As the presidential election played out across the United States, the battle for both the White House and an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives played out in Charlottesville on its own small scale.
At Carver Recreation Center near the Downtown Mall, afternoon voters were greeted by a pair of smiling volunteers from the Charlottesville Democratic Party who offered sample ballots. A uniformed sheriff’s deputy stood facing the street, watching for trouble that never materialized. Typical of city precincts, no Republican representatives were present.
Polling places throughout the city and in parts of Albemarle County were heavily manned by Dem volunteers. But as the results came in, the relative strength of the Democratic organization in Charlottesville was overwhelmed by the overall numbers throughout the 5th Congressional District.
“We’ve known for quite a while that our field effort, our ground game was very energetic and very extensive,” said Tom Vandever, a former mayor of Charlottesville and campaign manager for Democratic congressional nominee Jane Dittmar. As he waited for the polls to close among a throng of supporters at the Democrats’ celebration in the lobby of the brand new Residence Inn on West Main Street, the tone of the room was optimistic.
“We haven’t seen the same evidence from [Republican Tom Garrett’s] campaign,” said Vandever, who noted that the Republican Campaign Committee dropped over a million dollars on his campaign. “That’s a lot of money to drop on a campaign and it’s certainly helped him,” said Vandever. “But we’ve known all along that getting our voters to the polls on Election Day was going to be critical. We’ve had hundreds of volunteers making phone calls and knocking on doors all over the district.”
At 7:30pm, shortly after the polls closed, expectations in the Democratic camp were high for Clinton and at least hopeful for Dittmar. Smiling volunteers laid out tins of homemade cookies.
“We’re hoping to see at least 65 percent for Jane in Albemarle County, at least 75 percent in Charlottesville,” Vandever said.
A few blocks away, Charlottesville’s Republicans had gathered in a tightly packed crowd at Random Row Brewing Company to watch the results come in. Free beer flowed from the taps amid occasional chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump!”
“I woke up this morning knowing that I needed to go poll watch in whatever poll wasn’t covered in my city,” said Barbara Null, chair of the Republican Party of Charlottesville.
“Tom Garrett, I love,” she said. “He’s a great guy.” Null said the former Louisa commonwealth’s attorney will do what he says and he’s honest. “I worked very hard for his campaign and I’m really excited,” said Null. “He’s got all these great ideas, like letting people delay taking Social Security to pay off their student debt.”
Null would have liked more GOPers to work the polls in the city, but that’s always a problem, she said. “You don’t register by party so there aren’t a lot of Republican leaning people in the city but there’s a good core and we use them.” She added, “I think we did good.”
Vandever knew that his candidate had a tough fight outside of Charlottesville.
“The 5th District is a difficult district,” Vandever said. “We don’t know the impact that the Trump campaign is going to be. Jane is tied to Clinton, Tom is tied to Trump. Clinton has to stay relatively close to Trump in the 5th for Jane to catapult over. If Clinton goes down by five, six points in the 5th, it’s going to be a tough haul for Jane to win. But if it’s within three, then we’ve got the springboard to pull it off.”
Dittmar was crushed 58 percent to 42 percent. Charlottesville’s well-organized Dems brought her 79 percent within the city, while in Albemarle, she took 57 percent.
In the 5th District overall, Donald Trump received 53 points to Hillary Clinton’s 42.
As the night wore on, the Democratic gathering was reduced to a few dozen people who had given up on Dittmar but grimly hoped for the defeat of Trump. Empty wine glasses littered the stone tables where supporters sat watching MSNBC and CNN. A hotel employee announced that the remaining cookies were about to be thrown in the trash. Last call.
Back at Random Row, the Republican crowd had dwindled somewhat by midnight but grown no quieter as they watched the large television screens hung over the bar. Fox News called Pennsylvania for Trump. “USA, USA, USA!” chanted a group of men by the bar. Lagers and ales were served up in tulip-shaped stemware. They had run clear out of pint glasses hours ago.