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Surge in Absentee Ballots Could Foreshadow Huge Midterm Turnout, Endanger Vihstadt’s Re-Election Bid

(Updated at 4:35 p.m.) Arlington voters seem ready to flood the polls in record numbers on Nov. 6, with early turnout numbers presaging a “blue wave” that could — potentially — wipe independent County Board member John Vihstadt out of office.

New figures compiled by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project show that the county has seen a 114 percent increase in the number of absentee ballots cast through Wednesday (Oct. 17), compared to the same time last year. The county’s surge to 4,236 ballots cast, compared to 1,976 a year ago, mirrors similarly boosts around the state.

While absentee voting can be an imperfect measure of Election Day enthusiasm, the numbers in Arlington are strong enough to convince some observers that the county could see huge turnout levels for the midterm elections. Former county treasurer Frank O’Leary, a close watcher of Arlington elections, projects that the current absentee numbers are robust enough that the county sees as many as 95,000 votes cast next month.

That figure would be higher than what the county might expect in a midterm election with a Senate seat on the ballot, without a heavily Democratic electorate itching to send a message to President Donald Trump. It would be close to 10,000 votes more than the 85,300 people who turned out for last year’s closely watched governor’s race that swept Democrat Ralph Northam into office with a hefty victory.

Given Arlington’s overwhelmingly blue political complexion, O’Leary expects “at greater levels of turnout, the blue tide will become increasingly the determining factor” in down-ballot races. That includes Vihstadt’s contest with Democratic challenger Matt de Ferranti, who is hoping to return the Board to unified Democratic control after Vihstadt won a pair of upset victories back in 2014.

O’Leary notes that turnout in the county was severely depressed six years ago, when Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) very nearly lost to Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrats took a beating nationwide, and he doesn’t expect those conditions to repeat themselves this time around.

The county lacks a competitive race in the 8th Congressional District, but with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine up for re-election against Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, a politician disavowed by members of both parties for his frequent embrace of white nationalists and the Confederate flag, O’Leary expects that “an expanded electorate coupled with an odious opponent will net Tim Kaine more than 80 percent of the Arlington vote.”

While O’Leary notes that Vihstadt benefits from the “advantage of incumbency, name recognition, and the support of a number of prominent Democratic elected office holders and the benefit of a well-organized, highly-focused campaign,” he also expects that some of the galvanizing issues Vihstadt seized on in his 2014 bid — the Columbia Pike streetcar and “million-dollar bus stops” among them — aren’t as relevant this time around. It doesn’t help, either, that Vihstadt will have to contend with “a re-vamped (and equally determined) Democratic Party structure” and “the curse of ‘The Donald.'”

“In the event that total turnout exceeds 88,000 (with 75,000 or more votes cast in the County Board race), [Matt] de Ferranti will defeat John Vihstadt and win election to the County Board,” O’Leary predicted.

“Mr. Vihstadt starts with a proven base of 35,000, de Ferranti, perhaps 27,500. (That totals 62,500.) Thereafter, at greater levels of turnout, the blue tide will become increasingly the determining factor,” he explained.

Of course, Vihstadt has out-fundraised de Ferranti so far, and some Democrats remain concerned that the challenger has done little to separate himself from his opponent. For his part, the independent remains confident that he can once again shock the county’s political establishment this year.

“I was the underdog in 2014 and may be again this year,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “I wasn’t supposed to win in the first place, but Arlingtonians proved that they are sophisticated voters. As I knock on doors across Arlington, people, regardless of partisanship at the federal and state levels, say they value the balance and independence that I bring to local government. I’m confident that my purple tugboat will survive the blue wave.”

Flickr pool photo via wolfkann

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