollars into these two Commonwealth attorney races and both those challengers upset the incumbents by two points each. So that was one area where progressives did succeed. You probably could attribute that a lot to that big spending from the PAC.
NNAMDIRachel, I'll ask you the ideological question that David emailed in to ask, what makes someone a progressive? When did that become a synonym for liberal?
BITECOFERYes. That's a great question, David, actually the irony of that is that people started calling themselves progressives once Republicans managed to damage the brand of liberal, right. And I actually just did some really interesting polling on this since he mentions that. A national poll where I asked, you know, Republicans, Democrats, and independents the first word that pops into their mind when they hear Democrat, Republican, and independent. And I was very curious to hear, you know, how do Republicans describe themselves, how do Democrats, what do they think of when they hear that word?
BITECOFERAnd one of the things that I found in that survey that was most interesting and I haven't had much of a chance to write about it yet is that by and large Democrats describe themselves as liberals much more common than they do progressive. So despite how dominant that word is in our media bubbles and our social media bubbles, Democrats don't use it a lot compared to the word liberal.
BITECOFERSo yeah, so progressive was adopted as a bypass to get around, you know, the branding that was done in the 1990s predominantly at that time through Republican talk radio, but, of course, now it's everywhere Republican media network and media universe is very good at turning liberalism into a terrible word.
NNAMDIIs it also fair to say that some progressives are really Democratic liberals who feel that the Democratic Party has become too centrist and they are therefore to the left of what they see as the party?
BITECOFERIt is, but it didn't start that way. I mean, that's probably the more recent manifestation is a way to delineate yourself as a further to the left Democrat, you know, but it didn't start that way. We start to see the use of progressive as a way to get around that branding problem that started in the late 80s and the 90s through the Clinton years.
NNAMDIJordan, one Republican primary was particularly dramatic with one candidates criminal record involving cocaine and a burglary coming to the forefront. How did the race between Fredericksburg and Stafford County Delegate Robert Thomas Jr. and challenger former Stafford County Supervisor Paul Milde --
NNAMDIPaul Milde, how did that pan out?
PASCALEWell, that was one of the two upsets of the night. Milde won because Thomas had voted for Medicaid expansion and so he railed on that. And this was one race where the challenger and the incumbent had similar fundraising totals. So was able to get that message out there. But, you know, Milde is a longtime county supervisor in the area. I think he'd been on the Board for about 12 years. And so, you know, you saw him running to the right. Something the Republican Party is very familiar with. If you think about, you know, those Tea Party insurgents about a decade ago. But, yeah Milde's criminal record was something that was brought up. It was in the late 80s early 90s, like you mentioned a cocaine issue and then --
PASCALEAnd a burglary where it's a long story, but just quickly basically in some testimony folks said that he was part of attempted burglary where they tried to cut a hole in the roof of a Foot Locker and steal. It didn't work out, but that's kind of a long intricate story.
NNAMDIYeah, he said it was something that somebody told me in a private setting in a group and so I didn't feel I should reveal it. But I wasn't a part of it, but a whole lot of other people said, no, you were.
PASCALEYeah, but, I mean, you know, that was 1990, so, I mean, 20 plus 30 years ago. So apparently that was not an issue for voters who put in office multiple times.
NNAMDIRachel, Medicaid expansion, which passed the legislature last year was very popular with Democrats, much less so with Republicans. Nearly two dozen Republicans, though, voted for it and some conservatives vowed to punish them in the primaries. How much of a factor was Medicaid expansion in the Republican races?
BITECOFERYeah. I'm glad you're going to give me a chance to comment on Milde's vote there. He wasn't alone. He had some friends. And he had a friend over there in the Senate too, Emmett Hanger, who voted with Medicaid expansion. And the vote was motivated, because of fears of the general election and the realities of those members' districts. So, you know, they voted Medicaid expansion in order to take that issue off the Democrats basically battle plans for this fall, remove that as a mechanism for them to get attacked on.
BITECOFERAnd they did that successfully, but drew primary challengers that didn't see the rational for that and in so doing, removing Bob Thomas the incumbent, Milde has increased the probability that that 28th seat will flip over to Democrats. It went by to Northam by three points in the 2017 election, which is why he cast that vote in the first place to expand Medicaid.
BITECOFEROver in the other side, Emmett Hanger managed to survive his challenge. He faced a less well-positioned challenger, who didn't have as much name recognition. I was doing a radio show in the right -- right wing radio show a few days ago, heard a commercial on hold that linked Emmett Hanger as a Bernie Sanders loving Republican. So you can get a sense of how he was framed by the opposition.
NNAMDINot a lot of those.
BITECOFERI guess it didn't resonate with the Republican electorate over there, because they returned him pretty resoundingly to his seat. Yeah, so anyway that's what happened there and, you know, these guys didn't necessarily have a change of heart on how they felt about Medicaid expansion. It was about political expediency.
NNAMDIRachel, another race that's been heated is the one between Senator Barbara Favola who represents part of Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties in the Virginia Senate and her opponent, Nicole Merlene. Why was that such a tense race and how did it end?
BITECOFERWell, you know, those races up there are tense and let me tell you why, because when you're replacing somebody up in that area right now it's kind of like holding a primary down in the south. Those are to all intents and purposes those are the general elections. So whoever wins the race is going to take that seat. All the bananas are in that bucket. So, you know, a primary when you're going to go on and have a competitive general election, you know, people hold a lot of things back. It's, you know, that there's not that same urgency. But when you know you're fighting for a seat -- and that's why we saw that turnout in Richmond so high for that Morrissey Dance race. When you know that seat is going on for sure, you know, for certainly to serve in the assembly, you put everything on the line in that party primary. And that's why it was so tense.
NNAMDIJordan, the Democratic primary for the 87th District House seat, which covers Loudoun and part of Prince William County was unique, because all of the candidates were first generation Americans. Who won that race and what are your takeaways from it?
PASCALEYeah. This was an interesting one. It was the only like four way race for a House of Delegates seat, but knocked on doors with folks, Suhas Subramanyam won the nomination. He's a lawyer. He advises non-profits and at one point worked on the Hill and for the Obama Administration advising on healthcare and tech policy. He's also a volunteer firefighter in Loudoun County. So he won that four person race. If he wins in November he'd be the first Indian American in the legislature. So that's a first there. And Loudoun County, obviously has a large Indian population.
NNAMDIRachel, last week Governor Northam called for a special session in July to wrestle with gun control legislation after the Virginia Beach mass shooting. What could that mean for November's general election?
BITECOFERYeah, so that -- I mean, it means everything for that. I mean, the motivation for this is a political calculation by Northam by the Virginia Democrats to force the GOP's hand. So this is about -- it is true that these 11 bills were considered just in January in the General Assembly and they were killed very swiftly in committee, but it was not done so under a lot of sunshine. It was, you know, many things going on at the time period. You know, the press reported on it in a blurb, but it wasn't that the media was fixated on.
BITECOFERSo now we're going to have the special session. The session is going to focus, you know, exclusively on this question of gun control at least if the Democrats have their way about it and the media will cover it. If Republicans kill it at a committee it's going to get saturation coverage in Richmond and national coverage as well.
BITECOFERSo the Republicans really don't have a great play here. They could try to divert the agenda and they're, you know, risking getting, you know, excruciated in the media for not taking this tragedy seriously. They can allow it up on the floor, you know, and vote it down that way. That's going to be painful for their marginal or swing District members, who are facing really tough map anyway and really they stand very strong chances of losing control of both chambers already in the fall. So this is a way for Democrats to really turn up the pressure for them. And there really isn't a good move them to make here. It's going to be a very difficult situation for them to navigate, but never count the Republicans out in terms of strategy.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, Brian emails, One of the biggest takeaways from yesterday was two progressive challenges won their primary campaigns for Commonwealth attorney in Fairfax and Arlington counties prior to this year. Even many political insiders could not name, who their Commonwealth attorney was. Now that Descano won the primary however, criminal justice issues like cash bail reform were hot topics of conversation at an election night party for Democrats last night in Springfield. That said, Rachel, does yesterday's election reveal anything to you about changes to politics in Virginia?
BITECOFERIt does. I mean, you know, we complain about big money, right? I mean, Soros is big money, right? But he's big money from the left. So people are less apt to complain, because those were issues that -- he's spending on behalf of issues that the left cares about. And, you know, they're not issues that are, you know, about maximizing oil profits or about maximizing progressive causes that people hold dear to their heart. That's probably an important distinction to make. But it's still coming from one rich guy, right?
BITECOFERBut, you know, the upside of that is this guy is right. I mean, a month ago no one knew who their Commonwealth attorney is somebody, who has immense power over the lives of the people whom they reside especially the people who have the least voice and the least power, the people who are most likely to be subject to the laws and, you know, police -- you know, patrols of their area.
BITECOFERNow, you know, at least the intellectual elites in Arlington and Fairfax are walking around having these deep conversations about criminal justice policy. And that money is what bought that level of cerebral-ity, right? So, you know, for that I'm thankful.
NNAMDISame question to you, Jordan Pascale. Is the money that makes the difference?
PASCALEYou know, I think it is. I mean, you know, you had the caller that said she got a ton of texts, only way you can do that is if you have the money. But, I mean, the names Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano, I mean, if you're in Arlington and Fairfax, you're probably going to know who those people are now.
NNAMDIHave to take a short break. Jordan, thank you so much for joining us.
PASCALEThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJordan Pascale is Transportation Reporter with WAMU. Rachel Bitecofer, always a pleasure. Thank you.
BITECOFERYes, thank you so much.
NNAMDIRachel is Assistant Director of the Wason Center and Political Science Professor at Christopher Newport University. When we come back we'll be talking with playwright and performer Dane Figueroa Edidi about her play "Kytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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