Wakeup call: Democrats would be well-advised to learn lessons from Staunton debacle

2020 election vote

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Democrats in Richmond don’t pay attention to anything that goes on west of Charlottesville. Which will be to their peril in November, considering the lessons to be learned from Staunton.

Republicans swept the four open seats on Staunton City Council in the 2020 local elections, a first in recent memory in a city that has been a bellwether for Virginia Democrats.

What’s this, you’re thinking, as you read those words.

Staunton, a blue dot in the reddest part of the state, a bellwether?

Look at the numbers:

Election/RaceVirginiaStaunton
2018 U.S. SenateTim Kaine 57.0%Tim Kaine 56.4%
2017 GovernorRalph Northam 53.9%Ralph Northam 53.3%
2016 PresidentHillary Clinton 49.7%Hillary Clinton 47.4%
2014 U.S. SenateMark Warner 49.1%Mark Warner 48.2%
2013 GovernorTerry McAuliffe 47.7%Terry McAuliffe 47.2%
2012 PresidentBarack Obama 51.1%Barack Obama 51.1%
2012 U.S. SenateTim Kaine 52.8%Tim Kaine 51.7%

 

It doesn’t take a lot in terms of mental gymnastics to see Staunton as a microcosm of the Commonwealth.

The city is surrounded by conservative Augusta County, which routinely gives 70 percent-plus of its votes to Republican candidates in state and federal elections.

It’s not unlike how liberal Northern Virginia is a postage stamp of blue in a state otherwise largely full of towns, cities and counties that vote red.

Staunton has had Republicans at the local level. Andrea Oakes, the top vote-getter in Tuesday’s local election, will be beginning her fourth term on Staunton City Council on July 1, and two previous City Council members, Dickie Bell and John Avoli, went on to represent the 20th House District in the Virginia General Assembly.

But the seven-member City Council never had more than two Republicans at any one time, and the Republicans that were there were moderate, by even local standards – both Bell and Avoli have deep backgrounds in K-12 public education, for instance, and neither are anywhere near social-issue firebrand types, and if they had been, it’s likely they wouldn’t have gotten elected in Staunton.

So, when local Republicans tried to fire up the base late last year, as Democrats in the General Assembly, fresh off victories in House and Senate races giving them control of the legislature for the first time in a generation, followed through with their promises to Northern Virginia voters who put them back in power to make gun control a priority, it didn’t seem destined to gain the necessary traction, in Staunton, anyway, because that kind of red-meat stuff just hasn’t sold here.

The Augusta County Board of Supervisors, predictably, voted to declare the county a Second Amendment sanctuary, but when Staunton City Council didn’t even take up the sanctuary issue for any kind of formal vote, it didn’t come across as being anything that would carry political consequence, given the political history, even as local Republicans vowed to make those up for re-election pay dearly.

Idle threats, was the general consensus, which is also how Richmond Democrats have largely treated the 2A movement, plowing through the General Assembly session to pass a package of gun-control bills as towns, cities and counties south and west of NoVa declared themselves to be Second Amendment sanctuaries, and our sheriffs downstate vowed to enforce the Constitution, echoing nullification rhetoric from the antebellum era.

What happened in Staunton this week should be a wakeup call for Democrats in Richmond, thinking ahead to November, in a state that has trended in recent cycles to be reliably blue at the state and federal level – going Democrat in the last two gubernatorial elections, the last three presidential elections, and the last four U.S. Senate elections.

The danger for Democrats in November is two-fold: one, involving fired-up Republicans coming out in record numbers downstate, and two, Democratic voters being less energized in Northern Virginia.

Staunton is a clear indication that there are fired-up Republicans downstate. Turnout was two to three times what we’d seen here in the past five local election cycles, and though local Democrats came out in relatively strong numbers for a May local election, their numbers were dwarfed by what the GOP was able to draw.

And now that Republicans in Richmond have seen what can happen, you know that you can expect to see more of the same in terms of pushing the 2A issue through the summer and into the fall.

If I’m pushing buttons on that side, I’ve already got my plaintiffs signed on the bottom line, the suits researched and written and ready to be filed at 9 a.m. on July 1, the press releases at the ready.

Get ready for the three-ring circus, which of course will have absolutely nothing to do with preserving Second Amendment rights, and absolutely everything to do with getting the vote out in November.

South and west of Northern Virginia is reliably 70 percent-plus Republican, and this fall, it may go 80 percent-plus, with bigger raw numbers.

The other side of that is NoVa being reliably 60 percent-plus Democrat, with huge raw numbers being enough, in recent cycles, to balance out Republican advantages downstate.

It’s all still guesses at this point, but I can imagine a scenario where you don’t necessarily see D voters in Northern Virginia suddenly deciding to revolt en masse to the Republican side, but just don’t show up in the numbers that they have in the past, with the longer and more stringent COVID-19 lockdowns, and resulting economic impacts, being big issues there, plus maybe just lack of energy behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, as a safe but otherwise uninspiring compromise candidate.

It’s only, at this writing, mid-May, and what I’m saying there is, there’s a lot of time between now and Election Day, five months and change, and a lot can happen in five months and change in an election.

Democrats in Richmond could consider themselves lucky that what happened in Staunton provides a cautionary tale for how things can go in November.

But I’ve been at this for too long – 2020 is my 25th year as a local political journalist and commentator – to allow myself to be seduced into thinking that Democratic Party leaders even know that the area on the other side of the Blue Ridge is in their Virginia, much less that there are lessons to be learned out this way.

My main aim in writing this piece is to have something to point back to the morning of Nov. 4.

Story by Chris Graham

         
 

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