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Candidate Visits, Congressional Races, and a Shake Up at VMI: Political Analysis for Friday, October 30, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between the two.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include candidate visitations to Virginia, a look at various congressional races across the region, and the ouster of VMI's superintendent amid claims of racism at the school.

Craig Carper:  From VPM News in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper.  Joining me now from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is political columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Schapiro:   Good Friday to you, and the clock counts down to Election Day.

Carper:  A mere three days away.

Schapiro:  Ah, but remember, we've been voting since September 18th, so Election Day has been underway for 40+ days.

Carper:  That's right.  So, for all the noise of the campaign’s finale, Virginia is oddly pretty quiet at the end of this campaign cycle.  Perhaps an indication that the state has completed its transition from red to purple to blue.

Schapiro:  All signs point to a fourth straight Democratic presidential win in Virginia.  State senior Senator Mark Warner seems to shoo-in for a third term over Dan Gade, the Republican. That constitutional amendment on the ballot that would largely strip the legislature of its redistricting power, it looks to be a slam dunk.  The polling on all of this has been pretty consistent from early days.  The latest poll this past Wednesday from the Wasson Center at Christopher Newport University just seems to continue this pattern.  Now, but first, you know, turn out peaks in presidential years, 70% or higher.  This year with early voting by mail and in person because of the coronavirus, you know, we're already pushing towards 50%.  More than 2 million votes have already been cast, and the pool of eligible voters is 5.5 million.  So, counting those early ballots will be tricky and could mean that some of these races are not decided until the end of next week.  Now back to the ballot, there are three congressional races that are being closely followed.  They're all in Trump-carried districts.  Two of them were carried by Democrats in 2018.  One’s here in the Richmond area; the other's in Hampton Roads.  That third that could go blue is in Trump country.  And of course, if the Democrats win, that means they will hold 8 of the state’s 11 House seats.  Democrats broke a 40-year Republican presidential win streak in 2008 when Barack Obama carried Virginia.  The state has gone blue for president ever since.  This year, of course, Democrats are looking to make it four straight.  Now, the campaigns in ‘08, ‘12 and ‘16 produced a lot of candidate traffic in Virginia.  That's because we were considered a swing state, and ‘16 of course was somewhat special because Tim Kaine, the junior senator was on the ballot as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.  Now this cycle, back to traffic, Biden was in Richmond briefly to raise some money.  His wife has been here, ditto Doug Emhoff, Kamala Harris's husband.  Mike Pence has been through a couple of times, and of course, Trump stopped in Newport News on his way back to Washington from the deeper south.  The point is that Virginia is not up for grabs as it was in three previous presidential elections.  It's become bluer and bluer and bluer, largely because of distaste for Trump.  And that's magnified by this fact - you know, most Virginia voters, two in three, live in cities and suburbs.  And that's where Trump is more unpopular than he is popular.  Candidate traffic is thin because of time.  Candidates don't have a lot of it, and they're not going to waste their time in places they can't win or they're likely to win.  And then of course the pandemic, the big rallies are considered unsafe, though that didn't stop Trump at that Newport News event.  Even before coming into Virginia, Governor Northam urged the Republicans to reconsider, saying it was going to be a super spreader event.  Again, it didn't stop Trump.  And then guess who came down with the coronavirus?  Ralph Northam.

Carper:  And Jeff, let's take a magnifying glass back over to the House races that everyone's watching.  I am barely within the city of Richmond limit’s 4th congressional district, yet I don't see Don McEachin or Leon Benjamin signs in my neighborhood.  It's all Abigail Spanberger.

Schapiro:  Yeah, that's Virginia 4th, not much of a race.  Virginia 7th, which includes Henrico and Chesterfield, that's where Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic incumbent, is facing Nick Freitas.  This is a suburbs and countryside campaign.  Spanberger won in 2018 with a big vote out of those two counties, Henrico and Chesterfield.  She's going to need it again.  But with rural, mostly Republican voters, she's hoping to dig in with her emphasis on agriculture and constituent services.   Freitas is from rural Culpeper.  He'll do well in the countryside, but he needs to cut into Spanberger’s vote in the Richmond suburbs.  That's why he's still advertising on MSNBC or MSDNC as Donald Trump calls it.  Virginia 2nd, down in Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Eastern Shore - Elaine Luria, the Democratic incumbent.  She defeated Scott Taylor, a freshman, two years ago.  He's trying to win back that seat.  It does not look promising.  And some of the Republican super-PAC’s, one in particular, pulling out and directing its money elsewhere.  The problem for Taylor is Taylor.  He still answering for campaign skullduggery in 2018.  And then Virginia 5th, that's Cameron Webb, the Democrat, and Bob Good, the Republican.  This is an 11-point Trump district that runs from the outer suburbs of D.C. through Charlottesville to the North Carolina line.  And it'd probably have been a slam dunk for Republicans had they renominated first-termer Denver Riggleman, but he was dumped because he officiated at the same-sex wedding of campaign volunteers.  Republicans are badly divided.  Riggleman has refused to endorse.  Good, he's running a base campaign depicting Webb as, among other things, you know, a clone of AOC.  Webb has spots on television featuring his Republican supporters.  Now the wildcard in Virginia 5th - the presidential vote.  Are there enough Trump - Webb voters to tip that seat Democratic?

Carper:  And the Virginia Military Institute is a political battleground, again.  Its superintendent was forced out by Governor Ralph Northam and the Democratic legislative leadership amid a fast spreading racial controversy.  And one of its casualties is VMI's iconic statue of Stonewall Jackson, with more change on the way.

Schapiro:  Binnie Peay had been the head of VMI for 17 years.  The past year has probably been his roughest because of racial equity concerns and COVID-19.  Now, Peay was working on a plan under which VMI would deemphasize its Confederate heritage and emphasize equity for cadets of color.  The plan underwhelmed Northam and the General Assembly's Democratic leaders, a number of whom are black, female, or both.  Now, they and Northam met last week.  They decided on an independent investigation of VMI that would focus on the treatment of black cadets.  Now, some of them have been quoted in the newspapers over the past four months saying the school is, you know, hostile and unwelcoming.  Now, those lawmakers and the governor told Peay that he no longer had confidence in him, so he quit.  His last day was Monday.  There was a big send off for him by the corps on Wednesday night.  And you know, Peay is an exceptional guy.  He’s a VMI grad.  He commanded the 101st Airborne during Desert Storm.  He's got a silver star, a purple heart.  He built up the school's already impressive endowment.  He was a real model of public service for cadets, but the times apparently caught up with him and very quickly.  On Thursday, VMI's trustees met, and they voted to get rid of the Jackson statue, establish a diversity office, and name a committee that will apparently come up with new names for the buildings that are now named for Confederates.  This is change at the point of a political bayonet.  And the BOV, the Board of Visitors, also said it will begin its search for a new superintendent, perhaps a black or a woman.  Now, as you might imagine at change-averse VMI, you know, some in the old core, you know, those who were there before blacks and women, you know, they're hopping mad about all this and a good deal of their anger is directed at Northam, himself a VMI guy.  As many of them see it, you know, Northam is again bending over backwards to accommodate black Democrats because of the blackface scandal in 2019.  But it's important.  There are other loyal, younger VMI types, men and women, black and white.  They want the school to endure.  They know that to do so means accommodating the times.  You know, it sort of brings to mind a line from a novel, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Carper:  Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro:  Roger that.