Terry McAuliffe plans to flip Virginia, but voters plan to stay home

Virginia's elections are coming in less than three weeks, and the fate of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's plan for a Democratic takeover rides on how many voters show up.

With all 140 General Assembly seats open, McAuliffe hopes to gain control of the Virginia Senate, in which Republicans currently hold a 21-to-19 advantage.

The longtime Clinton friend and ally governs a swing state at a time when Republicans are consolidating their lock on state governments. Nationally, the GOP controls 30 state legislatures and boasts 31 governors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 23 states, the Republicans hold both the executive and legislative branches. 

But in one of only four states holding major elections this year, McAuliffe's real opponent may be voter apathy. Virginia voters tend to honor odd-year, non-governor elections by passing them up. In 2011, fewer than 1.5 million of Virginia's more than 5 million voters showed up at the polls -- a turnout rate the commonwealth's Department of Elections puts at just under 29 percent. In 2007, turnout was just above 30 percent. 

Until June of last year, Virginia's state senate was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. That balance was broken with the resignation of Sen. Phil Puckett of Russell, a long-serving Democrat with deep roots in western Virginia. 

Puckett's resignation generated a political storm. The lawmaker cited his desire to help his daughter win Senate confirmation to a full, six-year term as a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge. But McAuliffe raged against the departure of his fellow Democrat in a poison voicemail to Puckett's phone.

The immediate effect of the resignation was to give Republicans a slim advantage and control of the upper chamber. Republican leaders quickly used their new majority to thwart the Governor's signature issue in the first full year of his term: Medicaid expansion. Republicans won a special election to fill the remainder of Puckett's term, expanding their majority to its current 21 to 19.

With just a two-seat margin, Republicans and Democrats had been predicting the Senate races this year could be among the most expensive ever seen in Virginia. But according to data from the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project, total spending on the state's 40 Senate races through the most recent quarterly reporting period is just under $27 million. In 2011, spending through election day totaled more than $42 million.

Only a handful of Senate seats are up for grabs this year, with the most expensive likely to be in the 10th District, which includes parts of Richmond and suburbs west of the city. Republican Glen Sturtevant and Democrat Dan Gecker have so far combined to raise more than $1 million in pursuit of a seat that is in play due to the upcoming retirement of Republican John Watkins.

But just across the James River from the 10th District, the Senate race in the 12th District is quietly heating up.

Republican Siobhan Dunnavant is squaring off against Democrat Deborah Repp for the seat long occupied by Republican Sen. Walter Stosch, who announced his intention to retire in January.

The District covers the western halves of Henrico and Hanover Counties, and has long favored Republican General Assembly candidates. Not one of the Republican House of Delegate members representing parts of the larger Senate District has a general election opponent this year.

"We are coordinating up and down the ballot with the other Republican candidates," said Dunnavant campaign manager Jonathan Carman. "While the Delegates are uncontested, they are chipping in resources and organizational strength." 

Carman told AMI Newswire the campaign is looking to overcome the expected low turnout through aggressive data sharing and voter targeting. But a more pressing problem for Henrico Republicans is the absence of the local party's one-time biggest benefactor and unofficial boss: former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Cantor's surprise primary loss to political newcomer David Brat in 2014 eliminated a reliable source of funds and political expertise for Republican candidates in the area. Republicans are doing what they can to build a new apparatus to stem what they see as the area's increasing Democratic tilt.

"Given the recent setbacks in Henrico for the Republican Party," Carman said, "we believe the retooling and organizing for 2016 starts in 2015. A [GOP] sweep of all countywide offices is very possible on November 3rd."

Carman added, "We see very little from our opponent on the ground and she has only raised $58,000 to date, so we are leveraging our resources and spending over $100,000 to drive GOP turnout on Election Day."

Repp's campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Seventeen of Virginia's incumbent Senators are running unopposed this year. But they are not relaxing.

Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) is running unopposed for the first time this year but has still raised more than $400,000 for his campaign. Petersen thinks the races will be close, but he told AMI Newswire he dismisses the idea that voters who typically vote only in federal election years will show up to make a difference in the 2015 contests.

"There is practically no precedent for having 'federal' voters participate in an state/local race in any meaningful way," Petersen said. "It just doesn't happen." 

Petersen pointed to his first Senate run in 2007, in which he defeated an incumbent, as an example of how off-year elections just don't motivate many voters.

"In 2007, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis and I had one of the most intense legislative races in modern Virginia history, at least in terms of money and visibility," Petersen said. "I brought out 25,000 voters, which was number one in the region. All told, it was a 41-percent turnout, so it was below the average mark for a run-of-the-mill Governor's race or U.S. Senate race."

Petersen did offer one bit of advice for candidates this year.

"The way to win is to fully bring out your core 'state' voters and take from the other team," he said. "You can mobilize some 'federal' voters, but it's typically a marginal number. As in hundreds, not thousands."

Election day is Nov. 3.