The polls of late are pretty consistent. They show Democrat Terry McAuliffe leading in the governor’s race and Democrat Ralph Northam leading in the lieutenant governor’s race, with the attorney general’s race between the two Marks (Herring, the Democrat; Obenshain, the Republican) within the margin of error.
For the sake of argument today, let’s set aside the question of whether the polls are right. (Democrats should worry that McAuliffe’s consistent lead is big but built on soft supporters who may not bother to show up on Election Day.) Instead, let’s focus on another question: What are the odds that the Democrats could sweep all three statewide offices?
Let’s see what history tells us. We’ll take 1969, and the election of the state’s first Republican governor, as our starting point:
* 1969: SPLIT. Republican Linwood Holton wins governorship, Democrat J. Sargent Reynolds wins LG and Democrat Andrew Miller wins AG.
* 1973: SPLIT. Republican Mills Godwin wins governorship, Republican John Dalton wins LG, Democratic AG Andrew Miller is re-elected.
* 1977: SPLIT: Republican John Dalton wins governorship, Democrat Chuck Robb wins LG, Republican Marshall Coleman wins AG.
* 1981: SWEEP: Democrat Chuck Robb wins governorship, with Dick Davis winning LG and Jerry Baliles winning AG.
* 1985: SWEEP: Democrat Jerry Baliles wins governorship, with Doug Wilder winning LG and Mary Sue Terry winning AG.
* 1989: SWEEP: Democrat Doug Wilder wins governorship, with Don Beyer winning LG and Mary Sue Terry being re-elected AG.
* 1993: SPLIT: Republican George Allen wins governorship, Democrat Don Beyer is re-elected LG, and Republican Jim Gimore wins AG.
* 1997: SWEEP: Republican Jim Gilmore wins governorship, with John Hager winning LG and Mark Earley winning AG.
* 2001: SPLIT: Democrat Mark Warner wins governorship, with Democrat Tim Kaine winning LG and Republican Jerry Kilgore winning AG.
* 2005: SPLIT: Democrat Tim Kaine wins governorship, with Republicans Bill Bolling winning LG and Bob McDonnell winning AG.
* 2009: SWEEP: Republican Bob McDonnell wins governorship, with Bill Bolling re-elected as LG and Ken Cuccinelli winning AG.
So out of 11 elections, 6 have been splits 5 have been sweeps.
However, four of those years featured candidates for LG and AG who were running for e-election, which surely skews things. Those years were 1973 (where the Democrat running for re-election as AG prevented a Republican sweep), 1989 (where the Democratic sweep was completed by the AG running for re-election), 1993 (where the Democrat running for re-election as LG prevented a Republican sweep) and 2009 (where the Republican running for re-election as LG helped complete a Republican sweep.)
Put another way, we had seven elections in which there were no incumbents — and in those there were four splits and three sweeps.
Statistically speaking, that’s a small sample size, but from what we’ve seen, it’s safe to say the obvious: Sweeps aren’t automatic, but they can happen under the right circumstances. Virginians haven’t been averse to splitting their tickets.
Democrats, for whatever reason, seem to have a harder time winning the attorney general’s office than other posts. Is this because the public considers the attorney general a crime-fighter (not entirely true) and thinks Republicans are tougher on crime? Or is it that voters, having cast ballots for two Democrats get cold feet (or cold fingers) when it comes to making it a donkey trifecta? Or maybe it’s just a fluke?
In any case, the last two times Democrats won the governorship, they couldn’t pull off a sweep. Kaine could only pull in himself, not his two running mates. Not even Mark Warner could pull in his candidate for attorney general. In fact, Democrats haven’t won the attorney general’s office since 1989, when Mary Sue Terry was re-elected. And that was a re-election. You have to go back to Terry’s first election in 1985 to find a year where a non-incumbent Democrat won the post.
Go back even further in history and you find that Democrat Jerry Baliles just barely won the office in 1981 — he was the last candidate in the door that year. Before him, there was Andrew Miller, elected in 1969 and relected in 1973.
So just three times in the 11 elections since 1969 have Democrats been able to elect a non-incumbent as attorney general — Miller in ’69, Baliles in ’81, Terry in ’85.
By contrast, Republicans have elected an attorney general five times in a row, starting in 1993.
Now, that’s history. It’s a useful guide, but we should remember the state’s demographics and politics are changing, too. So maybe this year will be different. Or not.
If Herring wins, to complete a Democratic sweep, it will be something the Democrats haven’t done since 1985 (or 1989, depending on how you want to count incumbents seeking re-election.)
But if Obenshain wins, to deny a Democratic sweep, it will continue a trend and surely make Democrats wonder what it is they have to do to win that office.
– Dwayne Yancey, senior editor and in-house historian