You have to play to win. That’s the message the lotteries have pumped out to keep customers scratching tickets, picking numbers and dropping money into the state’s coffers.

Some of those lottery officials should spread that message to Virginia’s political parties.

It’s hard to unseat an incumbent — ask any of the hundreds across the region and state who learned that lesson the hard way on Tuesday — but it’s infinitely more difficult to beat an incumbent if you don’t run anyone against them.

Of the 140 General Assembly seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s elections, almost a third were unopposed. Eleven seats in the Senate had no competition, and 31 in the House were uncontested.

Down ticket, the news was even more bleak. In Smyth and Washington counties, nine of 17 races in each county were uncontested. Those were the bright spots regionally. Bland featured two competitive races in a slate of 11. Wythe had six contested races out of 16 on the ballot. One race in Wythe, for a School Board seat, had no candidate. In Floyd, five of 15 races were uncontested. In Tazewell, six of 15 races were unopposed.

The numbers are shameful. While incumbents too often cruise to reelection with staggering ease — voters generally back “throwing the bums out” as long as they get to keep their bums — that shouldn’t excuse parties from at bare minimum ensuring that voters get a real choice in every single election.

We understand that many, perhaps even most, voters in Southwest Virginia aren’t worried that a handful of Republicans ran unopposed this go round. Democrats see those seats as locked and prefer not to waste money running a certain-to-lose campaign, just as Republicans don’t bother challenging in 24 other House districts.

The thing is, upsets sometimes happen. The point was proven on Tuesday when Ghazala Hashmi took a 10th District Senate win over Republican incumbent Glen Sturtevant. Or when Democrat Dan Helmer upset eight-term Delegate Tim Hugo. When Clint Jenkins toppled a Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and has been in Richmond since 1997, running uncontested for more than a decade. Or when Shelly Simonds got sweet revenge after losing by literally the luck of the draw two years ago.

We owe it to voters to provide real choices in every election, and we owe it to the democratic process to ensure that no one is ever anointed to a position.

There are certainly myriad factors that go into Northern Virginia being one of the richest places in the nation, not the least of which is Washington, D.C., being right next door. It is interesting to note, though, that the least competitive districts, the deep red and blue places on the map, are struggling with declining populations, decimated job prospects and a future that looks terrifyingly uncertain. Meanwhile Northern Virginia is characterized by elections that see party control flipping and candidates winning on razor-thin margins. Correlation isn’t causation, we know, but maybe we could will it to be. If nothing else, healthy competition keeps candidates honest, thinking about and articulating solutions to real issues in their districts, and that can’t be a bad thing.

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