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51st District Analysis

By Greg L | 5 November 2009 | 51st HOD District | 13 Comments

Paul Nichols was a first-term delegate with lots of money, but wasn’t expected to personally work that hard for his own re-election.  Rich Anderson looked promising as a challenger because he was willing to put in the time and effort to get elected.  In the end, Anderson knocking on a huge number doors in the District, remaining competitive in the money race, and otherwise running a pretty solid campaign gave him a narrow victory over the incumbent in this swing district.

In 2007 Nichols won this district over Faisal Gill by slightly more than 4 percentage points, or about 500 votes.  This year Anderson pulled in about 51% of the votes for a 270 vote lead in a race that turned out to be quite a nail-biter.  It came down to who worked harder, and who made the least significant mistakes.

This district is about evenly split between precincts that are better for Republians and those that are good for Democrats, with a few swing precincts that can go to either side.  In Nichols’ 500 vote victory in 2007, he kept things awfully close in precincts like Westridge and Old Bridge, won in potentially Republican-leaning precincts like McCoart, and ran away in Democrat precincts such as Occoquan.  Still, all he ended up with was a 500 vote margin of victory.  But he also ended up with very low name recognition in the district and some of the lowest re-elect numbers in the Commonwealth.  Nichols won in 2007, then sat back and relaxed as a legislator in Richmond for a while without thinking very much about getting re-elected.  That turned out to be a crucial mistake.

This year Anderson came out of the gate and capitalized on those weaknesses, focusing on the ground game.  He managed to knock more than 10,000 doors before Nichols figured out what was going on, show some surprisingly strong campaign finance reports, and kept the Nichols campaign reacting to them from about the middle point of the campaign onward.  Nichols’ plan to simply hit the district with direct mail and some commercials on Comcast started to come off the rails when Anderson hit him with the police report from his 2006 incident in the Outer Banks.  The Anderson campaign shot off two mailers and went on to other campaign work while the Nichols campaign badgered the News & Messenger and spent a lot of time and effort talking about that while Anderson increased the number of doors knocked on to an astounding 27,000.

That’s right.  Rich Anderson talked to pretty much every single voter in the district.  While he was doing so, Nichols was talking to the press about his arrest record and trying to quickly come up with mailers and ads claiming that Anderson broke the law by releasing information from the arrest record.

The campaign fiance reports of these candidates couldn’t be more revealing about the campaigns that were run.  Nichols spent $15,000 producing that campaign ad where he’s sitting in a car talking about traffic that was so bad people were laughing about it.  Anderson spent $1,200 on video production for two website videos, and one of them won the 2009 Berry Award.  The footage from that ended up being recycled for a television commercial as well.  While Nichols threw a lot of money at different campaign activities, he didn’t get a whole lot of value for his money.  Anderson did.  Probably Anderson’s best investment was hiring Reece Collins as his campaign manager, who was in my opinion among the very best campaign managers in the Commonwealth.

When it came down to election day, Anderson simply performed better in every precinct, while Nichols saw some of the precincts that had won in 2007 go the other way.  Anderson added McCoart, Westridge, and Rockledge to his column, while Nichols narrowly swung the lower-turnout Chinn precinct his way.  Margins of victory in the core precincts of each camp tended to widen a bit, but other than in Occoquan where Nichols netted about a 100 vote increase, the increases in Republican precincts were much stronger, particularly in Rockledge and Penn.  The absentee ballots also shifted tremendously, going from about an even split in 2007 to about 2-1 for Anderson while increasing from 411 total votes to 1,013.  The military vote definitely helped Anderson, as this was the biggest shift in the district.

Margins of victory in the Republican precincts tended to widen a lot, while the margin in the best Democrat precinct in the district, Occoquan, was the only precinct where Nichols made significant headway over 2007.  The number of votes in the “D” column actually dropped in Penn, Old Bridge and Rockledge from 2007 to 2009 despite a turnout increase of 28%, or 3,415 votes.  It’s pretty clear that Nichols concentrated specifically on the precincts where he thought he was strongest, and largely abandoned those he thought he was weak in, while Anderson competed for every vote, everywhere in the District.  The turnout differential from precinct to precinct remained about what it was two years ago, with many of the more predictable Democrat precincts like Kerrydale, Lynn and Kilby turning out at less than half to a third of the rate of the larger more Republican precincts.

Here are the raw numbers, with one correction in the precinct numbers courtesy of James Young who noted it in a comment on another thread:














Lake Ridge






Old Bridge


















Civic Center























Anderson trailed Bob McDonnell’s performance in every precinct, while Nichols did better than Creigh Deeds in every precinct.  What that seems to show is that the direct mail war that centered on Nichol’s arrest record ended up backfiring on Anderson as Nichols made a big stink about his Social Security Number being on the document that Anderson released.  Nichols did a tremendous job of playing the victim on this, even to the point of saying he had to cancel his credit cards, and of course Paul Ebert did his typical duty of trumping this up a bit an announcing the release would be investigated by a special prosecutor.  While it significantly distracted Nichols’ from his campaign plan, it was pretty effective at shaving off some support from Anderson.  The number of McDonnel-Nichols voters were pretty significant across all the precincts, and in a close election like this you can’t easily afford to have that happen.  If that mailer had never happened, Anderson probably would have performed three to five points better than he did.  If what turned out to be the Social Security Number had been discovered before the mailers went out and redacted, that could have amounted to another few points above the three to five.  It was the only gaffe in an otherwise flawless campaign, and fortunately for Anderson it didn’t quite turn the election the other way.  It sure made it a close one, though.  Despite this, Anderson managed to swing a 411 vote deficit into a 270 vote victory by focusing his campaign on knocking on voter’s doors.

Going forward, if Anderson can do a better job of constituent engagement than Nichols (which shouldn’t be too hard), Anderson looks pretty safe in this district.  I don’t imagine Nichols will be coming back for a re-match in two years, and the bench for Democrats is pretty thin.  There just aren’t any experienced potential challengers to Anderson other than Nichols, who found out this election that the amount of time and effort an elected official has to devote to elections is probably a lot greater than he is willing to commit to.  Nichols most likely had thought that once elected, his re-election would be considerably easier than the first campaign he ran, and it turned out that this race was just as difficult, if not more difficult, than when he prevailed over Faisal Gill.

Anderson simply out-worked Nichols here, and any potential challenger in 2011 is going to look at the record-setting effort made by Rich Anderson this cycle and go pale.  Not many are going to conclude they have the ability to match Anderson here, especially since no one in Virginia elections history has come close to what Anderson did this cycle.

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  1. Austin said on 5 Nov 2009 at 12:24 pm:
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    I agree with your assessment Greg. Rich Anderson got started early and went from 0 name recognition to winning through shear effort. Really a model campaign in many ways. I don’t think Del. Nichols was prepared for a serious challenger.

  2. NotTimothyGeithner said on 5 Nov 2009 at 12:41 pm:
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    Lynn and Kilby both had close to a thousand votes for Gerry Connolly and Nichols came away 567 combined. Those are Democratic strong holds if someone bothered to canvass there. It sounds like Nichols walked away from a lot of votes.

    On another note 27,000 doors by Anderson and staff is impressive.

  3. Gnarly said on 5 Nov 2009 at 1:32 pm:
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    You are exactly right that Anderson’s success was based on his foundation of an early start and all that shoe leather. That is effort that Nichols could never have the time back to match.

    However, I read these raw votes to mean that Nichols was getting substantial crossover support. I think he had the race won until his over-reaction to the Anderson “arrest” mailer…..not the other away around. Everything was a wash on the exchange of attacks until Nichols just wouldn’t let it go, thereby not letting the focus go off of his arrest. If I had been Nichols’ consultant, I would have advised him to issue one statement to explain his side and then do one interview with a friendly reporter, then LET THAT DOG LIE and move on to a positive issue-oriented campaign.

    I’m convinced the attack/counter-attack left Nichols on the short end, not Anderson.

  4. Greg L said on 5 Nov 2009 at 2:16 pm:
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    I have barely started looking at the 52nd district, but one thing I noticed was that Anderson was polling on average 10.83% below McDonnell while Raphael Lopez seems to have trailed McDonnell by only about 8.5%.

    A number of factors could affect this, such as:

    1. no incumbent on the ballot in the 52nd

    2. Nichols’ extremely low re-elect numbers and freshman status

    3. negative reaction to “mailer-gate”

    4. Anderson knocked more doors than Lopez and Torian combined

    My hypothesis, and I’m open to others, is that the difference between Anderson’s lag behind McDonnel and Lopez’s lag behind McDonnell was the mailer, with just a minor effect coming from incumbency. The gap would have been larger without Anderson’s door knocking campaign which made up enough ground to weather this.

  5. Harry said on 5 Nov 2009 at 2:23 pm:
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    Do you think McDonnell destroying Deeds in the 51st had anything to do with Anderson’s slim win? If deeds only lost by 10% Nichols would be the delegate. BTW, the swing was the arrest piece that Anderson did, polling 2 days before that piece went out, Nichols was up by 7%.

  6. Ribeye! said on 5 Nov 2009 at 4:49 pm:
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    “I don’t think Del. Nichols was prepared for a serious challenger.”

    I don’t think any NoVA Dem was thinking they would have a serious fight from any Republican. They were still basking in the afterglow of “Hope & Change”. Then the Tea Party movement started. Then the Healthcare debate started. Then the people started to realize that Democrats are actively trying to destroy our freedoms…and the voters simply reacted. The Democrats need to realize that the people that came out on election day, and the people who are down at the Capitol today ARE THE PEOPLE WHO VOTE!

  7. Gnarly said on 5 Nov 2009 at 6:03 pm:
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    I just don’t want candidates in the future to be squeamish about throwing out an attack mailer, especially if the positive groundwork and foundation are already in place, as was the case with Anderson. He had the good credibility to lay the hit on Nichols when he did. Lopez on the other hand had not done that kind of work to have any sort of credibility to go negative on Torian and have it be effective.

  8. James Young said on 5 Nov 2009 at 7:20 pm:
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    I can’t find anything that I significantly disagree with in this analysis. I particularly agree that the arrest matter was a major negative for the Anderson campaign. I agree with Harry: had McDonnell not had such a strong showing, Nichols would have prevailed, perhaps because of this. At the same time, as a challenger against an incumbent, it’s a decision that’s hard to criticize.

  9. Greg S said on 5 Nov 2009 at 9:56 pm:
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    Face it. Anderson wanted the job and I think he’ll do it well. Nichols just wanted the title and it was nothing more than a part time gig for him. I don’t think he cares one way or another.

  10. Dave Core said on 6 Nov 2009 at 9:14 am:
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    I don’t know if Rich Anderson after he retired took a full-time job as many military retirees do. If so, then READ NO FURTHER.

    If not: the only concern I have is that it helped that Rich Anderson did not have a job to go to. I worry about what’s happening in our citizen legislature when more and more retired, self-employed or otherwise wealthy individuals who might not have to work become our legislators. Jackson Miller really epitomizes the kind of person we’d like to see represent us — a family man with a job who struggles to balance legislating with family and work — and gives him a valuable perspective.

    But all in all a great win for Republicans in the 51st.

  11. Robert L. Duecaster said on 6 Nov 2009 at 11:07 am:
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    Dave: Unless he was independently wealthy, being a retired Colonel does not put Rich Anderson in the “might not have to work” category. Thirty years of service in the nation’s military does not result in a pension that will fund a leisurely life style. A legislator who has a real job and must prioritize his legislative duties below his vocational and familial duties probably has a more realistic and selfless perspective than a career legislator (Colgan comes to mind). But retired service officers are usually well-educated, well-traveled, wise in the ways of bureaucracies, and may have gained a degree of “street sense” that will hold them in good stead when considering the needs of their constituents. They are a good resource from which to draw candidates.

    On the other hand, there’s John Bell … .

  12. James Young said on 6 Nov 2009 at 8:47 pm:
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    Uh, “Greg S,” it IS a “part-time gig.” And thank God it is. Full-time legislatures (California; Pennsylvania) inevitably lead to larger government.

  13. Kevin C. said on 9 Nov 2009 at 10:29 am:
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    As I see it, the ONLY numbers that matter, in the 51st, are:

    7934 SMART voters (Voted for the Honest, Medal of Valor recipient)

    7664 STUPID voters (What kind of IDIOT votes for a DRUNKEN THUG?)

    I hope everyone resists the urge to refer to Rich as, “LANDSLIDE.”

    Seriously, WAY TO GO Rich !!!!!

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