The past few weeks have been busy ones in Virginia politics, which means we have some catching-up to do. Here goes:
1. So, how do we feel about ranked choice voting now? Republicans — keen to hold a convention but unable to hold a traditional one due to pandemic regulations on crowd size — held an “unassembled” convention last weekend that used ranked-choice voting to pick their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
This wasn’t the first time ranked-choice voting has been used in Virginia — Democrats have used it in some scattered local nominating contests — but it was the most high-profile example.
Convention voters listed ranked their choices for governor one through seven. If their first choice was knocked out, then their second-choice votes were assigned to that candidate, and so on.
Now that Republicans have done this, we can analyze the results.
Interestingly, the first-place candidate in each contest went on to win the nomination — Glenn Youngkin for governor, Winsome Sears for lieutenant governor, Jason Miyares for attorney general.
There were no crazy examples of a candidate vaulting from runner-up status to first place based on second-choice or third-choice votes — which might help speed the adoption of ranked-choice voting elsewhere, or might lead some to ask “what’s the point?”
The point (other than practicality here) is to produce winners with a consensus behind them.
In a crowded primary field, a polarizing candidate might win (see Trump, Donald, 2016) but ranked-choice voting boosts candidates who not only can get a lot of first-choice votes but are acceptable enough to get a lot of second-choice votes, as well.
Here’s what can’t be measured: How much that changes the dynamics of the campaign.
Now for the big question going forward: Will any Virginia localities adopt this method in actual elections?
Come July 1, a new state law pushed by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, creates a 10-year window for Virginia localities to experiment with ranked-choice voting.
She’s created a nonprofit — Ranked Choice Virginia — to push the idea. She comes from the left, but we’ve just seen Republicans use ranked-choice voting and in some localities, ranked-choice voting might benefit Republicans.
2. Here are the two numbers Virginia Democrats should be concerned about: 1,069,789 and 1,175,732. The former is the number of votes Terry McAuliffe got when he won the governorship in 2013. The latter is the number of votes that Republican Ed Gillespie got when he lost the governor’s race in 2017.
That’s right: Gillespie, in losing, polled more votes than McAuliffe did in winning. How did that happen?
Turnout. In in 2017 it was higher than in any gubernatorial election in the previous 20 years, a direct consequence of Democratic outrage against Trump — and, perhaps, Republican enthusiasm for Trump.
The former outvoted the latter but the point is turnout was higher for both parties in 2017. That means there are two big questions for this year’s governor’s race.
First, with Trump out of office, how much will Democratic emotions wane — and turnout fall?
Second, with the wealthy Youngkin as the Republican standard-bearer, how much of that Gillespie vote will Republicans be able to retain?
Some Democrats are foolishly acting as if they will win the election by default. The fact that Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009 is interesting, but ignores this vital detail: Every election starts from zero.
To win, McAuliffe likely has to be more popular in 2021 than he was in 2013. Is he? We’ll find out. But if he’s not, Youngkin only has to hold onto the vote Gillespie got in 2017 and that might be enough for him to win.
We don’t have any polling yet to show whether there’s an enthusiasm gap between the two parties, but there’s clearly a hubris gap — and that could be Democrats’ undoing.
This ties back to point one: Ranked-choice voting has produced a Republican nominee who appears broadly acceptable to his party; The business-friendly, pro-pipeline McAuliffe has difficulty exciting more progressive factions of his party, but if he’s the nominee (polls show him with a commanding lead), he’ll need to activate them somehow.
3. Why is Youngkin such a potentially difficult opponent for Democrats? You mean, other than he has no record and lots of money?
Here are but two examples of what a dexterous candidate he will be.
First, here’s a Republican candidate who managed to get the nomination without filling out the obligatory National Rifle Association questionnaire — and thus did not earn the NRA’s A-rating. That means he gets to have it both ways: He can go into rural Virginia and claim to be a diehard defender of the Second Amendment but he can go into suburban Virginia and not look like a gun fetishist.
This week provided another example. Through the nominating contest, Youngkin refused to say whether he thought Joe Biden was properly elected. But with the nomination now in hand, he promptly declared “of course” and circulated that declaration.
McAuliffe, for better or worse, is a known quantity for Virginians. Youngkin, for the time being at least, gets to be whoever he wants to be. We’re not saying such chameleon-like qualities are necessarily a good thing, but they are politically useful, especially for a Republican trying to win a state that lately has voted consistently Democratic.
4. Is a breakthrough on state funding of school construction at hand? Last week Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic legislative leaders put out a joint statement outlying their priorities for using the $4.3 billion in federal funding the state is slated to get from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress.
Of the five priorities listed, one was modernizing school facilities. If the General Assembly really did this, it would help Northam fulfill his inaugural pledge to deal with “crumbling schools.”
The question, of course, is how much of that $4.3 billion will go toward schools. Earlier this year, the state Senate passed — but a House committee killed — a proposal from state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, for a $3 billion bond issue.
Eight years ago, the needs were estimated at $18 billion. This may be a beginning, but not the end.