November reign: Will Republicans romp to midterm victory?

Mark Warner on the campaign trail. File photo Mark Warner on the campaign trail. File photo

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, bi-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.

Reading political tea leaves is always a difficult proposition, especially in a rapidly mutating purple state like Virginia. As a recent spate of special elections has proved, our beautiful Commonwealth is basically two states now: a left-leaning northeastern bloc anchored by Washington D.C.’s fast-growing exurbs and urban/suburban centers like Richmond and Charlottesville, and a deep-red southwestern swath dominated by coal-country conservatives.

If Democrats thought they could still win the hearts and minds of these southwestern voters, the election to fill the vacant state senate seat of Phil Puckett (who resigned in June of this year) doused those misguided hopes with an ice-bucket-challenge-sized cascade of cold water.

The reason some donkeys held out hope of victory in the 38th District was due to a couple of factors. The first was the unseemly nature of Puckett’s resignation, which occurred as the senator was under consideration for a job with the GOP-controlled Virginia tobacco commission (although he failed to get the job, the suspicious circumstances surrounding his resignation are currently under investigation by the FBI). The second was the Democratic candidate, Mike Hymes, a Tazewell County supervisor who works for a coal company and has strong roots in the area. Unfortunately, despite a total expenditure of over a half million bucks on the race, Hymes lost to Republican Ben Chafin by nearly 30 points.

Republicans were understandably gleeful at the results, which secures them a two-seat majority in the State Senate. Combine that with the solidly Republican House of Delegates, and they have a formidable firewall against the ambitious plans of Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Now all attention turns to the upcoming midterm elections, which features one U.S. Senate battle (incumbent Senator Mark Warner versus Republican challenger Ed Gillespie), as well as a plethora of district elections (U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates). While both Warner’s race and the Virginia House contests are basically forgone conclusions (Warner will thump Gillespie soundly, and the House of Delegates will remain overwhelmingly Republican), both the Virginia Senate and U.S. House races present a more complex picture.

To be sure, Republicans have the edge in both chambers, mostly due to artful redistricting and traditionally lackluster midterm election turnout. But Democrats are guardedly optimistic about a number of pickup opportunities—chief among them Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, where Republican standard-bearer Barbara Comstock is fighting to succeed retiring U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (for whom she once worked).

Comstock’s campaign was recently given a boost when her political opponent, Democrat John Foust, derisively quipped “I don’t think she’s even had a real job” at a rally. Conservative condemnation was predictably swift, with everyone from State Sen. Jill Vogel to former first lady wannabe Ann Romney voicing support. But despite this regrettable instance of foot-in-mouth disease, Foust still has a decent chance of capturing this bellwether seat, which sits squarely in Virginia’s blue-leaning upper reaches.

If Comstock does emerge victorious, it will almost certainly auger a very bad night for Democrats nationally, with the loss of the U.S. Senate a real possibility. If she loses, however, Dems will have dodged a bullet, and can begin looking forward to the (far more favorable) 2016 election year. 

Too soon, you say? Sorry—when it comes to political prognostication, the next election cycle is never more than a column away.

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