Now that the bizarre Arizona election “audit” has confirmed President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, we can finally turn our attention to the 2021 race for Virginia governor.
As you probably know, that features Republican Glenn Youngkin, a Donald Trump-endorsed business tycoon making his first bid for public office, against former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat elected in 2013 with less than 48% of the vote.
Most of the polls so far reckon McAuliffe is ahead, though by not-necessarily-comfortable margins. Those range from 1 to 9 percentage points, and one recent poll showed Youngkin leading by 5.
With a Forbes-estimated net worth of $440 million, the Republican has plenty of resources he can draw on. That’s one reason McAuliffe can’t take this election for granted. Another is, McAuliffe edged Ken Cuccinelli in 2013 by only 56,435 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast statewide.
If Libertarian Robert Sarvis hadn’t taken more than 146,000 votes in that election, McAuliffe could easily have lost to Cuccinelli. No Libertarian is on the ballot this year, but there is a candidate from the similar-sounding (though far-left) Liberation Party, Princess L. Blanding.
For the purposes of this column, though, we’re unconcerned with who wins statewide. A more tantalizing question is, how many votes will Youngkin take in Roanoke? That’s the focus of our 2021 election contest.
Below, you’ll see all kinds of historical election data, which may or may not help inform your guess.
One thing this exercise probably won’t help with is the overall outcome. That’s because, judging by the past 15 Virginia election cycles (dating to 1961) we know that Roanoke is no strong bellwether when it comes to picking Virginia governors.
In nine of those contests, Star City voters’ preferred gubernatorial candidate won the election; in the other six the candidate who lost Roanoke was elected governor.
In the 1960s, which saw three gubernatorial elections, Roanoke voters consistently preferred Republican candidates over Democrats. In that decade, GOP gubernatorial candidates in Roanoke averaged 9,967 votes to Democratic candidates’ 7,740.
In the two gubernatorial elections during the 1970s, Roanoke voters split. In 1973, they preferred Henry Howell, a progressive Democrat who ran as an independent, over Mills Godwin, a Republican who had previously been elected governor as a Democrat.
Howell pulled 10,807 votes from the Star City to Godwin’s 8,912. But Godwin won statewide.
(Fun facts: Godwin was the first politician in U.S. history to win governors races as both a Democrat and a Republican. As a Byrd Organization Democrat in the 1950s, he was a key player in the shameful Massive Resistance scheme, designed to thwart court-ordered desegregation of Virginia schools.)
In 1977, Roanoke voters went the other way. That year, Howell ran under the Democratic banner. But Roanoke voters sided with Republican John Dalton, 13,906 to 12,344.
Roanoke voters have preferred Democrats running for governor ever since (although Republican Jim Gilmore came within 225 votes of winning the Star City in 1997).
In 1981 in Roanoke, Democrat Chuck Robb pulled 16,448 votes to Republican J. Marshall Coleman’s 10,367. In 1985, Democrat Gerald Baliles swamped Republican Wayne Durrette, 13,380 to 7,272. And in 1989, Roanoke voters gave history-making Democrat Doug Wilder 16,590 votes to Republican J. Marshall Coleman’s 11,483.
Although voters in the Star City chose Democrats in both gubernatorial elections during the 1990s, the margins were closer. In that decade’s two gubernatorial elections, Democratic candidates averaged 12,481 Roanoke votes to Republican candidates’ 12,003.
The split widened in the 2000s. In Roanoke, Democrats running for governor in that decade’s three elections averaged 13,429 votes to Republican candidates’ 9,105. There were two contests in the 2010s, and the gulf widened a bit more. Democratic gubernatorial candidates averaged 13,406 in the Star City, while Republicans averaged 8,335.
In the most recent Virginia gubernatorial election, in 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie in Roanoke 15,099 to 8,890.
With the benefit of all the information above, and any other facts you care to gather and analyze, how many votes do you think Youngkin will take from Roanoke this time around? After you read the 2021 Election Contest Rules, email that number to me.
I’ll collect all those guesses, and after the election, we’ll anoint 2021’s King of Politics for the Roanoke region.