Virginia is halfway through a whirlwind legislative session. How are new laws going to change the lives of Virginians? And Montgomery County Public Schools are taking the first steps toward redistricting, making some parents and students hopeful and others angry. How might the process end?
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
Virginia’s highly anticipated elections are next week, and control of the General Assembly could be determined by the outcomes of a few competitive districts.
We’ll take a look at Northern Virginia’s close races, and how candidates are positioning themselves in the countdown to November 5. Plus, we’ll talk about the voter interests and national attention that shaped this election: the record-breaking fundraising, the “Trump effect,” gun policy, abortion and more.
And, we want to hear from you: What’s on your mind as you head to the polls? Join the conversation: Comment below, or call in to the show at 800-433-8850 between 12:20 and 1pm on October 30, 2019.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
SASHA-ANN SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, in for Kojo Nnamdi. The 2019 Virginia elections are less than a week away. Voter turnout at off-off-year elections is generally low, but the Commonwealth is already seeing an increase in voter turnout from absentee ballots. Plus, there's a lot at stake, and a handful of votes could determine the future of the General Assembly. Joining me now, as usual, for our Virginia Votes series is Tom Sherwood. He's laughing. He's our resident analyst and contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Hi, again, Tom.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon.
SIMONSDaniella Cheslow. She covers Virginia politics for WAMU. Welcome to the show, Daniella.
DANIELLA CHESLOWThank you. Good to be here.
SIMONSAnd, on the phone, we've got Rosalyn Cooperman. She's an associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. Hi, Rosalyn.
ROSALYN COOPERMANHi, happy to be here.
SIMONSNow, Tom, before we get started, I know that you did spend some time covering former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles. Your reaction to the news of his death yesterday.
SHERWOODYes, I was -- for the Washington Post, I was a Richmond reporter from the early '80s to '86 when he ran for and was elected governor. I think the Richmond Times Dispatch today, in an editorial, said it best about Governor Baliles, that his entire life was one of courage and dignity. Personally, what was great about him was he was soft-spoken, good-humored, accessible, somebody I would say you could always put your feet up on the desk, if it weren't the governor's desk, to talk to. And he would speak to you, and he would tell you as much as he possible could to lay out things. And that's the way he was.
SHERWOODHe was bipartisan. In this era of rancor and politics, he was the Virginia gentleman. As I said, he's the closest definition of that, in the best possible sense. He was elected governor in 1985 when Doug Wilder was elected Lieutenant Governor in that period with the Democratic era. And he did so much for transportation, the first governor in 30 years to address transportation. But, personally, you can't have a better politician to talk to, I don't care what their politics are. It's just someone who would just talk to you like a human being, and that's what I liked most about Gerry Baliles.
SIMONSLovely. Great, great memories. Our thoughts are certainly with his family. Switching gears, Daniella, can you remind our listeners what's at stake in next week's elections, and why it has received so much national attention?
CHESLOWSure. So, Virginia's one of four states holding elections this year, and nobody's running for president or governor or senator. But there is this General Assembly, where all 140 seats are up on the ballot. And Republicans right now control both the House of Delegates and the State Senate. And Democrats are hoping they can flip both chambers in this election. And because this is sort of a preview of next year, because Virginia's often seen as kind of a bellwether, it has attracted record amounts of funding, huge contributions from instate, from out of state. It's an election that's really become sort of a national focus as a crystal ball for next year.
SIMONSA new poll released on Monday from Christopher Newport University laid out the key issues that are on people's minds in competitive Senate districts. What did the poll find, Daniella, and are national politics impacting how Virginians will actually vote?
CHESLOWSo, there was a question in there, Sasha, about: are you more likely to support a candidate who supports President Trump? And the people in these four districts said overwhelmingly, no, we do not like Trump. And so it seems like the politics in Washington are kind of a drag on Republicans running for office locally.
CHESLOWThere is a limitation, that the poll is only for Senate districts. One of them is in Loudoun County. But if you're going to look at that poll and other polls that have come before it, it does seem that Virginians are pretty critical of the president. The state voted for Hillary Clinton, and so it seems that what's going on in Washington is no help to the GOP.
SHERWOODAnd you have to remember that Trump was not even popular in Virginia among Republicans when he ran for president in 2015 and 2016.
SIMONSThat is true.
SHERWOODAnd Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, all these other Republicans -- moderate, conservative Republicans -- Trump was just seen as a whacko from Manhattan. I mean, even at the convention that year, the morning breakfast of Virginia Republicans, the leader said, look, I want you all to wear your Trump stuff tonight when he accepts the nomination. And someone in the back yelled, some woman's voice I heard, she said, we don't have any Trump stuff. (laugh) So, he's never been liked. And Tom Davis, the former congressman, had told me just last week that Trump is radioactive among suburban women.
CHESLOWBut it is interesting that, among the GOP establishment, it's sort of torn on where Trump stands. I went to the Fairfax County GOP office, and when I walked in, there was a big picture of Trump, big picture of Mike Pence. They had a talking Trump action figure. Tim Hannigan, the chairman, pointed to pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Washington and Regan. And he said, these are our three best presidents, and that's number four over there on that wall.
SHERWOODWell, you know, Trump is not even coming to the state where he can't be of help. Vice-President Pence is going to Virginia Beach this weekend. Joe Biden is going to Sterling this weekend. So, some national Democrats aren't getting involved or national Republicans. But Trump, again, is radioactive.
SIMONSSpeaking of national, Daniella, one indicator of the attention that the Virginia elections have been receiving is the number of special appearances by big-name politicians and celebrities. So, who has made their way to Virginia to campaign?
CHESLOWSo, as Tom just mentioned, we're seeing Mike Pence. Many of the Democratic hopefuls have made their way over here. Amy Klobuchar recently
SIMONSBeto O'Rourke, too, right?
CHESLOWBeto O'Rourke, yes, Kamala Harris...
CHESLOW...Mayor Pete. And then Alec Baldwin made a quick tear through the state.
CHESLOWYes. He showed up in Fairfax County, and was handing pizza out to volunteers.
SIMONSWow, probably at a yoga studio. (laugh) Rosalyn, we've actually talked a lot on this show about how the Virginia elections will really boil down to who shows up at the polls. Rosalyn, can you tell us what voter turnout usually is like in these off-off-year elections, and how do you think this year will compare?
COOPERMANWell, I think it depends on a number of things, as Daniella pointed out. Virginia is one of four states that has these off-year elections. And if you look at the previous time that we had off-year elections, we're looking at turnout at about 30, 29 percent, right, in 2015. It jumped up significantly in 2017 to just at about 48 percent. One of the things that we could also look at is the number of absentee ballots that have been requested. And, really, that's quite a remarkable figure. VPAP does a map of the Commonwealth, and they have an indication of where different absentee ballots have been, in essence, requested, right.
COOPERMANAnd so, in essence, you know, that requires a lot of a voter. You know, they're thinking ahead. They have to know when the election is. They have to get their paperwork in line, so on and so forth. And, you know, you have these areas throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in areas where Democrats are expected to do well, where absentee ballot requests are over 100 percent from what they were in the previous election cycle, which is really quite remarkable.
SHERWOODYou mentioned VPAP. That's the Virginia Public Access Project. If anyone is interested in the details and minutia, the raw information, you can go -- it's a nonpartisan site in Virginia.
COOPERMANAnd a fabulous source.
SHERWOODAnd it's absolutely -- you know, in 2015, only 62,600 people voted absentee. Already, I think the latest number from Virginia Access is 75,000, and we're not even getting in. The deadline to vote absentee is Saturday. So, we do see a significant enthusiasm of people wanting to vote. There's no such thing as early voting in Virginia, where you get to go to the polls early, like other states. But absentee ballots are up.
SIMONSAnd a significant portion of absent ballot requests for this election have come from college students. So, Rosalyn, what does a big student turnout usually mean in the polls?
COOPERMANWell, it's often (laugh) magic to Democrats' ears, if you look at the fact that younger voters tend to break Democratic in terms of their voting behavior by a margin of more than two-to-one. I think what's interesting -- so we know that recently the registrar up in Fairfax County, there was a problem with rejected registration or absentee ballots at George Mason. And I had asked -- in large part, because they couldn't verify, in essence, you know, where the student address that students were indicating, which was the campus address, the registrar felt that they could not, in turn, verify the address given, you know, the geographic expanse, right, that includes many different precincts and the like.
COOPERMANAnd so, one of the things that I did, I had actually reached out to our Campus Engagement Activities Office and was frankly shocked (laugh) to find out that here in Fredericksburg, there are students who live on campus. And ours is a much smaller and less densely populated geographic space. Students actually can vote in three separate wards and have three different polling places. And so when they fill out the residential address for the university, they also have to identify their on-campus mailbox. And then that provides the city registrar the opportunity to figure out exactly what precinct they're in.
COOPERMANVotes matter, right, and particularly true in this case. Back in 2017, voters in House District 28 here in Fredericksburg, over 100 individuals were given the wrong ballots when they showed up at the precinct that they were supposed to be voting at, right. And you ended up, in this case, having a race that went down to where the Republican for this open seat, Bob Thomas, ended up winning over the Democratic candidate, Joshua Cole, by fewer than 100 votes. So, votes do matter, and when they come from students who are taking the time to show up and get registered, they should matter.
SIMONSIt says a lot. You mentioned earlier the George Mason University issue. So, of course she was referring to the Fairfax County registrar, who threw out 171 voter registrations from George Mason University students who registered under a general campus address. The registrar said he couldn't discern the precincts where the students lived just by the general school address, and he has since extended the deadline for students to fix their address to November 2nd. But some voting rights advocates, of course, fear that the damage is done. Daniella, you made some calls to follow up on that?
CHESLOWI did. I spoke to Gary Scott, the Fairfax County registrar. And he said that out of those 171 ballots that were rejected or applications that were rejected, only six people have figured out how to correct it. But it should be -- he said you've got to write to the registrar. He said you can write it out by hand and take a picture and email it over or fax it over. You've got until Saturday, if that's what you want to do. But he did note that there were 500 people in that precinct on the campus who had successfully registered. So, he said, look, you have to put your residence address. We have to know where you live.
SHERWOODAnd can I just -- the reason we've been having these special Wednesday programs about the Virginia elections is because the General Assembly is so closely divided. I think it's important to remind people that in the 100-member House of Delegates, Republicans hold a 51 to 48-seat margin, just a couple of seats. One is vacant. And, in the Senate, the 40-member Senate, it is 20 to 19. So, just a shift of a few seats in either direction would change party or keep the Republicans in control.
SIMONSIt's very tight. You're listening to the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, WAMU's race and identity reporter, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about the Virginia elections in just a moment. Stay with us.
SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Tom Sherwood, our resident analyst and contributing writer for Washington City Paper, Daniella Cheslow, who covers Virginia politics for WAMU, and Rosalyn Cooperman, who's an associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. And we're talking about the upcoming Virginia elections. I want to jump right to the phone lines. Vicki's been waiting patiently. She is in Virginia. Hi, Vicki. You're on the air.
VICKIHi. Thanks for taking my call. Good afternoon. I live out in Prince William County, and in the local race, there's a very contentious issue regarding the Rural Crescent, which is an area that was set aside for preservation of the rural way of life, which prevented intense density and development by limiting sewer and density per acre. And I think those laws were put in place in '98, and now there is a push to expand sewer into the Rural Crescent, and also increase density by, I think, four-fold per acre. And, of course, the taxpayers will have to take up the tab for infrastructure like roads and schools and whatnot, sewer.
VICKIAnd I'm just really shocked that apparently it's the Democrats in these local races who are pro-growth and are not pledging to support the -- to preserve the Rural Crescent. There's a couple of activist groups who have put forth a pledge to get the candidates to protect -- to pledge to protect the Rural Crescent. And I believe all the Republicans have, but only one Democrat hasn't. It's kind of a lukewarm endorsement. And being a lifelong Democrat myself, this is a real problem for me. (laugh)
SIMONSYeah, Tom, I want you to address that. Thank you, Vicki.
SHERWOODThe Rural Crescent is part of the development of Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, whether you're talking about Loudoun County. I remember trying to cover Loudoun County a couple decades ago when they wanted to protect the western part of the county from development. This is the same issue in Prince William, which is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state of Virginia.
SHERWOODI don't think all the Democrats are just in favor of getting rid of it. I think there's people that say it's time to look at it again. Development is coming where it needs to go. How it's going to be done is a big issue, you know, in terms of who's running for county executive there and the County Board seats, what's going to be done statewide to support rural areas. But this has always been a big issue in the outlying counties which are increasingly becoming more populated.
COOPERMANI think one way to additionally look at that is the issue of affordable housing, right. And so the promise of additional development may, in the mind's eye of folks who are trying to sit back and perhaps take a look at this and weigh, you know, in essence the idea of preserving rural spaces, but also having affordable housing, right, for folks, particularly as we're looking at further development in northern Virginia with Amazon coming onboard in Arlington and the like.
SHERWOODAnd you do have to have the jobs, because what good is it for you to move way out into Prince William County from the urban core if there aren't enough jobs there? And if you have to drive from Prince William on 95 to get to Arlington to work for Amazon, it could be a mess. I mean, even there in Fredericksburg, professor, the discussions about expanding 95, maybe more lanes to 95.
COOPERMANEvery day. (laugh) That's something that, as commuters, we look at every day.
SHERWOODI don't know how many more 18-wheelers I can drive behind when I go down to Richmond, but there certainly are a lot of them.
SIMONSDaniella, you've been on the ground talking with and shadowing local candidates. I want to ask you first about the race in Loudoun County between incumbent Democrat Wendy Gooditis and Republican Randy Minchew. How are the two of them approaching this election, and what kind of rhetoric have you heard from them on the campaign trail?
CHESLOWSo, I had a chance to talk to both of them this Saturday, and Randy Minchew actually mentioned the Rural Crescent. And he's in favor of preserving it. Wendy Gooditis mentioned, she said, you know, we are getting more people in Loudoun County, and that helps people like me. Because the more population we get, they tend to be Democratic voters.
CHESLOWBut then, on the broader campaign issue, Wendy Gooditis really saw her race in terms of this national moment. And I saw her kick off a voting canvas. Senator Mark Warner was there. Delegate John Bell was there. The minority leader, Eileen Filler-Corn, was there, and she said, we are the bellwether, and I have a very competitive seat. That might even mean that I'm the most important Democrat in all of the country right now. (laugh)
CHESLOWAnd then when I went to Randy Minchew, he said, this is not about national politics -- although he concedes he thinks he lost his seat to Gooditis back in 2017 because voters just didn't like Trump, and they associated the GOP with that brand. He says, now, Washington is background noise. We can get back to talking bread-and-butter issues. I want to talk about lowering tolls, keeping taxes low, maintaining Virginia's status as the most business-friendly state in the country, according to CNBC.
CHESLOWSo, it seems like the Republicans -- with Randy Minchew as an example -- are really focusing on local issues, while Democrats are trying to make these big, sweeping national statements about where the party is in 2019.
SHERWOODAnd, of course, education is a big issue, with all the growth, just like in Maryland. What the state is going to be spending, just like in Maryland when they're talking about spending billions upon billions more on state education. In Fairfax County, the 12-member school board, half their school board is not running for reelection. So, the parties, the Republicans and Democrats there are vying to see what's going to happen there.
SHERWOODBecause, you know, people are talking about what are we going to do with these 140-something-thousand students in Fairfax. There's some discussion about segregation of the school districts and how that could be changed. That's going on in Montgomery County. There are just so many local issues here on the ground, in your neighborhood of Northern Virginia that people really should be paying attention to.
SIMONSRosalyn, Wendy Gooditis is one of the 11 Democratic women who flipped a delegate seat in 2017. Now she's being opposed by the same person she beat. And the same is true for Democrat Hala Ayala, who's facing Rich Anderson in Prince William County. How are women faring in both parties this election cycle?
COOPERMANWell, it depends on the party, right. And so we know, for example, when Democrats won, as you said, 15 seats following the 2017 House of Delegates elections, 11 of those were new women Democrats, right. Many of them, in essence, defeated incumbents or took advantage of open seats. There was only one new Republic woman, Emily Brewer out of House District 64, who was elected as a freshman Republican woman.
COOPERMANAnd so we see, in terms of 2019 -- you know, so, in essence, those 11 new women are now sophomores, hopefully, right, in terms of their own ambitions to be returned to office. There are two, actually, that jumped ship and are running state senate races, right, so Cheryl Turpin and Debra Rodman in state senate races. But what's interesting about them is that, as a general rule in looking at the money that they've collected and how they've campaigned, very much looking like incumbents, right, raising a significant amount of money, and are moving into their election cycles as the defending incumbents, as opposed to from a more, you know, precarious position.
COOPERMANAnd many of these seats, as we've talked about, are in Northern Virginia, or in the capital region, or in Virginia Beach, where, in many instances, the Democrats have some advantages based on absentee ballots that have been requested, or even voting behavior, if we're looking at what happened in the 2018 midterm elections with the election of three, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, seven, Elaine Luria in Virginia, two, and of course Jennifer Wexton up in Virginia, 10. Many of these districts, in essence, if you boil it down to what's going on in the Commonwealth in the state house of delegate races and state senate races, a lot of these women are running in similar areas.
SHERWOODProfessor, what's your take on the Republicans -- gun control is a big issue now in Virginia Beach, partly because of the massacre there. But the Republicans -- the governor called the special session, I think, back on June 9th, and Republicans cut it short after 90 minutes. People, to me, are saying -- at least the Democrats are saying that was a political mistake by the Republicans. It looked like they didn't care even for something as simple as background checks. Do you get any sense that guns and gun issues are playing a role in the state?
COOPERMANAbsolutely. And so, if we look, for example, at going into -- coming out of, rather, the primary elections, EMILY's List indicated -- which is an organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women -- indicated that they were going to spend, you know, a half million dollars, right, on elections. Moms Demand Action, on gun control legislation, also indicated that they would be weighing in on races and getting involved.
COOPERMANAnd I think, you know, just even, like, anecdotal evidence. So many of us go to farmers markets and, you know, you look at and you talk with the different groups that are there. And where I live up in Fairfax County, every weekend, faithfully, you have seen groups, particularly Moms Demand Action for gun control, working the crowd. You know, going and talking to people, and the like. That speaks to a very high interest in getting folks understanding the issues and turning them out to vote.
SIMONSNow, Daniella, we do know that Democrats are being mobilized to the polls for gun safety. You spent time with voters on both sides of the gun debate in Northern Virginia. What have you learned about gun control advocates in the region, and also about people who support looser or no gun restrictions?
CHESLOWSo, I had a chance to go out shooting AR15s (laugh) with a woman who lives in Manassas, and...
SHERWOODI hope you got pictures of that. (laugh)
CHESLOWI certainly did. And she was saying, you know, first of all, to become a competitive AR15 shooter, you must be a member of the NRA to compete in some of the high-tier races. And so becoming a recreational AR15 shooter kind of becomes a political identity, in and of itself. And that crowd is very in favor of keeping Virginia's gun laws exactly as they are, if not expanding access to guns.
CHESLOWAnd then that puts Republicans like Tim Hugo in Fairfax County in an uncomfortable position, because he is facing a Democrat, Dan Helmer, who's an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who opens people's doors, knocks on people's doors saying, hello. I'm a veteran, and I support gun control. And Helmer is right on Hugo's coattails in terms of fundraising.
CHESLOWAnd so I had a chance to see the two of them debate the other night. And Tim Hugo said, well, I'm in favor of some red flag laws with due process, with due process. He said it three times in one sentence, which seemed to be a real signal to people like that markswoman in Manassas, to say, I'm in favor of some gun laws, but I'm not going to fundamentally change your way of life.
CHESLOWAnd just anecdotally, every month, there are protests outside the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, which is just a reminder of the NRA's big footprint in this region. And I went to one of those protests, and the people there said, you know, now, when people honk at us, it's usually to give us a thumbs up, to say good job. Years ago, when we started this -- I think it was after the shooting in Sandy Hook or in Parkland. They said, when we started, most of what we were seeing was middle fingers. So, they felt like there was a shift in the conversation.
SHERWOODProfessor, anybody here of the panel, what are the brightest spots for the Republicans? I'm going to ask about abortion in a moment, but what are the brightest spots for the Republicans, professor, that you can cite for -- the enthusiasm gap for the Democrats seems to be pretty up. What are the -- if you're a Republican, what do you look at?
COOPERMANWell, I think that there are two Senate races that I might pay attention to in the capital region, with Amanda Chase in the Senate district 11 and Siobhan Dunnavant in Senate district 12, right. And so...
SHERWOODWhat's the jurisdiction for 11 and 12?
COOPERMANCapital region, and so Richmond area. And so one of the things that I think is interesting about both of those is that you've had generally even fundraising. And, you know, again, instances in which Republican women, in essence, are being able to make the case for them as a different face of the Republican Party, right, that is female and identified with the party label, but kind of having some space, as you've talked about the lack of popularity of Donald Trump. It makes it easier to potentially look at, okay, well, these are Republicans that have retained the seat, and maybe look different than the Republican Party.
COOPERMANAnd, you know, if we look back, Jill Vogel, in her district, doesn't have a competitive seat. But when Jill Vogel ran statewide, right, she actually did the best, right, out of all the Republican candidates that were running statewide at that point. And so I think there are a precious few Republican women who are running, but they may be able to make a stronger case in terms of disassociating a very visible and very radioactive Donald Trump from their party, in the face of it.
SIMONSAnd, Rosalyn, we're running out of time, but I do want to ask, you live in Democrat Kathy Tran's House district in Fairfax County.
SIMONSDelegate Tran received national attention earlier this year about comments she made during a hearing on a late-term abortion bill. Remind us what happened, quickly, and tell us how the issue of abortion is now shaping her reelection.
COOPERMANRight. So, Delegate Tran is a first term delegate, was the chief sponsor for House Bill 2491, which would have done a couple of things, including eliminating a requirement that an abortion in the second trimester of pregnancy and prior to the third trimester be performed in a hospital. Under a current Virginia law, three doctors have to certify that continuing a pregnancy would likely cause either the woman's death or substantially -- or irrevocably impair her mental or physical health. And so the law wanted to reduce that number to one, and then also remove the 24-hour waiting period.
COOPERMANAnd in explaining the purpose of the bill and the scope of it -- which is, in essence, what advocates would argue is treat a legal medical procedure similarly to other legal medical procedures that don't require a tribunal to determine need -- that she, in essence, bungled the response and the discussion of it. And, frankly, I think Governor Northam and his response didn't necessarily help matters, right.
COOPERMANAnd so this district, which had been trending blue -- Dave Albo retired, the seat opened up, Kathy Tran won, and won handily in 2017 -- looks competitive at face value, I would argue, just because of the, I think, kind of cloddy way that the bill was handled and the remarks regarding it. That, in essence, gave Republicans and folks who identify as pro-choice, or rather pro-life, a pass really to think about, you know, is this what Democrats want to be about and the type of legislation that they want to be identified as sponsoring, even though the text of the bill perhaps looks very different.
SIMONSOkay. Well, we're out of time. It's a shame this is the last installment of the Virginia Vote series. Rosalyn Cooperman, Daniella Cheslow, Tom Sherwood, thanks again for joining us. This installment of our Virginia Vote series was produced by Cydney Grannan. Until tomorrow, thanks for listening. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons.
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