Staunton’s Election Lessons

by Chris Saxman

Virginia’s most accurate statewide election locality — Staunton — just swept off City Council three Democratic incumbents in favor of three Republicans.

Democrats go from a 6-to-1 majority to a 3-to-4 minority.

This made headlines around the Commonwealth and political news sites. “Virginia is going Red this fall!” “Will Trump win in November?”


There are many reasons why this happened and several lessons to be learned (again).

The main reason — the incumbents lost.

But first, here is just how accurate Staunton has been over the last EIGHT statewide elections in Virginia and why you should pay attention to the Queen City.

2018 – U.S. Senate Tim Kaine v Corey Stewart 

Staunton – Democrat 56.43, Republican 41.01,Third Party 2.38
Virginia – Democrat 57.00, Republican 41.01, Third Party 1.74

2017 Governor Race – Ralph Northam v Ed Gillespie

Staunton – Democrat 53.3, Republican 44.9, Third Party 1.7
Virginia – Democrat 53.9, Republican 44.97 ,Third Party 1.07

2016 President – Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump

Staunton – Democrat 47.8, Republican 46.0, Third Parties 6.2
Virginia – Democrat 49.75, Republican 44.43,Third Parties 5.02

2014 U.S. Senate Race – Mark Warner v Ed Gillespie

Staunton – Democrat 48.3, Republican 48.8, Third Party 2.81
Virginia – Democrat 49.15, Republican 48.34, Third Party 2.43

2013 Governor Race – Terry McAuliffe v Ken Cuccinelli

Staunton – Democrat 47.2, Republican 44.3, Third Party 7.77
Virginia – Democrat 47.8, Republican 45.2, Third Party 6.5

2012 President – Barack Obama v Mitt Romney

Staunton – Democrat 51.1, Republican 47.3, Third Party 1.67
Virginia – Democrat 51.2, Republican 47, Third Party 1.37

2009 – Governor – Bob McDonnell v Creigh Deeds

Staunton – Democrat 41.4, Republican 58.5
Virginia – Democrats 41.3 ,Republican 58.6

2008 President – Barack Obama v John McCain

Staunton – Democrat 50.5, Republican 48.4
Virginia – Democrat 52.6, Republican 46.3

Spooky, right?

This does NOT mean that Staunton predicts statewide elections, only that it reflects them.

For all of you who are interested in whether or not this shows a possibility that Virginia will similarly turn Red this fall and vote for Donald Trump, slow your roll.

That is not likely to happen — at all.

Here’s why.

This was a local, non-partisan election with local issues.

Candidates are not identified by party on the ballot.

This was Us vs Them.

Breaking down the numbers do show some very interesting results namely in Ward 5 with the dramatic impact of COVID-19.

Mary Baldwin University students normally make this precinct a 2-to-1 Democratic advantage and they were sent home in early March due to COVID-19.

Ward 5’s results most likely cost the Democrats their majority. The GOP won the walk-in vote, but it’s hard to tell how the absentee ballots went.

So that’s it?

No, but it was a huge factor in a 4-3 majority not being 3-4 since the closest race was decided by just 27 votes.

This was first and foremost a repudiation of incumbent arrogance.

Over and over and over again, all I heard from Staunton political leaders was just how arrogant and condescending the incumbent City Council was.

From their decision not to have a public hearing on a Second Amendment sanctuary city resolution to their terrible communications on local fiscal issues like the city’s golf course, a major economic development project, and a recent decision to furlough fire fighters, Staunton’s City Council failed two rules of politics and life – listen and be nice.


They voted to furlough fire fighters? The week before an election?


They really didn’t think they were going to lose. Their decisions wouldn’t matter.


Look, everyone is going to disagree about issues or policies. Right? Of course. That’s just life.

However, when you refuse to even consider someone else’s opinion opting for “We know best for you” or “We’re better than you” attitude, folks remember.

And in small towns, they talk. To each other. Every. Where.

All. The. Time.

After awhile, that negative feeling piles up like a dry sticks looking for stray spark. It creates motivation which yields better candidates. Then it unites opposition with energy.

Eventually a narrative develops that is fed by one bad decision after another. And another.

Incumbents then get defensive and try to explain themselves, “but you don’t understand” or “this is very complicated” which really means we represent government to you while the motivated, hungry, and angry challengers seek to represent you to the government.

It’s a not-so-subtle shift that occurs over time and infects every incumbent majority.

Staunton should be a lesson for incumbents who need a reminder why they are there in the first place.

To represent us to them, not them to us.

Challengers don’t win elections, incumbents lose them.

Incumbent arrogance is a bipartisan disease and could spread faster than COVID in this year’s elections.

Be careful incumbents.

Listen and be nice.

Oh, and don’t vote to furlough first responders during a health care crisis the week before an election.

Chris Saxman, executive director of Virginia FREE, was born and raised in Staunton and represented the city in the House of Delegates from 2002 to 2010.