WHAT a difference four years makes for the 28th District of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Before 2017, House Speaker Bill Howell (R) routinely coasted to easy victories in this district, which includes most of Stafford County near and east of Interstate 95, and the part of Fredericksburg between the Rappahannock River and the University of Mary Washington campus.
Howell’s elections had all the predictability of a metronome. In 2015, Howell won his last re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Following Howell’s retirement, Bob Thomas kept the seat in Republican hands in 2017, though just barely. Thomas’ 50.08 percent of the vote provided him with an 82-vote margin over Democrat Joshua Cole, who then spent the next two years preparing for another run.
Thomas’ 2017 victory came in the wake of controversies over election mechanics: election officials handed dozens of city voters incorrect ballots in split city precincts. Some voters in the 28th District received ballots for the neighboring 88th District, and vice versa.
(Republicans controlled the House line-drawing efforts following the 2010 U.S. Census, and they split some city precincts into two districts. This step diluted the impact of the area’s most Democratic jurisdiction, but those split precincts created complications for local election authorities.)
The same day two years ago, when Thomas won the district narrowly, the Republican Party’s nearly two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates shrank to 51-49. More than a dozen Virginia Republicans, including Thomas and several other lawmakers who represented suddenly competitive districts, voted with the Democratic minority to pass Medicaid expansion last year.
Fast-forward to June 2019, when the mailboxes of likely Republican primary voters filled with combative flyers. Party challenger Paul Milde said Thomas was a Republican In Name Only. Thomas fought back, saying that he was a genuine conservative and that Milde’s past record was disqualifying.
Thomas fell short in the primary, losing his bid for re-nomination by 141 votes.
While Milde tried to tack to the ideological center this fall, focusing on transportation issues and other local concerns, his nomination made it much harder for Republicans to keep the 28th in their column. In the end, Cole won by more than 1,000 votes. While his roughly 4 percentage point margin does not count as a landslide, Cole’s margin of victory in 2019 was seven times greater than the margin by which he lost in 2017.
In the wake of the party’s losses in this district and statewide, Republicans might want to consider whether selecting more extreme nominees is such a good idea.
Being out of step with the electorate is not a new problem for the Virginia GOP, which lost three congressional seats last year and 15 House of Delegate seats two years ago. In addition, a Republican has not won a statewide contest for the U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general in a decade.
Suburban Virginia is changing and Republican candidates and voters in the 28th District and elsewhere do not seem to recognize the differences in the electorate of 10 years ago and the electorate of 2019. To put it simply, the party cannot do well statewide or in the Fredericksburg area by acting as if the Virginia electorate of 2019 resembles the Virginia electorate of a quarter century ago.
To illustrate the current state of the 28th District, consider the two illustrations that accompany this column. The image on the left reflects the precinct-level voting patterns of the district’s voters, with darker reds and blues for those precincts more supportive of Milde and Cole respectively. The image might be the more comforting of the two for Republicans, as it shows more red than the other illustration.
But the more accurate measure of voting is found on the right. Unlike a traditional map, where the sizes of precincts represent the number of acres they contain, a cartogram adjusts the sizes of the precincts to correspond to the number of votes cast there. Remember, acres do not vote. People do.
The result, which includes only the portions of the precincts in Fredericksburg and Stafford that are contained in House District 28, is a lot bluer, particularly in the city and in the parts of the district closest to Interstate 95, where many newer residents have made their homes. As populations that are more diverse choose to live here, traditional Republicans’ messages face declining prospects.
Virginia will see whether Republican primary voters and candidates choose to retool in the next round of elections, now less than a year away.
Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Stephen Hanna is professor of geography at UMW.