Digging Into The Data Behind An Election Day Surprise In Virginia

One of the biggest upsets in recent political history in the state of Virginia happened just a few days ago, when conservatives swept all three open city council seats in the college town of Staunton in the state’s Shenandoah Valley. Since then, there’s been a lot of prognosticating from pundits in the state about what the surprising election results might mean for the state come November. Was this a sign that the state’s gun owners and Second Amendment supporters are engaged and energized, or was this just a local election that doesn’t give us a clue about the outcome on Election Day months from now. 

At the conservative Virginia politics website Bearing Drift, former delegate Chris Saxman argues that the flip of the Staunton City Council was just a quirk of local elections, and he’s not bullish on the idea of Virginia going red this fall. 

This was first and foremost a repudiation of incumbent arrogance.

Over and over and over again, all I heard from Staunton political leaders was just how arrogant and condescending the incumbent City Council was.

From their decision not to have a public hearing on a Second Amendment sanctuary city resolution to their terrible communications on local fiscal issues like the city’s golf course, a major economic development project, and a recent decision to furlough fire fighters, Staunton’s City Council failed two rules of politics and life – listen and be nice.


They voted to furlough fire fighters? The week before an election?


They really didn’t think they were going to lose. Their decisions wouldn’t matter.


Saxman represented the area in the state legislature, so I’m sure he knows the local politics better than I do. Still, I’m not entirely convinced by his argument. I agree that institutional arrogance on the part of city council incumbents undoubtedly played a huge role in driving voter turnout, particularly when it comes to the council’s decision to not even discuss a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution. I’m just not so sure that the anger and voter enthusiasm sparked by the council’s arrogance is a truly local phenomenon. 

Nearly every county in Virginia, and dozens of cities and towns as well, passed Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions in front of huge crowds of supporters. Virginia gun owners may have been asleep during the 2019 elections, but the takeover of the state legislature by anti-gun Democrats was a huge wake up call, and I don’t think they’re going to drift off again before Election Day in November. Democrats simply didn’t have as good a night when local election were held in municipalities across the state on May 19th. They certainly can’t point to the flip of a Republican stronghold, because it didn’t happen. 

Columnist Chris Graham with the Augusta Free Press isn’t a fan of the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement, but he recognizes that gun owners were a big reason why turnout was so high in Staunton, and is warning Democrats that what happened on May 19th could be a sign of things to come on November 3rd. 

I have to concede, I didn’t see the 2A strategy having any chance at having legs to be something Republicans could play off this fall.

Yeah, yeah, folks in the hinterlands would get their bloomers all wadded up, but it was a sound and fury signifying nothingburger.

I’m not saying what happened in Staunton means Democrats in Virginia – and elsewhere – are doomed in November.

I am saying it seems to me that there are some fundamentals to this election that are starting to feel oddly like what transpired back in 2016.

Don’t believe me when I tell you that what happened in Staunton last week is a sign of what might happen in November.

That Republicans aren’t energized.

That Democrats, when the chips are down, will kumbaya around the establishment candidate, even though they had a better establishment candidate in 2016.

For every center-right Republican you introduce me to who identifies as Never Trump, I’ll introduce you to at least one center-left who is frustrated with their Democratic governor over the lockdowns.

I think Watson is on to something when he talks about those on the center-left being frustrated with Ralph Northam’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. The state has continually lagged behind other states in terms of testing, and while most of the state began to reopen back on May 15th, Richmond, northern Virginia, and Accomack County (where outbreaks have taken place at poultry processing plants) will remain on lockdown until this Friday. Northam is imposing an impractical, loophole-filled, and draconian mask mandate, and the odds are that if it is enforced, it will be largely in the blue cities and suburbs, as opposed to rural red counties and exurban communities. The mandate itself will drive up voter intensity in the red parts of the state, and I suspect that the enforcement will drive down voter intensity in blue Virginia. 

It’s true that one of the city council races in Staunton was decided by just 27 votes, and if the Democrat incumbent had won we likely wouldn’t be talking as much about what the local election can tell us about the statewide elections in a few months. Conservatives taking two out of three open seats is interesting, but it’s not necessarily a newsmaker. Even if that scenario had played out, however, serious politicos would still have been surprised by the voter turnout, which was closer to a gubernatorial election year than a typical city council race. Turnout wins elections, after all. A candidate could have the support of 60-percent of voters, but if only 20-percent of them actually show up to vote, their candidate probably isn’t going to win.

The Staunton City Council elections aren’t a perfect predictor of what will happen statewide in November, but I think they are an indication of the engagement and energy among gun owners and conservatives in the state. I don’t know if it will be enough to put Donald Trump over the top in Virginia (I’m guessing that voter enthusiasm for Biden will be higher in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia than it will be nationwide), but I definitely think that gun owners and the Biden/Northam gun control agenda will have an impact in several congressional races, including potential pro-2A pickups in the state’s 2nd and 7th congressional districts.