The 52nd district has been one of the the sleeper races in Virginia. With the retirement of Jeff Frederick, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrat Luke Torian would take this race in a walk. Not only hasn’t he “sealed the deal” in this district, but despite a significant fundraising advantage and a black church in the community effectively acting as his campaign staff Torian hasn’t connected with the voters, leaving Republican Raphael Lopez within striking distance. With a huge pool of undecided voters late in the game and a broader dynamic in Virginia favoring Republicans, this has actually turned into quite a battleground that is potentially depriving Democrats of the one pick-up they expected to get this election cycle.
Luke Torian is a pretty poor nominee for this district when you consider Democrats had better alternatives to pick from and Torian has enough political baggage to fill a bus. Rumors about infidelity, maintaining an extravagant lifestyle while serving as a church pastor, and his behavior at a local golf club swirl around this district while members of Torian’s congegation wrestle with Torian’s recent announced support of homosexuality, amnesty for illegal aliens, and other doctrinal deviations not to mention the novel idea of someone both serving as a pastor and as an elected official. A strong opponent would demolish someone like Torian, whose only political experience prior to running was helping to organize an ecumenical group supporting the cause of granting amnesty to illegal aliens.
Raphael Lopez hasn’t quite brought that challenge. Most notable has been his lackluster fundraising, but his campaign has seemed to be operating on life support for months aside from the financial weakness of his campaign, and his performance in debates (when his opponent has bothered to show up for them) has been pretty lackluster. Lopez has consistently looked like a nice guy who simply didn’t have the experience or demeanor to qualify for the “A” team list of candidates. That’s not to say he wouldn’t be a fine legislator, but we elect candidates, not legislators. There’s a difference.
The race has gone from sleeper to highly active in the past few weeks, however. Torian blew off the NAACP debate (without any advance notice) in order to attend a cocktail reception hosted by developers. The RPV crowd noticed that somehow Lopez was still in the margin of error with a lot of undecideds in the district and poured in money to get Lopez commercials on cable and establish his direct mail operation, seeing this as a potentially fruitful battleground rather than the hopeless cause it looked like before. Now we’ve got the Republican state-wide ticket showing up in this week in the district to rally the electorate, indicating that not only is this one winnable, but worthy of the investment of time by all three state-wide Republicans on the ticket. This doesn’t happen when this looks like a loser. It happens only when it looks like with just a little effort, this one can go into the “win” column pretty strongly.
In 2007 Jeff Frederick carried this district 59-41 against a candidate not too unlike Torian. Match Lopez up to Frederick and you begin to understand why the dynamic has shifted here so much from 2007. While this isn’t a district that you’d consider a typical bastion of conservatism, Frederick had great constituent service, presented himself really well, and has been a really great campaigner and fundraiser. Above all, he got the turnout in precincts like Washington-Reid and Henderson to break for him in a huge way that just swamped election results across the district. While Lopez is clearly not garnering the same level of support Jeff Frederick received in the past, there’s the impact of the state-wide ticket that considerably helps to make up that ground.
This district has a turnout model that shows that unless you drag these voters to the polls, in a lot of precincts voters are simply not going to show up. Obama’s outstanding effort last year got voters to come out of the woodwork in this district but by all indications those Obama voters are not going to be there this year. Neither Torian, Deeds, Wagner nor Shannon has gotten folks energized in Woodbridge, and there’s no evidence they’re going to change from being bored with the whole elections thing and stay home to suddenly showing up at the polls in this off-year election. The Republicans have done considerably better, but to a large extent this district seems to want to take a year off from the annual election game in Virginia.
The dependable turnout precincts all favor the Republican ticket, and none favor the Democrats, and Lopez is going to benefit from this. He really needs this support that will be generated from McDonnell/Bolling/Cuccinelli and provide him with about a ten point turnout boost. Without that, he’d likely be down 8-10 points. That makes this the nail-biter of Prince William County, where this is about an even race than hinges on what the state-wide tickets can do in their get-out-the-vote effort. A lot of predictable Frederick voters wouldn’t get all that excited about Raphael Lopez, but they will show up for McDonnell, Bolling and Cuccinelli and probably pull the lever for Lopez as well. That could put Lopez over the top, but it’s going to be close.
Given that the state-wide ticket is showing up for a last week of the campaign push and the effort that seems to be focused on this district, my suspicion is that Republicans think Lopez could carry this district by 3-5 percentage points with a good last-minute push and a solid GOTV effort. The decision to invest in this district in such a way isn’t being made hastily, especially when you consider that Fairfax county has a lot of seats in play and are very competitive investments. McDonnell could be there instead of in Woodbridge, but he’s choosing Woodbridge for a reason. He thinks Lopez can win, and the results there could bolster his state-wide numbers in a meaningful way, perhaps more than some of the competitive venues in Fairfax county.
I’m expecting Lopez will narrowly win this district within a couple of points, but it’s going to take every last ounce of effort by Republicans in the last week to make this happen. So far, it looks like Republicans are committed to making that happen, but keep your eye on this one. If Republicans win the 52nd, they’ll make a clean sweep of Prince William County, including the 51st district.
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