Blue Ridge Caucus What If?: What if the city had moved elections to November ahead of the 2008 mayoral race?
When I was growing up buying comics at the 7-Eleven behind our church in Clifton Forge, I occasionally picked up issues of “What If…?” which was an odd series that proposed tweaks in the continuity of the Marvel universe, then explored how they played out. It asked questions like, “What if someone else besides Spider-Man had been bitten by the radioactive spider?” and “What if the Hulk had the brain of Bruce Banner?”
Many of those stories — not all, but many — ended with everybody dead. They also helped, in a weird sort of way, to untangle some of that dense continuity and help explain why stories had played out the way they did.
With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to play around with the “What If…?” format with some questions of Roanoke and western Virginia politics as a way to draw out some of the nuances of various issues.
Today: What if Roanoke had moved elections to November ahead of the 2008 mayoral race?
History marks 2008 as a pivotal year in both city and national politics.
The bill for the demolition of Victory Stadium came due in the city’s spring elections, as incumbent councilman Bev Fitzpatrick lost in the Democratic firehouse primary; David Bowers lost a battle for control of the city Democrats but ultimately defeated incumbent Mayor Nelson Harris by running as an independent; and outspoken incumbent councilman Brian Wishneff ran for re-election as an independent but was edged out by newcomer Court Rosen.
But what if elections had been moved to 2008 by a previous council?
Let’s pick up the thread with the Roanoke City Democratic Committee reorganizational meeting in late 2007. Bowers had made a play for control of the party but was ousted by Harris and his “For the City” allies: David Trinkle, Gwen Mason and Alfred Dowe. Even with the different election date, it’s unlikely that Bowers and his allies could have won that fight on that night.
That leaves Bowers with the same choice: Face Harris in a firehouse primary at Patrick Henry High School or run as an independent. I would guess that given the fact the primary took place in the Raleigh Court area that was advantageous to Harris, with rules written by his allies, Bowers would opt instead to run in the general election as an independent. That would give him the extra time to build a bigger campaign and take advantage of his name recognition to appeal to Roanokers who are worn out by the long-running infighting on the city council.
We can probably assume that much of the race plays out as it did in the spring. Here’s my wrap story on the 2008 city races for perspective.
But does anything change by moving that election from May to November?
In the real election, 11,155 people cast a ballot for one of the four mayoral candidates or a write-in. Bowers won 53.5 percent of the votes to Harris’ 40.6 percent. Every one of those voters came out either for the mayor’s race or for the council races.
It would be different in the fall. The ballot was headlined by Obama/Biden versus McCain/Palin and several other presidential tickets. Below that was Mark Warner vs. Jim Gilmore for U.S. Senate, then Bob Goodlatte vs. Sam Rasoul for a seat in Congress. More people voted for McCain/Palin in Roanoke than voted for all of the mayoral candidates combined. And more than twice as many voted for Obama/Biden than for the combined mayoral candidates.
Nationally, more than 130 million people turned out to vote in the presidential race — a record — and turnout was especially high in targeted battleground states like Virginia. Much of that came from the Obama campaign’s voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote operation: A reporter from the U.K. Guardian reported that members of the Democratic establishment predicted the black vote would be lackluster because the Obama campaign hadn’t tapped their institutional knowledge. That clearly didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did the city’s African-American precincts turn out, but in general a lot of people came out to vote for Obama who were not regular voters in other elections.
And take a look at what happened on the races beneath the presidential race. In Roanoke, Warner defeated Gilmore by a 74 percent to 25 percent margin and Rasoul beat Goodlatte by a 54 percent to 44 percent margin.
Based on the real results of the spring 2008 election, we know Bowers would carry a lot of votes from Democrats who were disgruntled with Harris — but would that have been enough to give him the fall election? Or would Harris have been able to secure a victory by tying campaign to Obama and Warner that fall?
Ed Lynch, a Republican political analyst and professor at Hollins University, subscribes to that latter theory.
“Had the election been moved to the fall, with Obama riding as high as he was in the city and indeed in Virginia, there’s no question Nelson Harris would have wholly wrapped himself in Obama and Warner,” Lynch said. “Would that have been enough? My guess is it would have pulled Nelson Harris over the finish line. There would have been enough party-line voting for Nelson Harris to have won.”
Based on Lynch’s theory, we’d be in the midst of an entirely different mayoral race this fall than the one we saw in May.
Others may have differing opinions — and certainly we’d invite you to post yours in the comments section.
Lynch said he doesn’t personally care whether the city moves its elections — he lives in Roanoke County so it doesn’t affect him one way or the other. But he said that shifting to November will give a boost to major party candidates and make it more difficult for independents to win.
“My guess is there are fewer independent votes cast at the top of the ticket, and consequently fewer cast for an office like mayor,” Lynch said. “As far as the fortunes of republicans are concerned, it really depends on what happens at the top of the ticket.
“The bottom line of what I’m saying is the mayoral elections held in the spring as they are now are about the city of Roanoke: The issues, the people running, their personalities and qualifications. If you move the elections to November so they’re right opposite and running with the president, then its about the party. It’s about the top ticket. It’s about coat tails. And it’s not primarily about Roanoke, its problems, its issues and its people.
“Sometimes that would benefit Republicans and sometimes it would benefit Democrats.”
The editorial board suggested in a piece yesterday that the city should remove party labels to keep the focus on Roanoke. Again, your thoughts on this idea are welcome in the comments section.
Also, I’m interested in readers’ takes on a bonus “What If…?” scenario using the same pattern as above:
What if the city moved its city elections to November so that the 2006 council races had taken place in the fall of 2005?
For reference purposes, that was the council race that decided the fate of Victory Stadium involving the “For the City” slate of independent Democrats Alfred Dowe, Gwen Mason and David Trinkle; the Democratic ticket of David Bowers, Granger Macfarlane and Bill White; and the Republican ticket of Mark McConnel and Stuart Revercomb. (Actual results here.) The fall 2005 race was headlined by Tim Kaine vs Jerry Kilgore for governor (actual results here).
There’s a lot of thread to untangle in that question, but it’s a fun exercise and can help unravel some of the pros and cons to the actual proposal of moving elections.
– Mason Adams