by Rick Pullen
When the Virginia Supreme Court last year ordered state House and Senate districts redrawn to comply with a new law to rid the state of Gerrymandering, no one was quite sure which way the 27th Senate District leaned.
Before any votes were ever cast, political scientists opined that the district that now includes Fredericksburg, Stafford, and a smattering of Spotsylvania, leaned slightly Republican. But then the party primaries were held in the spring, and they scared the bejesus out of Democrats. Nearly 3,600 more Republicans voted in the primaries than Democrats. It looked like the new senate district leaned Republican after all.
Republican Tara Durant, who has strong conservative bona fides, had campaigned vigorously against her primary opponent, Matt Strickland, fearing being defeated from the far right. Instead, she handily defeated him, proving the vast majority of Republicans—especially in Spotsylvania where Strickland is based—are not fire-breathing MAGA extremists. Tuesday’s Spotsylvania School Board election, which flipped the board away from MAGA extremists, bears this out.
Not knowing precisely how the new district would respond to a Democrat, the party at the last-minute persuaded Marine, businessman and entrepreneur Joel Griffin to run for the nomination because of his “moderate” credentials.
He was running against Ben Litchfield, who was perceived by party officials as too liberal to win in the fall. It was a similar scenario faced by Republicans in their primary, except Litchfield was not viewed as a left-leaning, fire-breathing boogeyman like Strickland.
Litchfield was simply a very civil, soft-spoken attorney who was more liberal than Griffin. Pragmatic Democrats and the party establishment wanted the best chance of winning the new senate district in November and voted for Griffin, while more liberal Democrats voted their conscience for Litchfield. The establishment got its way.
Democrats were looking at what they figured was an uphill battle in the general election to win what now appeared to be a Republican district. Both campaigns poured more than $3 million into the race, which doesn’t include outside money. No one was willing to take a chance at losing a virgin seat in the state senate. The unknowns about how voters would cast their ballots were just too great.
To add to the mystery, Monica Gary, a member of the Stafford Board of Supervisors, ran as an independent. She had no chance of winning, so the question was from whom would she draw the most votes? Her stances were clearly more in tune with Griffin, which meant Democrats should have been worried. And yet it was the Republicans who attacked Gary in campaign ads, which made absolutely no sense. They should have been encouraging her campaign so it would siphon off votes from Griffin.
The only reason I can surmise Republicans attacked her was the fear one woman might pull votes from another simply because some voters favored a female candidate and had to choose which one. There must be a private political poll somewhere saying this. From a policy perspective, there were no similarities between the two, only a distinct choice between a conservative and a liberal.
Durant, as everyone knows by now, won the seat by about 1,500 votes. A solid victory. But Democrats won the district, and that should worry Republicans. Together, Gary and Griffin won more votes than Durant, and since their political platforms were similar, those who voted in Tuesday’s election obviously favor a more moderate stance than Durant offers. Durant won just over 48% of the vote. Gary and Griffin together won nearly 51%.
What shifted it away from a primary where more Republicans showed up, to a general election where more Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents voted? The elephant in the room of course was abortion rights.
Abortion was not on the agenda in the spring primaries because candidates in both primaries agreed on issue with their opponents. But when put head-to-head with opposing views, abortion rights won (as they have in every race in America since the Supreme overturned a woman’s right to choose).
Had Gary not run, Griffin would now likely be the state senator-elect from our area. It’s like Ralph Nader’s run for the presidency in 2000, which cost Democrat Al Gore the state of Florida against George W. Bush. Losing Florida cost Gore the presidency. Or remember when Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election with just 43% of the popular vote thanks to Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy?
It’s fair to say that the 27th Senate District now leans Democrat, if ever so slightly, as long as abortion is an issue.
Durant can now be herself, a moderate, or just wait it out four years to see how it plays. The district will change over that time as will state politics. Maybe new issues will dominate other than abortion, which is the strongest issue Democrats now have in their arsenal.
The question is, as new voters move in, will the district begin to more resemble Northern Virginia and become more liberal, or will it somehow hang on to its more moderate nature? If it doesn’t grow more conservative, or Durant doesn’t moderate her political views, she could be in trouble in a reelection bid in four years.
Or maybe next time, she’ll smarten up and instead of attacking one, she’ll actually encourage a liberal independent candidate to join the fray to siphon votes from the Democrats. Like the abortion issue, it could be her strategy that works every time.
Rick Pullen is a bestselling novelist, magazine columnist, and former reporter for the Free Lance-Star.