Not twelve hours after Virginia Democrat Dan Gecker fell short in his pivotal Richmond-area race by fewer than 1,500 votes, a familiar narrative emerged: He lost because he pushed “the gun issue” too hard. The local newspaper opined that Gecker “made a massive mistake” by backing tougher firearm regulation, in the process costing his party its chance of flipping the state Senate. Both Republican and Democratic state figures told reporters they believed that the effort by the Gecker, the Virginia Democratic party, and out-of-state gun violence prevention groups to prove that candidates could win with a gun reform message had backfired. “The gun thing — I would have done it differently,” Democratic state Senator Chap Petersen of Fairfax told the Washington Post. “It’s speculation at this point, but I feel the Gecker seat was one we thought we were going to win.”
Speculation is the operative word. An analysis by The Trace of voting results from the race reveals a more nuanced picture that can only be clarified if more data on pre-election polling and get-out-the-vote efforts is made public. But breaking the district into three distinct parts, what the numbers show is this: In the rural, conservative segment of the district located in Powhatan County, turnout was indeed unusually high — but absent proof that single-issue pro gun residents voted in droves, there’s evidence to suggest that a different local variable was responsible for the increase in Republican ballots. And in suburban Chesterfield County, Gecker outperformed the relevant past Democratic candidate by a significant margin.
Here’s the rundown:
- In a four-way race, Gecker lost with 47 percent to Glen Sturtevant’s 49.7 percent. In 2011, the Democratic Candidate, David Bernard, lost to then-incumbent GOP Sen. John Watkins by 13 points. (The 2011 election provides the best comparison, because there was also no governor’s race then to naturally increase turnout.)
- Gecker’s share of the Powhatan vote was 22.1 percent — virtually the same as the 22.3 percent Bernard received in 2011. What’s more, despite its increased turnout, Powhatan delivered a smaller slice of the district’s overall votes than it did four years ago. In 2011, the county accounted for 22 percent of the ballots cast in the district. In 2015, that fell to 18 percent.
- In the city of Richmond, turnout rose significantly from 2011 levels — but Gecker’s 67.5 percent of the vote was again virtually the same as the 67.1 notched by the Democratic candidate four years ago.
- Gecker did much better in the third geographic portion of the district, suburban Chesterfield County. There he took 41.7 percent of the vote, compared to the 30 percent recorded by Bernard in 2011.
As to what caused the elevated turnout in Powhatan, if not a gun reform backlash: One explanation may be that the county was the site of a hot four-way sheriff’s race between the undersheriff and a police sergeant, as well as heated elections for spots on the county’s Board of Supervisors. In the nonpartisan law enforcement election, both top contenders were Republicans. Data obtained from the county elections division shows that more than 2,800 voters cast ballots in the 2015 sheriff’s race than did so in 2011 (9,753 this year, versus 6,937 then).
Christopher Newport University political science professor Quentin Kidd agrees that the Powhatan outcome seems likely to have happened even without the injection of the hot button gun issue into the campaign, given the apparent interest there in the contests for local positions. It was equally telling to him, though, that Gecker also didn’t fare better at increasing the Democratic share of Richmond voters — a result that pro gun reform strategists are surely working to get to the bottom of. In the end, the battleground was Chesterfield. And reading the available data, Kidd says, “They just came up short there.”
[Photo: AP/Steve Helber]