For months, the race for the seat being vacated by veteran Republican John Watkins in the 10th Senate District has been touted as the state’s most crucial — one that will determine control of the state senate.
But no one could have predicted what’s going on now.
Heading toward Nov. 3, the four-way contest has blown away records for campaign spending in an off-year, local election. Slick, professional television ads are punching way above their usual weight. And media mogul and billionaire progressive celebrity Michael Bloomberg has made a rare appearance in the fray.
On Sept. 30, campaign spending in the 10th District set a state record as it approached $2 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Of that, leading candidates Daniel A. Gecker, the Democrat, and Glen H. Sturtevant, the Republican, lead fundraising with $1.2 million to $771,000, respectively.
Bloomberg tipped the balance in favor of Gecker more by having one of his gun-control lobbying groups buy $700,000 of television slots for the Richmond market. Sturtevant is retaliating in ads, saying he’s for enforcement of existing gun controls and accusing Gecker of being self-serving with his 2014 proposal for a privately funded ballpark to replace the crumbling Diamond.
What gives? Because of Virginia’s hidebound tradition of gerrymandering, local General Assembly races are rigged to be boring and noncompetitive. The real decisions are made before Election Day, mostly in primaries.
That’s why basically only two Senate races will decide if Republicans keep their 21-19 power balance. One is the 29th District, in Northern Virginia. The other is the 10th District, which includes part of Richmond and Chesterfield County as well as Powhatan County. If the GOP loses, the deadlock against expanding Medicaid to 400,000 lower-income Virginians may be broken.
“The state has only two districts worth thinking about and that’s a testament to gerrymandering,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “It is why so much money is flowing into the 10th.”
Another reason is that state Democrats, led by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, are shunning GOP roadblocks in the General Assembly to gun control. Frustrated by legislative intransigence, McAuliffe recently issued an executive order banning handguns from state office buildings and is orchestrating funding to help Gecker.
More support is coming from Barbara and Andy Parker, parents of the late Alison Parker, one of two Roanoke television journalists shot dead during a live interview at Smith Mountain Lake this summer. They favor Gecker’s support of background checks and denying people with protective-abuse orders from owning firearms.
Sturtevant, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, says he is against gun violence and in favor of mental health reforms.
“They’re all in on this,” political analyst Robert Holsworth says of Democrats seizing on the issue. “They decided it’s finally time. We’ve never seen this before.”
Neither Gecker nor Sturtevant’s campaigns responded to Style’s request for comment by press time.
Marleen Durfee, a former Chesterfield County supervisor running as an independent in the Senate race, says she’s for the people who are left out by “the big money that’s trying to buy this election.”
The amount of money being spent on the campaign is “outrageous,” Libertarian candidate Carl Loser says. “I think people will realize that money can’t buy votes.”
Similar concerns about out-of-state interests influencing local elections have come up before in parts of the 10th District. In 2014, Americans for Prosperity, a national group associated with hard-line conservatives Charles D. and David H. Koch of Kansas, robo-called Chesterfield County residents to oppose a 4.6-cent real estate tax hike to help raise $304 million for schools. When Bloomberg gave the Sierra Club $50 million to fight coal-powered electricity planets in 2012, his move didn’t go down well in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. “Can having a New York-backed gun group backfire on you, if you, if you forgive the pun?” Holsworth asks.
Given the right circumstances, will the frenetic activity in the 10th District spread to other local races to come? That depends on whether redistricting changes the political geography enough to make races more competitive.
Advocacy groups have complained for years that Virginia’s districts are rigged for incumbents and that it will take years to change things. There seemed to be a move to push for changes last year, when a panel of federal judges ordered that the 3rd Congressional District — running from Hampton Roads to eastern parts of Richmond — be redrawn because it packed in black voters to give white candidates an edge elsewhere.
A final decision will made in federal court, because the General Assembly did nothing about it. In a separate case last week, a federal judge rejected Democratic challenges that 12 districts were configured to give white Republicans an advantage.