Off-year elections — those held in odd-numbered years when neither a presidential election nor a midterm election takes place — don’t tend to get a lot of national attention. Only five states, most of them in the South, conduct statewide elections on off years: Virginia and New Jersey in the year after presidential elections, and Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the year before presidential elections.
This year, however, Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election is front and center among politics watchers, as beleaguered Democrats look for signs of hope ahead of next year’s midterms. In 2018, all seats are up for grabs in the U.S. House, which Republicans now control by a margin of 227 to 192. Democrats nationwide will also have a chance to gain ground in legislatures ahead of the 2020 census, after which state lawmakers will draw new congressional and legislative district lines.
“We’re Ground Zero,” as Virginia Democratic Party chairperson Susan Swecker told the Washington Post. “All eyes are on us.”
But off-year wins don’t necessarily translate to midterm and presidential victories: In 2013, for example, Democrats swept Virginia’s three statewide elections only to lose the U.S. Senate a year later.
For Virginians, the upcoming election couldn’t be more important as they will be deciding not only on a new governor but also a lieutenant governor, attorney general and representatives in the state House of Delegates. Elsewhere around the South, several major cities are holding mayoral elections in November, with Atlanta’s primary followed by a likely runoff in December and heated runoffs underway in New Orleans and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Here are seven key races to watch around the South, all of which will be held on Nov. 7 except for New Orleans’ Nov. 18 runoff:
Virginia governor: ‘Ground Zero’ for Democratic hopes
Pitting current Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam against former Republican National Committee chair and lobbyist Ed Gillespie, Virginia’s open gubernatorial race promises to be the most widely watched of the election season. Both candidates staved off tough primary challenges — Northam from populist former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello for Northam, Gillespie from far-right Confederate flag defender Corey Stewart — thus setting up a general-election battle between establishment candidates.
A business-friendly moderate, Northam — a former Army physician and pediatric neurologist — stands to benefit from current Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s popularity in Virginia, where governors cannot run for consecutive terms. Also working in his favor is President Trump’s low approval rating of just 35 percent in a state he lost by six points last year. Gillespie, despite his establishment bona fides and career as a lobbyist, has embraced the anti-immigration rhetoric of Trump. Meanwhile, Northam is significantly out-fundraising Gillespie, with just under $22.8 million raised as of Sept. 30 compared to Gillespie’s $14.8 million.
While polling averages show Northam with a 4-point lead, a recent Hampton University poll shook Democrats when it showed Gillespie up by 8. But as the Washington Post explained, the pollster’s unusual methods have led to unreliable results in the past.
Virginia lieutenant governor: A stark ideological choice
Democratic attorney Justin Fairfax and attorney and Republican state Sen. Jill Vogel are vying to replace Northam as the state’s second-highest elected official in a race that pits a progressive black Democrat against a white Trump supporter.
A 38-year-old former assistant U.S. attorney and private litigator, Fairfax first ran for office in 2013 but lost his bid to be Virginia’s attorney general. Despite that run, Fairfax was a party outsider prior to this race, with the Richmond-Times Dispatch noting in a profile that he’s only spoken to Gov. McAuliffe “in passing.” He also drew complaints that he was trying to “divide the party” last year after his campaign said his being denied a speaking slot at a state party convention was “deeply unfortunate.”
But the party has warmed up to Fairfax: The Democrats have called him a “rising star,” and he picked up the endorsement of the two top Democrats in the state Senate. In June, he won a three-person primary for lieutenant governor, defeating his main competitor Susan Platt 49 percent to 39 percent.
His race against Vogel presents Virginia voters with a stark ideological choice.
Fairfax is running on progressive policies that include raising the minimum wage and criminal justice reform. In addition, he has declined to take donations from Dominion Energy, a Richmond-based company that’s the lead developer of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed to run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina.
Vogel, on the other hand, is running on a platform that calls for reducing regulations and cutting taxes. Meanwhile, her law firm has stirred controversy for its role in voting rights cases in Louisiana and North Carolina. And Vogel herself has come under criticism for making a racially charged comment about Fairfax, who was also curiously omitted from a Northam canvassing flier.
Vogel has raised $2.6 million since last year compared to $2.3 million by Fairfax. But in September, Fairfax raised over twice as she did — over $600,000 compared to under $300,000 — and has three times as much cash on hand, $568,304 as opposed to $168,493 for Vogel. According to a poll conducted last month by Christopher Newport University, Fairfax has a slim four-point advantage over Vogel, just outside the margin of error.
Virginia attorney general: Another term for a liberal?
Virginia’s only statewide officeholder running for re-election is Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who’s facing Republican political newcomer John Adams. Herring has earned a reputation as one of the country’s more liberal attorney generals, while Adams, a government investigations and white-collar litigation attorney and U.S. Navy veteran, is a social conservative whose website quotes deceased U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage.
Elected in 2013, Herring decided upon taking office that he wouldn’t defend the state’s gay marriage ban and later declined to defend the state’s voter ID law. His actions have drawn the ire of legislative Republicans, who earlier this month launched an investigation into his office’s civil asset forfeiture revenues and whether it properly reviewed state contracts.
While Adams maintains that he wants to keep the attorney general’s office politics-free, his campaign is emphasizing his social conservatism. For example, when Oklahoma-based retail crafts chain Hobby Lobby sued the federal government on religious freedom grounds over the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring companies to provide free contraceptive coverage to employees, Adams was the lawyer for 15 Republican members of Congress who filed a brief in support of the company. The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Hobby Lobby won.
In this race, Adams has attacked Herring for refusing to defend the gay marriage ban. “When I was a naval officer, if you didn’t do your job, people would get hurt or killed,” he said in a recent debate, alluding to Herring’s decision. “When I was a federal prosecutor, if you didn’t do your job, dangerous people would be put back out into our community.”
Though the Republican Attorneys General Association pumped $900,000 into the Adams campaign earlier this month, Herring still has a fundraising advantage of $2.8 million, the Washington Post reports. Herring also maintains a slim lead over Adams in polling.
Virginia House of Delegates: Women rise up
The upcoming elections in Virginia are not only bellwethers for next year’s midterms but also exemplify a nationwide development that some attribute to the backlash against President Trump: a surge in women running for office.
An unprecedented 51 Democratic women competed in primary races for the Virginia House of Delegates this year, up from 26 who filed in 2015. Of those, 31 are advancing to the general election in November. They include 26 first-time Democratic women candidates, according to The Nation.
Republicans currently hold a 66- to 34-seat advantage in the lower chamber of Virginia’s state legislature, and they’re unlikely to lose that in this year’s election. Gov. McAuliffe recently predicted that the Democrats would pick up between six and eight House seats — far short of the 17 they’d need to take control of the chamber.
But Republicans need to pick up just one seat to return to the veto-proof supermajority they held in the state House during the first two years of McAuliffe’s term. That means there’s a possibility that even if Northam wins the governor’s race he could be up against a veto-proof supermajority in the House. After all, even when Democrats swept Virginia’s 2013 statewide elections, Republicans picked up a seat in the House of Delegates.
The Virginia Senate, which elects its members in four-year terms, will hold its next election in 2019. That chamber is currently controlled by Republicans by a slim margin of 21 to 19.
New Orleans mayor: Breaking a barrier for black women
When New Orleans voters go to the polls to choose a new mayor on Nov. 18 to replace popular but term-limited Democrat Mitch Landrieu, they will make history by electing the first African-American woman to the post. It’s just a question of which one.
In the Oct. 14 primary, Democratic city councilwoman, longtime community activist and charter school co-founder LaToya Cantrell topped the field of 18 mayoral candidates with 39 percent of the vote. She was followed by former judge Desiree Charbonnet, also a Democrat, with 30 percent of the vote. The two women will face off in the city’s municipal elections on Nov. 18. (This is the first time New Orleans elections will be held in the fall as opposed to February and March, a change made in an effort to improve voter turnout.)
Cantrell is running as a populist looking to bridge the gap between the rapidly gentrifying city’s rich and poor, with a campaign focusing on a “tale of two cities.” As she told The Advocate newspaper in a recent interview,”That disparity just hits you, up close and personal.”
Charbonnet, who served as an Orleans Parish municipal judge for a decade, wants to tackle crime in the city and boasts a record of creating diversion programs for nonviolent offenders. She has lined up significant endorsements including U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat whose district includes most of New Orleans and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Charbonnet leads in leads in fundraising, having taken in $1.3 million as of Oct. 4. That’s more than double the $618,650 Cantrell raised in that same period.
Atlanta mayor: Women leaders vie for city’s top spot
The race to replace Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat who has frequently been mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office, has a crowded field of eight. It’s led by two city councilors, both women: independent Mary Norwood, who is white, and Democrat Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is African-American. (Neither would be the city’s first woman or black woman mayor, however; that honor is held by Shirley Franklin, who served from 2002 to 2010.)
The race has focused on problems that have afflicted other fast-growing cities, with concerns about infrastructure, traffic woes and the city’s growing homeless population dominating the campaign.
A former radio station executive who owns a communications company, Norwood narrowly lost to Reed in 2009. In her second try she is focusing on public safety but has found herself in hot water for courting the state Republican Party. Bottoms — a lawyer and former executive director of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority who has Reed’s endorsement — says she wants to “be a good partner” with the city’s business community but doesn’t want to “leave [Atlanta’s] communities behind.”
Running a distant third is Democrat Peter Aman, a former chief operating officer for the city under Reed and a former partner at Bain & Company global management consultancy; his focus is rebuilding Atlanta’s infrastructure. The other candidates are current Atlanta City Council President Caesar Mitchell, former council President Cathy Woolard, city council member Kwanza Hall, Bernie Sanders-aligned state Sen. Vincent Fort, and Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves, all Democrats.
Mitchell and Aman are the top fundraisers, raking in more than $2 million each in contributions, Atlanta Loop reported. Norwood has raised $1.3 million, while Bottoms is right behind her with $1.2 million.
In a poll conducted earlier this month, Norwood led the field at just over with 22 percent, with Bottoms within the margin of error at 19 percent. Aman at 13 percent was the only other candidate above 10 percent, with 20 percent of voters undecided.
The first round of voting will be held on Nov. 7. If no candidate crosses the 50 percent-plus-one-vote threshold, a runoff will be held on Dec. 5.
Raleigh mayor: A racial divide in the capital city
While North Carolina has been at the center of controversy in recent years for the far-right politics of its legislature, elections in its fast-growing capital city have been relatively noncontroversial affairs, with moderately progressive mayors leading Raleigh since 2001 and winning re-election by wide margins — until this year.
In a three-way, officially nonpartisan blanket primary held on Oct. 10, incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane — a political independent who is socially progressive and business friendly — came in first in a field of three but failed to get over 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff, which was called for by the second-place finisher, Democratic attorney Charles Francis. McFarlane, a retired pharmacist and business owner who is white, won the city’s wealthier, whiter areas while Francis, who is African-American, won the predominantly black neighborhoods and neighborhoods frustrated with the city’s rapid development. The third-place finisher, Republican Paul Fitts, got less than 15 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for McFarlane and 36 percent for Francis.
A self-described “fiscal conservative,” Francis has campaigned on the growing divide between the rich and poor. Though McFarlane was instrumental in the passage of a tax increase that’s providing an additional $6 million a year for affordable housing, Francis has accused her of not doing enough to help Raleigh’s have-nots in the rapidly gentrifying city. North Carolina law prohibits local inclusionary zoning ordinances that require developers to set aside a percentage of units as affordable housing.
While Francis is running as an outsider, he has picked up the endorsements of both the local Democratic and Republican parties as well as Fitts. However, in the runoff he lost the endorsement of the LGBTQ rights group Equality NC, which had given the nod to both him and McFarlane in the October election; the group cited his support for former Republican state Sen. Fred Smith, a prominent backer of a state constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage before it was struck down by the federal courts.
This election also showed the limits of fundraising in local races. The top two fundraisers in the races for Raleigh city council both lost, and although McFarlane slightly outspent Francis in the blanket primary by $167,000 to $163,500 it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff.
In the second round, Francis would have to boost turnout significantly and pick up nearly all of Fitts’ voters to have a chance at toppling McFarlane. But his strong showing illustrates a deep dissatisfaction with the uneven distribution of economic gains in one of the South’s boomtowns.