Voters in the Lynchburg region flocked to the polls Tuesday at nearly twice the rate they did four years ago, as residents weighed in on hotly contested local races amid a surge in interest in politics in Virginia during President Donald Trump’s administration.
Voter turnout in the Hill City and the surrounding five counties exceeded 40%, according to unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections. That figure is nearly double the 21% of eligible voters who cast a ballot in 2015 — the last time every seat in the General Assembly was on the ballot.
In Lynchburg itself, voter turnout tripled from 10% in 2015 when each of the four Republicans up for reelection to the General Assembly ran unopposed to more than 30% Tuesday.
Despite losing their majorities in the General Assembly, Republicans in the region fared well amid a spike in voters, even as some faced well-funded challengers.
Collectively, Wendell Walker, a Republican running in an open House seat, and Del. Kathy Byron, a Republican up for reelection, won nearly 51% of the total votes cast in the city.
“I think it’s an illustration of the fact that the voters here locally are in line with the policies and the platforms of the Republican candidates,” Eric Harrison, the chairman of the Lynchburg Republican City Committee, said. “That hasn’t changed. It looks like voters may be changing elsewhere in the Commonwealth and that’s unfortunate.”
Lynchburg Democrats also found comfort in Tuesday’s results. Katie Webb Cyphert, the chair of the Lynchburg Democratic Committee, said the Democratic victory in the General Assembly opened a path toward redistricting, which could create competitive House and Senate districts in Central Virginia in the near future.
Cyphert said the long-term impact of the Trump presidency has motivated Democratic-leaning voters in ways other Republican presidents have not. Without the upswell in political interest, fielding a slate of candidates may not have been possible this year, she argued.
“I think people learned in 2016 that their vote matters,” Cyphert said, “... and we have that new mobilized force of people who want to not only make sure that they vote but also want to help their neighbors do the same.”
Tuesday’s turnout even rivaled the 46% figure seen in the 2017 gubernatorial election, when voters chose between then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and Republican Ed Gillespie. Northam stormed to victory in that race, besting Gillespie by nearly nine points. The race was seen by pundits as an indication Virginian voters were eager to reject Trump.
“Virginia is a relatively highly educated, diverse, and increasingly suburban polity,” Vincent Vecera, the chair of the Department of Political Science at Randolph College, said. “It doesn’t have enough of the right kind of voters to be well suited to Trump’s style of politics.”
Still, turnout in the largely rural counties outside Lynchburg propelled Republicans to victory. Vecera argued Trump’s presidency may be further polarizing urban and rural voters, who he said “are obviously enthusiastic about Trump.”
Further increasing turnout in rural areas surrounding Lynchburg were a slate of fiercely contested sheriff races, including three races without an incumbent on the ballot for the first time in several years.
Byron, who won reelection to a 12th term behind a wave of Republican support in Bedford County, credited her victory in part to Sheriff-Elect Mike Miller’s strong ground game in the county.
Miller, a Republican and longtime deputy, won the race with 53% of the vote. He defeated two independent candidates in a race that saw more votes than in any other sheriff’s race in the county in the last two decades. Miller is replacing current Sheriff Mike Brown, who is retiring after nearly a quarter century in the position.
“I do think the sheriff’s race was driving turnout and I think that benefited the Republicans as well,” Nate Boyer, chair of the Bedford County Republican Committee, said. “I think there’s no question the Miller campaign benefited everybody else.”
An open sheriff’s race also may have helped increase turnout in Campbell County, where voter participation jumped from 18% in 2015 to nearly 43%. A similar dynamic unfolded in neighboring Appomattox County, where voters chose between two first-time sheriff candidates. Turnout hit 51% in Appomattox County, a dramatic increase from 17% four years earlier.
In Amherst County, turnout increased 6%, from 40% in 2015 to 46% this year. Sheriff E.W. Viar easily dispatched three challengers in his first reelection bid by winning more than 62% of the vote.
Nelson County saw the highest voter turnout with 54% of voters participating in Tuesday’s election — an 11-point increase from 2015.
The surge in voters helped Sen. Creigh Deeds cruise to reelection and boosted the vote totals for two upstart Democrats who challenged Republicans in the 20th and the 59th House Districts, but came short of unseating the incumbents.
“We had terrific candidates who Democrats were very eager to work hard for and I think that’s reflected in the numbers,” Larry Stopper, the chairman of the Nelson County Democratic Committee, said. “We’re pleased with our showing, but to be honest with you, we want to have victory parties.”
Reach Richard Chumney at (434) 385-5547.