Just a dozen years ago, Virginia sent two Republicans to the United States Senate. Now the GOP is at risk of losing its fifth consecutive Senate election.
In 2006, Democrat Jim Webb knocked off GOP Sen. George Allen 49.6 percent to 49.2 percent in the Democratic wave. Two years later, Democrat Mark Warner drubbed former GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore 65 percent to 34 percent to take over retiring Republican Sen. John W. Warner’s seat. In 2012, Democrat Tim Kaine defeated Allen 53 percent to 47 percent when Webb decided not to seek re-election. And in 2014, Warner appeared to be caught off guard during a Republican wave but still defeated Ed Gillespie 49 percent to 48 percent.
This year, Kaine is up for re-election and GOP prospects are dim.
The Democratic presidential nominee has carried Virginia in each of the last three elections, including Hillary Clinton’s 5-point victory in 2016. More recently, in 2017, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeated Gillespie 54 percent to 45 percent in the gubernatorial race and Democrats nearly took over the House of Delegates in an election night surprise.
Had 2017 turned out better for Republicans, the party might have been able to recruit a strong challenger to Kaine. But as things stand, the GOP Senate field includes a candidate determined to run a Trump-esque campaign and a conservative firebrand, both of whom are likely to get pounded in the suburbs, and one unproven state legislator.
There’s scant evidence that Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors (who lost narrowly to Gillespie in the 2017 Republican primary), and minister E.W. Jackson (who lost to Northam 55 percent to 45 percent in the 2013 race for lieutenant governor) have the statewide appeal necessary to knock off an incumbent in Virginia.
State Del. Nick Freitas, who served in the Iraq War, could be interesting but is a long way from being a top-tier candidate. The GOP field is so underwhelming that Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, met with Gilmore, who hasn’t won an election in 20 years, according to The Washington Post.
Putting the state-specific dynamic aside, Republicans are just unlikely to have the money to invest in Virginia to combat Kaine’s financial advantage when all of the Senate races across the country are taken into account. Before focusing on Virginia, Republicans will prioritize their own vulnerable seats in Arizona, Nevada and potentially elsewhere, along with those of the 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states Donald Trump carried.
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Of course, the dynamics in Virginia and the country could change, but Kaine is well-positioned for a second term. We’re changing the Inside Elections rating of the Virginia Senate race from Likely Democratic to Solid Democratic.
You can read the latest analysis on each of the Senate races in the Jan. 5 issue of Inside Elections.