In Virginia, Big Consequences for Small Electoral Victories

One thing that pretty much everyone does is over-interpret close election results. So, when Democrat Dave Marsden wins Virginia's 37th State Senate District by 327 ...
by | January 14, 2010

One thing that pretty much everyone does is over-interpret close election results. So, when Democrat Dave Marsden wins Virginia's 37th State Senate District by 327 votes, Democrats celebrate it as a sign that they're recovering. People like me come up all sorts of reasons why this might have happened. And, no one usually acknowledges that had just a measly 164 voters switched sides, our analysis would be completely different.

The truth is that, as a reflection of political support, there's no magical difference between 49% and 51% -- the difference is no bigger than between 39% and 41% or 59% and 61%. On the other hand, I think we can be forgiven for making such a big deal out of the difference between 49% and 51%. The reason why is pretty obvious: Narrow electoral victories still come with sizable political consequences.

That's all just a lead-in for me to point out that the 37th Senate District in Virginia is a great case study in the large consequences of close elections.

In 2007, Republican Ken Cuccinelli won the 37th District by 92 votes. Today he's the state's new attorney general, a conservative darling and a rising star in the Republican Party. He's only 41. He could be a governor. He could be a senator. Who knows?

Well, if Cuccinelli doesn't pull off that 92-vote victory is he really the Republican nominee for attorney general? Maybe -- he still could have made the case that he'd outperformed other Republicans in Democratic-leaning Fairfax County. Conservatives still would have liked him. But, people don't usually become nominees for statewide office right after losing a legislative race.

Last fall, Marsden won reelection to the House of Delegates by 209 votes, barely surviving the Republican wave. If he loses, who knows if he's a candidate for the special election in 37th District. Without Marsden, Democrats probably don't have a winning alternative. Then, Marsden pulls off his 327-vote victory on Tuesday. A comparative landslide!

Obviously, we don't really know the consequences of Marsden's victory just yet. It's possible they aren't all that large. Democrats still would have had a 21-19 edge in the Senate without Marsden. Maybe, 22-18 isn't all that different.

But, indulge me in a little bit of speculation. It's possible that without a Marsden win, Democrats lose the Senate before redistricting because of an appointment, retirement or party switch. So, as I've said before, Marsden's win could be the only thing that gives Democrat's a role in redistricting or forces the courts to draw the maps, if the House and Senate can't agree. In other words, Marsden could be the difference between Republican-drawn maps and neutral maps for legislative and congressional districts.

U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello is the brightest progressive star among Virginia Democrats. He, like Cuccinelli, could be a future governor or senator. The 35-year-old freshman already represents a Republican-leaning district. I'd imagine that Republicans wouldn't have had too hard of time drawing his district to be unwinnable.

So, Ken Cuccinelli might be attorney general because Janet Oleszek, his 2007 opponent, didn't have, say, two more volunteers to knock on doors and win her the 93 votes she needed. Tom Perriello might be in Congress for a long time to come because Kerry Bolognese, Marsden's 2008 opponent, didn't have 5 more volunteers to knock on doors and win him the last 210 votes he needed.

Don't forget that when Ken Cuccinelli and Tom Perriello run against each other for president in 2024.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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