STATE government in Virginia used to be almost an afterthought, as most voters focused their attention on congressional and local races in non-presidential years. They paid attention to gubernatorial races every four years, but many members of the General Assembly ran unopposed, especially in off years, and only a minority of their constituents even knew their names.
No more. There’s no better example of how competitive these part-time legislative seats have become than the number of candidates running for them.
With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for grabs this year, there are even challengers to 15 House incumbents (12 Democrats and three Republicans) from their own party, including some high-profile Democrats such as Delegates Lee Carter, D-50th, and Elizabeth Guzman, D-31st, in Prince William County; Mark Levine, D-45th, in Arlington; and Kaye Kory, D-38th, and Ibraheem Samirah, D-86th, in Fairfax. On the Republican side, Lynchburg incumbent Del. Kathy Byron, R-22nd, and Franklin County Del. Charles Poindexter, R-9th, also face intra-party challengers.
There would have been even more, but the State Board of Elections refused to extend its filing deadline for eight candidates (five Republicans and three Democrats) after stretching the rules in 2019 and 2020.
According to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, no Democrats and only one Republican incumbent faced a primary challenge in 1999. The same thing happened as recently as 2007, when just two Democrat incumbents (and no Republicans) had to defend their seats from their own party members.
In addition to the large number of primary challengers, a jaw-dropping 32 candidates have filed for three statewide offices: 12 for governor, 14 for lieutenant governor, and six for attorney general. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, what’s 32? A multitude?
The most interesting part of this year’s upcoming state elections is that the candidates jockeying for a berth on the November ballot at the Republicans’ May convention and the Democrats’ June primaries are a diverse lot “representing the spectrum in terms of ideology, from center left to center right,” but also in terms of race, gender, and political experience or lack thereof, said Virginia Tech professor and political analyst Bob Denton, adding that he couldn’t remember a time when there were so many candidates.
“Given the number and across the board, I think this is becoming very unpredictable,” Denton added. “And I think there will be surprises across the board.”
The increase in the number of candidates vying for office in past elections resulted in higher voter turnout. In the presidential election year of 2000, pitting Republican George W. Bush against Democrat Al Gore, 67.2 percent of registered voters in Virginia turned out at the polls, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.
In 2020’s contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, 81.4 percent cast a ballot – the highest percentage since 83.7 percent in 1992 (although this is not an exact comparison, since many of the voting laws have changed.)
It’s pretty clear that competition between political candidates is not only healthy, it encourages more civic participation. But it’s also a sign that despite being currently on top, Virginia Democrats have not totally consolidated their power. The commonwealth is still very much in play politically, and as Professor Denton predicted, there may be a number of surprises in store as the current bumper crop of candidates gets narrowed down.
Which is another way of saying that the more candidates the better, because in such a crowded field, no incumbents or would-be incumbents dare take any voters for granted.