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What happened in Staunton? Massive turnout flips Queen City from blue to red

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Staunton City Council incumbents Ophie Kier, James Harrington and Erik Curren all outperformed their 2016 vote totals in their 2020 re-election runs.

Kier won re-election in 2016 with 1,261 votes, and on Tuesday, he polled 2,248.

Harrington went from 1,153 votes in 2016 to 2,049 in 2020.

Curren jumped from 1,009 in his 2016 run to 1,852 in 2020.

Democrats got their voters out better than they have in a May cycle in years.

Republicans got turnout more akin to, not quite a presidential year, but approaching gubernatorial.

Inside the numbers: Turnout swings red

Before you @me, yes, the candidates didn’t have formal labels beside their names on the ballots.

We all know who the Ds are and who the Rs are.

This analysis is done with that underlying understanding.

Back to the numbers: overall turnout was in the range of 4,320 votes cast.

It’s hard to get an exact figure from the State Board of Elections website, since Staunton local elections are all at-large, and on Tuesday, voters were able to vote for four candidates.

The total number of votes cast was 17,279.

For comparison to previous cycles, the 2018 local election had 7,068 votes cast for three seats, which would work out to 2,356 individual voters turning out.

Back in 2016, the most recent, until Tuesday, four-seat election, the total cast was 6,325, or 1,581 individual voters.

In 2014, there were 6,850 votes cast in that three-seat election, working out to 2,284 individual voters.

The 2012 cycle, another four-seat year, had 4,782 votes cast, or 1,196 individual voters turning out.

The vote grab for Oakes is comparable to what the last two Republican gubernatorial nominees received in Staunton.

Ed Gillespie received 3,406 votes in Staunton in 2017 in his loss to Democrat Ralph Northam, who received 53.3 percent of the votes in Staunton in that election.

Back in 2013, Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli polled 2,869 votes in Staunton in his loss to Terry McAuliffe, who won Staunton with 47.2 percent of the vote in a three-way race that also included a Libertarian, Robert Sarvis.

It’s also true that Kier’s vote total on Tuesday – 2,248 – is a high-water mark dating back to the 2012 cycle for a candidate on the D side.

Kier’s vote haul in 2020 outpaced that of the sitting mayor, Carolyn Dull, in the 2018 election, in which she received 2,155 votes.

The totals for Harrington and Curren would rank third and fourth among Ds over this five-cycle time frame.

It bears repeating here: Democrats got their voters out.

Republicans just got a lot more of their out.

What fueled the fire?

May elections have traditional been a hard nut to crack. Turnout is usually, frustratingly, in the 20 percent or less range, and it can be seductive to look at the relatively low vote totals of the winners and tell yourself, next cycle, man, all we’ve gotta do is get our side to come out, and we can steal this thing!

The tailwind for the Rs, dating back to the winter, was the tumult locally over gun-control legislation being advanced in the General Assembly by Democrats, who had run on gun control as a key issue in the 2019 legislative races that gave them control of the House of Delegates for the first time in more than two decades.

The political payback to Northern Virginia for flipping the House seemed poised to take out the pockets of D control in central, south and western parts of the state, as we all remember, in what seems like distant past now, the Second Amendment sanctuary movement, which was at its height in December and January.

The question heading into the May elections had to do with how the COVID-19 lockdowns might dampen the momentum of the sanctuary movement candidates in outposts like Staunton and Waynesboro, where local leaders resisted adopting resolutions declaring their cities to be sanctuaries despite intense outcries from vocal minorities in both locales.

The candidate most closely associated with the sanctuary movement in Waynesboro, Jim Wood, came up well short in his challenge to the sitting mayor, Terry Short, though two other candidates backed by Republicans – Bruce Allen and Lana Williams – won seats to give conservatives a working majority on Waynesboro City Council moving forward.

The conservative slates in both cities ran as a unit and highlighted the Second Amendment as a key issue in their campaigns.

Bottom line is that the strategies worked, flipping both from D to R, but the change in Staunton is stunning almost beyond words.

A city that voted for Barack Obama, twice, voted for Hillary Clinton, voted for Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, even gave a solid majority to Jennifer Lewis in her 2018 congressional run against Ben Cline, is now controlled by Republicans.

I’m rarely shocked by something that happens in politics, but I have to admit, I didn’t see this one happening.

Story by Chris Graham

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