Virginia Democrats far more likely to expand majority than lose it, despite ‘horse race journalism’

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For most of the 20th century, political journalists attended campaign events to report on policies a candidate was promoting in a non-partisan fashion. This was just how election journalism was done. However, with changes to the presidential nomination process in the early 1970s, and the rise of 24-hour cable news in the 1980s, networks had to engage viewers for long periods of time, and the dynamics suddenly changed. Candidate personalities, campaign antics, verbal stumbles, and lots and lots of opinion polls fit better into the media’s pivot from treating elections as news and more towards entertainment.

Key issues and explanations of what was at stake were traded in for sensationalistic back-and-forth exchanges between candidates’ spokespeople and political pundits. Election coverage shifted focus to polling data and public perception from candidates’ actual policy positions; it also became very clear that close elections generated far more interest and attention. Unfortunately, this press obsession with elevating polling, tactics, and strategy over policy is so common, it even has a name: “horse race journalism.”  

The worst example of horse race journalism that I can think of occurred during the 2016 election, when a completely unqualified but media savvy reality star ran for president. Trump was ratings gold for the media, even though he achieved this by saying shocking things, often off the cuff. Trump made up statistics, created fake historical events out of thin air, and often just blurted out unvarnished racism. Everyone remembers the extensive coverage over Trump’s false claims about Obama’s birth certificate, or the claim that Obama somehow “founded” ISIS, or Trump’s first speech as a candidate—when he declared Mexican immigrants were rapists who brought crime.  

Yet pundits and reporters rarely, if ever, pushed Trump on his outlandish campaign pledges. This was partly due to striving to seem “balanced” by not directly attacking him, yet the media also wanted and needed a close race, as they do every cycle. So Trump made wild claims that he would replace the Affordable Care Act with “something fantastic,” but never explained what that was. He also vowed to eliminate the deficit, promised that Mexico would pay for our border security, and declared that he would create 25 million new jobs, all while never having to explain why or how. Follow-up questions to the constant lies being told were sparse and unsuccessful, such as failed pushback on Trump’s ridiculous claims that Ted Cruz stole the Iowa caucus. The failure to challenge Trump’s claims in Iowa, and later about the 2016 popular vote, helped set up the stage for the Big Lie and the violent insurrection attempt that followed after Trump lost to Biden in 2020.

The media has a real role to play when dealing with elections. One would hope that media outlets would rethink their current strategy after the Trump disaster, but one would be wrong.

FILE - In this July 13, 2021, file photo, conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Norwalk, Calif. Four of the high-profile Republican candidates, who are seeking to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in next months recall election, are heading into their first televised debate, to be held Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Elder and realty tv personality Caitlyn Jenner will not attend the debate. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Despite the media’s attempt to make it a horse race, Larry Elder lost to Gavin Newsom 62% to 38%.

Ahead of California Republicans’ failed gubernatorial recall attempt, local newspapers ran headlines like “Shock poll shows Gavin Newsom losing recall vote by double digits.” SurveyUSA even apologized in a memorandum addendum for the way they worded a question, which may have overinflated the positive numbers for the recall. In reality, Newsom easily won the recall vote against the Trumpian candidate in the deep blue state.

Two other blue states, New Jersey and Virginia always have off-year elections. Both currently have Democratic trifectas. Fairly or not, these off-year contests are usually considered harbingers of the upcoming midterm cycle, so this year, the media has declared that Virginia has a good chance to lose both the governorship and control of the House of Delegates. Meanwhile, New Jersey has essentially been ignored until recently, since the Republicans have virtually no chance of picking up any seats.

The governor’s race in New Jersey is between the incumbent Democrat, Phil Murphy, and Republican Jack Ciattarelli. Polls have shown Murphy with a consistent lead; as of this writing, the latest average of polls has him winning with over six points. Yet even in New Jersey, the media has been doing its best to manufacture a horse race, declaring that the race is underrated and would assuredly “heat up” after the last debate.

It didn’t. The GOP candidate has become a literal joke.

Over in Virginia, it’s the same story, but much worse.  The media in Virginia has been pushing a narrative that Democratic districts are in real trouble, all in the hopes of making it true.

Nick Clemente, Candidate for D-10 VA
Nick Clemente, Republican delegate candidate for District 10 that the Richmond-Times Dispatch promotes as “flippable.” Biden took this district by over 16% in 2020.

The Virginia Mercury blazed a headline claiming that Democrats are playing “defense,” and reported that “observers” say they might lose their majority. The Virginia Star justifies this outlook by mentioning the “tightness” of a district in northern Virginia … that Biden won by over 16 points. That GOP challenger, Nick Clemente, is touted as having a real shot of defeating incumbent Wendy Gooditis in this Loudoun County district, based solely on interviews with Republicans. The Mercury article also mentions the possibility of flipping a district that hasn’t seen a Republican legislator in its 38-year existence.

Not to be outdone, the Richmond Times Dispatch put out a bizarre piece that claims several House of Delegates seats are primed to be flipped red. The focus is on eight legislative districts which are all Democratically-held, and where, again, Biden won by more than 10 points, and District 75, which Biden won by 7%.

The Virginia Star also paints a district in deep-blue Fairfax County as vulnerable, even though Biden won this seat by over 24 points in 2020. There, the GOP thinks it has a secret weapon to win this district: a state party-funded, antisemitic flyer. The Democratic incumbent, Dan Helmer, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army reserve, and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. This disgusting flyer was altered to exaggerate Helmer’s nose, and stacks of gold were Photoshopped in to add to the bigoted tropes.

When all else fails, the GOP can always be relied upon to try bigotry. The antisemitic flyer tactic didn’t work that well in North Carolina back in 2018, and it won’t work now.

According to data provided by Daily Kos Elections Political Director David Nir, there are four flippable districts in Virginia  this year; every single one of them is a Democratic pickup opportunity. You can view the data yourself, as it is publicly available. With the exception of one mention of District 66 by The Richmond Times, these four districts aren’t even mentioned in Virginia media’s list of potential flips.

Putting aside the Democratic structural advantages in Virginia, along with the vast Republican problems this cycle, these four flippable districts identified by Daily Kos Elections are ones that Biden won in 2020, by margins ranging from 4% to 11%.

In contrast, the majority of Republican pickup opportunities being touted by the media are ones that Biden actually won by over 10%.

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If the mainstream media wants to push a false narrative in service of a horse race, then let’s tell the truth. 

Here are those four targeted districts, along with their ratings, according to the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project. I’ve also linked to each of the Democratic candidate’s websites. 

DEMOCRATIC PICKUP OPPORTUNITIES IN THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES

DISTRICT

DeMOCRATIC

candidate

Biden’S Victory Margin 

NOTES

66

Katie

Sponsler

+11%

This is an OPEN seat in a district that represents a portion of Chesterfield County and the city of Colonial Heights. Democrat Katie Sponsler is a veteran, federal law enforcement officer, and mother of two kids on the autism spectrum. She believes workers should earn a living wage, that Virginia should eliminate for-profit prisons, and that healthcare should be equitable, affordable, and accessible.

The 66th district is rated competitive, as it has voted for all Democratic candidates for senator, governor, and president for the past several years, yet has been represented by a Republican, Del. Kirk Cox, for two decades. Cox barely won the last election, and has opted to retire.

27 Debra Gardner +9%

Roxann Robinson is the GOP incumbent in a district that also represents Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond. Democrat Debra Gardner has served as chief deputy for three state agencies and devoted thousands of hours of community service serving on eight community boards. She supports funding evidence-based programs that reduce crime, and continued economic relief for small businesses and workers during the pandemic.

The 27th district is rated competitive, as it has voted for the Democratic candidates for senator and governor. It went from voting for Trump by 3% in 2016 to Biden by 9% in 2020. Republican Robinson barely won this district the past two elections: In 2017 and 2019, she won under one percentage point, with just over 100 votes each time.

100 Finale Norton +7%

Rob Bloxom is the GOP incumbent in a district that represents a portion of the Eastern Shore and part of Norfolk; the prior incumbent was a Democrat since elected to the state senate. Democrat Finale Norton supports investing in early childhood education, job training, and providing affordable broadband access for all communities.

The 100th district is rated competitive, as it has voted for all Democrats the last few elections despite stubbornly keeping Bloxom.

62 Jasmine Gore +4%

Carrie Coyner is the GOP incumbent in a district that represents portions of Henrico and Prince George County, and the city of Hopewell. Democrat Jasmine Gore wants to increase mental health services, maternal care, and paid family leave.

The 62nd district leans Republican, as it has a slight red hue despite Biden winning the district in 2020. The GOP incumbent won this district in 2019 with 55.1% of the vote.

US Air Force (USAF) Airman First Class (A1C) Katie Sponsler, an Aircraft Armament Systems Apprentice, with the 52nd Equipment Maintenance Squadron (EMS), at Spangdahlem Air Base (AB), Germany, disassembles, cleans and reassembles an F-16 bomb dispenser unit during a periodic 180 day inspection.
Katie Sponsler, Democratic candidate for VA Delegate, District 66

There are more Democrats in Virginia than Republicans. There are more progressives than Trumpers, and Democratic registrations have outpaced Republicans for the past several years.   The only thing that could sink Democratic chances in Virginia is apathy; to be fair, there is an enthusiasm gap with Democrats this year. It’s no wonder, since the media has done everything in its power to turn the Virginia elections into horse races.

A false narrative has been pushed that Democrats are in trouble; it’s one that ignores policies and platforms from the right-wing candidates who are antithetical to the constituency. 

Make no mistake: If the GOP does manage to pick up seats in the House of Delegates, Trump will certainly use Virginia as his launching pad for a comeback. America as we know it will not survive another Trump presidency. If Youngkin wins, things will get really bad in Virginia. He will immediately shed his phony moderate persona and embrace the right-wing nightmare he is.

Keep in mind that Youngkin has been endorsed by Trump multiple times, has said he is running because of Trump, and promised to go after abortion and Planned Parenthood hard—although he’s quietly admitted he can’t say that part out loud. A Gov. Youngkin will definitely roll back vaccination protections and attack our free elections as a key feature of his nightmarish administration.  

Virginia is my home state, so I’m invested, but we all should be! A Youngkin win would bring consequences to those of us outside the commonwealth as well. A Republican victory in blue Virginia means that any last hopes of the GOP abandoning Trumpism will die. Youngkin clones will become a fixture in other moderate states as the Republicans conspire to take control. In 2024, we can also expect Youngkin to either refuse to certify the state’s electors after Trump loses, or send an alternate slate of electors to Congress in open defiance of the voters.  

Yet if Democrats take this threat seriously, and focus on reality instead of the media hype, the Old Dominion will remain blue, as will New Jersey. If Democrats vote, we will not only defeat Trumpism, we will expand the Democratic majority.

I don’t expect the media to suddenly change what they are doing, but at least you are now aware of what they are doing … and why.


I’ve linked the Democratic candidate’s names to their websites above if you want to help them; and you can support Terry McAuliffe here. The polls are already open for early voting in Virginia, Monday-Saturday until Oct. 30. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Virginians, do you have a plan to vote?

Credit: www.dailykos.com

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