Fewer dominoes, but maybe more drama

Earlier this week, state Delegate Jennifer McClellan announced her candidacy for the State Senate seat vacated by Don McEachin. Rumor has it she might face her colleague Lamont Bagby and/or perennial candidate Mike Dickinson (because this is what he does) in a special election, likely in the next few weeks. If McClellan (or Bagby) wins, there would be another special election to fill her Delegate's seat. [UPDATE: I missed Bagby's FB post declaring that he would stay out of the race. (H/t to RVADirt.)]

So McEachin moves to Washington. A Delegate moves to the Senate side of the General Assembly. And someone steps up to fill the Delegate spot. Dominoes.

A week or so ago, we thought there be a lot more of these dominoes falling. Tim Kaine was poised to leave his Senate seat for the White House, triggering not just one, but two Senate elections over the next two years. Candidates from both parties would be scrambling all over each other to fill those seats, and the seats that would open up further down the food chain. For political junkies, it was going to be a nonstop free-for-all of candidate declarations, campaigns, and serious, substantive policy debates. (Ha! OK, not that last one.)

But national events have obviously changed that picture. While Donald Trump’s stunning victory has upended national politics, it has done the exact opposite here in Virginia. In sending Kaine back to the Senate, Trump has seriously dampened political activity in the state. (After this seemingly endless Presidential election, I wouldn't blame anyone in VA who thinks that this is a good thing.)

Kaine will face re-election in 2018, and will certainly find willing challengers. (Especially after his partner Mark Warner's close call, as he barely squeaked by Ed Gillespie in the 2014 election.) Still, Kaine remains popular in Virginia, and there’s no indication that he -- or Warner -- want to step down any time soon. So while there will be some jockeying among Republicans to replace them, ambitious state Democrats will have to wait their turn.

Even if Kaine's Senate seat is no longer in play, that doesn’t mean that Virginia politics will be completely boring. From Bob McDonnell to Joe Morrissey, Virginia has a way of staying in the national political spotlight. Next year that will again be the case, hopefully not for similarly unsavory reasons.

In 2017, all eyes in Virginia will be on the Governor’s race. And since VA and New Jersey are the only states to have these odd off-year elections, so will the eyes of the rest of the country. Again, Virginia Democrats have defused any drama by lining up behind Lt. Governor Ralph Northam. But the Republican drama is just beginning, and this may be the one race in VA where Trump's victory does fuel some fire.

After his near-defeat of Warner, Ed Gillespie has positioned himself as the frontrunner. But he faces challenges from Congressman Rob Wittman and, more importantly, Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart, Trump’s champion in Virginia. (Although according to the Bearing Drift blog, a self-appointed one.) Stewart will argue that he and not Gillespie, a Washington insider and lobbyist, deserve to ride the wave of disaffection that propelled Trump into office.

Still, Virginia famously went for Clinton last week, and Stewart remains divisive among Republicans. It will most likely be Gillespie who faces off against Northam next year. Both men are essentially party pragmatists, or what passes for centrist these days -- an odd outcome in Trump’s America. And that is a big reason the nation will be watching; our Governor’s race may be the first indication of whether a "normal" election is still possible in the current political climate.

It is too early to tell whether the candidates for Governor will avoid the kind of nastiness that permeated the previous gubernatorial election. But a Gillespie-Northam race would certainly be a bellwether for the rest of the country. If these two party insiders get mired in a knock-down, drag-out, hyper-partisan brawl, then that will signal to the rest of the country: this is the new normal. We’ll see soon enough.