Hey 5th District voters, are you ready for your close-up? Because ready or not, you’re going to get one.
The political events of the past several weeks guarantee that the congressional district stretching from the North Carolina line to the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia will be in the national spotlight in ways it wouldn’t have been if “normal” politics had prevailed.
Republicans set up this “race to watch” when they denied renomination to incumbent Denver Riggleman — whose chief political sin was officiating a same-sex wedding — and instead picked Bob Good, who bills himself as a “bright red Biblical and constitutional conservative.”
Democrats upped the ante June 23 when they nominated Cameron Webb by an unexpectedly wide margin. Webb stands out politically for multiple reasons, one of which is that he’s a doctor running during a pandemic and the other is that he’s a Black candidate running in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and all the convulsions that have followed.
A young Black doctor for the Democrats against a hard-right Republican who has worked at Liberty University and positions himself even to the right of President Trump on some issues? In a district that’s home to Monticello, Appomattox and the last capital of the Confederacy? This is a matchup that the national media won’t be able to resist. The fact that it’s within driving distance of the Washington press corps is a bonus.
Now, for the money question: Will this really be a competitive district? A few weeks ago, we looked at the recent voting history of this district and those numbers haven’t changed — this is a district that favors Republicans. Now that we can look at this race with actual candidates and not generic ones, does that change anything? Spoiler: This is still a district that favors Republicans. The danger for Republicans: Sometimes things change. Let’s begin with these numbers:
1. Over the past decade, Democratic candidates have averaged only 41.75% of the vote in the district.
» 2012: Robert Hurt, R, 55.4%; John Douglass, D, 42.9%
» 2014: Robert Hurt, R, 60.9%; Walter Gaughan, D, 35.9%
» 2016: Tom Garrett, R, 58.2%; Jane Dittmar, D, 41.6%
» 2018: Denver Riggleman, R, 53.1%; Leslie Cockburn, D, 46.6%
Now, that average might be misleading — it’s pulled down by some candidates who were, electorally speaking, weak. Dittmar, though, was regarded as a serious candidate and still ran below average. Cockburn was clearly a stronger candidate but the best she could manage was a respectable loss. To be competitive, Webb is going to have to not just run better than previous Democrats, but a lot better. That’s possible, but the political terrain in the past has been pretty unforgiving for Democrats. Is that terrain shifting? That’s what none of us can really know until the votes are counted.
For Democrats to win in the 5th, they need three things to happen. First, they need to gin up even more votes out of Charlottesville and Albemarle County — the district’s population center and the places where Democrats are strongest. Second, they need to maximize the Black vote in a district that’s 19% Black. Third, they need Republicans to be divided. In nominating Webb, Democrats have nominated their best chance to check off those first two boxes. And in ousting Riggleman and nominating Good, the hard-right Republicans who control their party’s nominating apparatus have helped Democrats check off the third. That may still not be enough, but so far, everything is working out the way Democrats had hoped it would. Now, for some more cautionary numbers for Democrats:
2. For Webb to win, he may need Joe Biden to win 59% of the vote in Virginia. However, no Democratic presidential candidate has run that strong in the Old Dominion since Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Here’s how we arrive at that 59% figure. The biggest Democratic landslide in Virginia over the past decade came two years ago, when Tim Kaine won reelection to the U.S. Senate over Corey Stewart by 57% to 41%. However, not even Kaine carried the 5th District that year. Based on figures shared by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, the 5th went 50.4% for Stewart and 48% for Kaine. This is back-of-the-envelope math, but maybe if Kaine had run two percentage points better statewide, hitting 59%, he’d have also run two percentage points better in the 5th and hit 50% there. Democratic presidential candidates have carried Virginia three times in a row now, but each time the Republican still won in the 5th — so for Webb to benefit from Biden’s coattails, he’s going to need a Democratic presidential blowout in Virginia on a scale we haven’t seen in 80 years. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum. Biden will benefit from whatever extra vote Webb can inspire from the Democratic base in the 5th District — a base that might not naturally be enthusiastic about Biden.
3. Money won’t matter. Yes, this is heresy, but here are some inconvenient facts for those who think money decides everything. In 2016, Dittmar raised twice as much as Garrett and still lost. Two years ago, Cockburn raised 55% more than Riggleman and she still lost, too. To win, a candidate needs a sufficient amount of money to get his or her message out, but simply out-raising the other side doesn’t guarantee victory. These numbers suggest that Webb will need to out-raise Good by a massive amount. Can he?
Some Republicans have fretted that, by nominating Good, the party will now have to spend money defending a seat that they could have better spent elsewhere. That’s a problem for a party that needs to be on offense if it hopes to reclaim the House. However, Democrats will now be tempted to spend money on Webb that they otherwise would have spent elsewhere — so Republicans may have just suckered Democrats into spending gobs of money on an unwinnable race.
Here’s all we do know: The surprisingly volatile 5th District is about to get its fourth new congressman in four elections — and the whole country will be watching.
The Roanoke Times