Manassas, Virginia — Frustrating Democrats who hoped to prove decisively that running on a gun-reform message could produce winning margins at the ballot box, the Virginia Senate remained in Republican control Tuesday night after an expensive campaign left the party breakdown right where it has been for the past four years.
The off-year elections in the Old Dominion State were an electoral laboratory for gun violence prevention advocates, including Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who tested the issue as a tool for goosing traditionally low Democratic turnout. The goal was to collect data on what messages and tactics work best with which segments of voters — while motivating enough of those voters to flip at least one seat from Republican to Democrat, allowing the party to take over the state Senate. (With the chamber at 21-19 in favor of Republicans, a one-seat shift would have produced a tie putting Democrats in control, since Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam casts tie-breakers.)
On the latter objective, the push fell short. The reform candidate prevailed in one of the two most closely watched races, as Democrat Jeremy McPike, a volunteer firefighter, collected 53.3 percent of the vote against Republican Hal Parrish in the western Washington D.C. suburbs, an outcome that kept a vacant seat in Democratic hands. But in the Richmond area, Republican Glen Sturtevant won his marquee matchup against Democrat Dan Gecker, collecting 49.8 percent of the vote in a four-way race for a seat vacated by a Republican. That outcome meant the party breakdown of the Virginia Senate is unchanged.
As to the key question of how Democratic and Republican turnout compared to previous off-year elections where gun reform had not be tried so aggressively as a get-out-the-vote message, Virginia Democratic Party spokesman Stephen Carter said late Tuesday night that it’s too soon to tell.
The McPike and Gecker races, along with two others for seats that Republican incumbents ended up winning, were the focal point of two major gun-reform groups, Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS) and Everytown For Gun Safety. In the waning weeks of the race, Everytown spent $1.5 million on ads boosting McPike and another $700,000 promoting Gecker. (Everytown is a seed donor to The Trace.) For months, ARS, founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly following her recovery from the 2011 Tucson, Arizona mass shooting, worked intensively with Virginia Democrats to tailor messages to voters of both parties they knew to be alarmed by gun violence.
One of the products of the ARS effort was a set of mailers sent to thousands of female voters telling them that Parrish, the mayor of Manassas, opposed several gun reform measures. “In states with background checks on all gun sales,” one mailer said, “46 percent fewer women are killed by their partners.” As late as Monday night, ARS’s political director Isabelle James and a group of volunteers were knocking on doors in Manassas apartment complexes reminding targeted voters to go to the polls.
After the ballots were tallied, ARS emphasized its good news – McPike’s victory – rather than the losses by Gecker and two other Democrats whose races they jumped into, Jill McCabe and Gary McCollum.
“Senator-Elect McPike stood up to the gun lobby and stood with the vast majority of Virginians and Americans who support commonsense policies like background checks on all gun sales to help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Hayley Zachary, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC, in a press statement. “And once again, we saw that a candidate can run and win on their support for commonsense gun violence prevention policies like background checks.”
Indeed, McPike could be seen as a positive note on an otherwise dour election night for progressives around the country. Republicans took the governorship of Kentucky and marijuana legalization failed in Ohio, while voters in Houston overwhelmingly voided an equal rights ordinance. Democrats looking for silver linings found them even in the losses by McCabe and McCollum, who came closer to unseating their Republican opponents than previous challengers. McCabe, a pediatric emergency-room doctor, fell by 4.5 points to a staunch anti-gun reform advocate, Senator Dick Black, in a district northwest of D.C. McCollum held Senator Frank Wagner to 54 percent of the vote in the Virginia Beach area, his lowest percentage in seven successful legislative runs.
The Virginia campaigns reflected an increasing boldness on gun reform on the part of some Democratic politicians and strategists. McAuliffe won the governor’s office in 2013 while bragging about his “F” rating from the National Rifle Association, challenging the long-held belief that tangling with the gun lobby is a recipe for defeat, especially in states with proud hunting and gun-ownership traditions like Virginia. Last month, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton appeared at an event in Alexandria with McAuliffe and McPike, pitching herself as a candidate who wanted to “protect our families and communities from the plague of gun violence.”
Resounding wins on Tuesday night would have been a simple data point heading into 2016, showing the clear upside to running on gun safety in swing states. Instead, reformers got a split decision. “Honestly probably not going to have anything for you on that tonight,” Carter said when asked for takeaways from the election returns. “It’s going to take time on our part to know those answers.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Louisiana gubernatorial election was decided on Tuesday. Louisianians head to the polls on November 21.
[Photo: Flickr user Chesapeake Bay Program]