A hundred state lawmakers are up for election this November. They’re the ones who decide how much to pay teachers, whether to expand Medicaid, or if marijuana should be legal. Last time they were elected, only 29-percent of registered voters turned out.
In Richmond, a local civic group hosted a lunchtime forum at the country club for the two candidates competing to be this district’s House of Delegates representative.
It was there that Dawn Adams met her delegate, Republican Manoli Loupassi, for the first time. When they finally shook hands it wasn’t as delegate and constituent, but as opponents.
Adams has her doctorate in nursing and she’s a first time politician. She admits she was nervous for that first, and only, forum that both candidates have attended. But when it was done, she felt like she had won people over.
“What I’m hoping is that people will know and sense, and it’s the feeling I get when I meet people, that they understand I’m really generally in this to be helpful, and that’s the only reason I’m doing it,” she said.
Adams is running in the 68th district. It’s a generally affluent area that includes western Richmond City and parts of Chesterfield, including the University of Richmond and the Country Club of Virginia.
It’s one of a handful of statehouse seats that Democrats think they can flip this year, because in November more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.
But Adams has an added challenge, her GOP opponent is an incumbent. He’s a popular local attorney, born and raised in Richmond, and he’s held this seat for a decade.
“All that being said, it doesn’t make him an effective delegate right?” Adams said. “But the fact that they know him, that is what I think keeps getting him elected.”
We reached out to Manoli Loupassi to ask why he thinks he keeps getting reelected, but his campaign said his busy schedule couldn’t accommodate an interview.
In a few parts of the district, though, his campaign signs are everywhere. Knocking on doors, a couple families said their kids go to school with his kids, and that he’s a nice guy.
Laura Ramsey said he’s represented her family, and community, well.
“From small things like getting little traffic islands and speed bumps and things, to the bigger debates that take place,” Ramsey said. “My husband and I have been really pleased with our representation.”
According to Dan Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond, most voters at the state level actually like their elected officials.
“They may not like the assembly that much, they may not like the politics,” Palazzolo said. “But there’s something that that incumbent might have been able to do to shine a positive glow on the district.”
Incumbents have built in advantages. They have a track record to campaign on, plus name recognition. That’s not to mention that they have years to raise money.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Loupassi’s starting balance in January was more than $100,000. Dawn Adams had nothing.
The only real disadvantage for an incumbent is being caught up in big political tides, say a surge of Democratic energy against an unpopular President.
And that energy could be here this year. More than 10,000 people in the 68th District voted in the Democratic primary, the highest turnout in the state. A little over 5,000 voted in the Republican primary.
But Palazzolo says those political tides are more likely to be an issue for national-level politics, because state delegates tend to be more insulated. Not as many people come out to vote, and those that do care strongly about local issues.
“And that’s why partisanship has not displaced or taken out incumbency, whereas at the national level — in some cases — it actually has,” Palazzolo said.
At the state level the cards are still so heavily stacked in incumbents’ favor that last time they were up for election, in 2015, all 89 incumbents won reelection.
Of the 17 state house seats Democrats say they can flip this year, 14 have Republican incumbents.