With the 2023 election cycle behind us, and the 2024 and 2025 elections already bearing down, expect more of the vitriol we’ve come to witness during election year – which is every year in Virginia.
Before the serious mudslinging begins, however, there’s a case to be made for taking a collective breath and having a serious look at voter burnout.
On this issue, we are burning the candle at both ends. Both with those people over 40 who most-regularly vote and have tired of the endless campaigning, and with younger people, whose frustration with politics is taking an unusual turn.
Before tackling the younger folks, let’s start with the established voter. There is no single reason for their frustration, but talk with voters individually and one theme emerges over and again – money.
It’s the sell-out, not the buy-out
Elections are expensive – this has always been the case; it always will be. And candidates do what they have to do to secure the funds they need. Voters understand that.
Money comes with strings, however, especially party money. And its impact on elections is undeniable. It’s not that Big Money buys out campaigns – again, races are expensive and voters understand that. It’s what happens to the candidates after that money hits the accounts of the candidates that bothers – and harms – voters.
As soon as the primaries ended, and the party and PAC money flowed, the three-dimensional candidates who fought to run in the general were replaced by candidates who sacrificed their own thoughts to become the mouthpieces of high-paid consultants and 20-something policy wonks whose first loyalty is to the power struggles in Richmond. Not the voters they play like so many pawns to secure power.
There was little doubt that Tara Durant was the odds-on favorite to win SD 27 in June. Gov. Glenn Youngkin carried this newly drawn district in 2023, and Durant made clear that she was going to run this race on his coattails and his above-50-percent approval rating. Enter mouthpiece No. 1.
Joel Griffin was a late-comer to the race, entering in February and spending heavily to win the primary from Ben Litchfield who had been on the ground for a year building a campaign and an army of young supporters.
Griffin won his primary because he outspent Litchfield, and benefitted from an anemic primary turnout. Why Litchfield’s army didn’t translate into more voters is one of the unsolved mysteries of June’s primary. Whatever the reason, the Democrats elevated Griffin to Mouthpiece No. 2.
Feed the base
With the lines drawn, the predictable set in.
Durant parroted Youngkin all summer and into Election Day, setting out ideas that seemed to come directly from the governor’s policymakers.
“I’m running for senate to make Virginia more secure,” she said in her opening remarks at the UMW debate. “More secure for us financially. More secure for our kids in education. And more secure in our communities.”
It’s little more than a modest reworking of Youngkin’s mantra to make Virginia the “best place to live, work and raise a family.”
Her enemy was also predictable. “[L]iberal democrats … continue to threaten our security. The only way we can stop them from controlling us is that we not only hold the house, but we flip the senate,” she said during the debate.
Durant would harp on “extremist” and “liberal” throughout the campaign.
The script was as yawn-inducing as it was uninspiring. But it fed the base the consultants appeal to.
Griffin was hardly any better. In a community struggling with affordable housing, traffic congestion, escalating hunger, and one local school system in chaos (Spotsylvania), Griffin instead hammered the party line hard – abortion.
As columnist Shaun Kenney noted, that issue really didn’t move the needle for Dems in this election.
One wonders if the outcome would have been different had Griffin spent a bit more time addressing these on-the-ground issues that are making life in our rapidly growing area more difficult.
Griffin and the Democrats had an opportunity to really hear what people in this community need. Instead, like Durant, they listened to the consultants.
What they missed, and what Durant missed, is that when you run a race on hot-button issues, the difference between victory and defeat is found in the margins.
Neither Durant nor Griffin changed voters’ minds with their consultant-driven campaigns. Those votes were already in the can.
It was the undecided voters they needed – few though they may be.
The one candidate who did capture independent voters’ hearts and minds, step-by-step, was Monica Gary. An independent candidate from Stafford who defied the prognosticators once before to win her seat on the Board of Supervisors and was gaining attention late in the race due in part to her strong showing at the UMW debate, Gary was willing to go anywhere and talk with anyone.
The Margins Vote
Though Gary was never considered a serious contender to win, she was someone who was going to pull votes. But from who?
Gary herself argued that she would take votes from both parties. Short any exit polling, it’s difficult to say if she did. But this much is sure. She was more successful than either Durant or Griffin in hearing what voters have to say and winning them over.
We know this because even though she had far less funds than Durant or Griffin, she was more efficient at converting people to her campaign with those precious dollars than were her Democratic and Republican opponents.
Based on data from VPAP, Griffin not only raised the most money in the race, but he spent the most money per-vote: $97.68. Durant had a substantial war chest herself, and paid significantly less than Griffin per-vote: $78.47.
Gary was the most-efficient of all, however, spending just $69.14 per vote.
Why the yawning difference between Gary and the other two?
Gary is a compelling figure one-on-one. Her ability to connect with the people she speaks with is her strength. It’s why she won the Supervisors seat in Stafford. Her problem was simply one of scale. It’s difficult to translate a personal message and ability to listen into ads that reach enough voters to make her a serious contender.
It’s the challenge that every candidate – especially independent ones – face, but it’s a problem that can be overcome.
Democrat Abigail Spanberger was both a fundraising juggernaut in 2018 and remains a politician who can appeal to the average Joe. It took both skillsets to win her Congressional District 7 seat in 2018 and 2020, when she ran on a platform that appealed to issues voters could relate to.
Her 2022 win owed much in no small measure to a single issue – reproductive choice. But most observers would agree that 2022 was an unusual election, with Roe v. Wade being overturned by the Supreme Court earlier in that election cycle.
Had either Durant or Griffin been able to appeal to the margins with a more-relatable persona that people on the fence could get behind, Durant may have won by a more-comfortable margin. And Griffin may have been the one packing his bags for the state Senate right now.
About those youngsters
The great thing about teaching is that you are able to stay in touch with young minds and what they are thinking and feeling. For too many, people under 25 are understood only through those of that age group in their own family, and the generalizations that the polls paint about Gen Z.
But like every other generation’s, its members are complicated individuals.
In the wake of the 2023 election, I’ve spoken with a decent number of Gen Z students. And what they are saying should worry both Democrats and Republicans alike.
They are turned off to politics not because they believe Climate Change is going to doom us all in five years, but because of what we – the millennials and Gen X and the Baby Boomers – have done to the political system.
If consultants have been highly successful in painting our political races into single-issue corners in order to push power up the chain to Richmond and to Washington while ignoring the local voter, they’ve utterly failed at fooling Gen Z, who see through the shell game.
Young voters are not voting in great numbers (hardly a novelty story, they rarely do), but they are giving up on politics in general. They want a better way to deal with the realities of the world that they’re inheriting from the older generations who have left them saddled with student debt, unable to move toward home ownership, and worried that they’ll ever know a life as full as that of their parents’.
And it is that hope – that our children will do better than us – that has for generations defined the American Dream.
Let’s hope come 2024 and 2025 candidates begin to figure this out, and run races that appeal to everyone, and away from the single-issue races that grossly oversimply our problems and leave neighbor unable to talk with neighbor.
With voter disgust burning at both ends, the wick is getting mighty short.
by Martin Davis is editor-in-chief of FXBG Advance