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Virginia Tips Blue as Democrats Flip General Assembly

Democrats react to the statewide wins.
(Photo: Crixell Matthews)
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Family voting together (Photo: Crixell Matthews)
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*Whittney Evans and Yasmine Jumaa contributed to this story.

Democrats flipped both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly on Tuesday, giving them total control of the levers of state government for the first time since 1993.

Key races in suburban Richmond tracked with the rest of the state, with Democrats flipping several seats currently held by Republicans 

It was an outcome that would have been unthinkable just four years ago, when Democrats controlled roughly a third of seats in the House of Delegates. They were helped by a 2018 federal court ruling that overturned 11 districts for racial gerrymandering and ordered them redrawn.

In an indicator of the political mood, a rematch of the race that ended in a tie in 2017, when it was famously decided by drawing a name from a bowl to hand Republicans control of the House of Delegates, Democrat Shelly Simonds defeated incumbent Republican David Yancey by over 17% on Tuesday.

At an energetic party in downtown Richmond, Democratic lawmakers vowed to make good on a backlog of policy proposals and campaign promises on issues ranging from gun control to ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.

House minority Eileen Filler-Corn vowed to make Virginia “the envy of the country.” 

“We’re going to make this damn thing work,” said Senate minority leader Dick Saslaw. “And we’re going to make sure we never go back to the minority again.”

Although Saslaw later said he was referring to the persuasiveness of Democratic policies, the party’s lawmakers will now control the rules for drawing new legislative and Congressional boundaries after the 2020 Census. Lawmakers will decide next year whether to pass a constitutional amendment that would turn the process over to a redistricting committee, or draw the maps themselves.

For Republicans, the election drove home the party’s challenge in courting voters outside of their rural base; the party hasn’t won’t a statewide election since 2009. The GOP relinquished at least five House seats and two Senate seats at the time of press.

That includes the seat held by one of it’s most powerful members, Delegate Chris Jones of Suffolk, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations committee. Jones served in the legislature since 1998 but his district was recently redrawn to include more African American voters. He ultimately lost to his Democratic challenger, Clint Jenkins, by a double-digit margin.

And in a striking example of shifting demographics, Tim Hugo, the final Republican delegate from northern Virginia, lost his seat to Democrat Dan Helmer.

There was one major bright spot for the GOP; Speaker of the House Kirk Cox won decisively in a newly-redrawn, Democratic-leaning district in a race where the candidates collectively raised over $3 million.

In a statement, Cox praised Republican accomplishments during their two decades in power in the House, including balanced budgets, teacher pay raises, and a AAA bond rating.

“Voters will have the opportunity soon to judge those elected based on their policies and results, not just promises and rhetoric of campaign season,” Cox said.

Photo: Whittney Evans
Kirk Cox addresses supporters. (Photo: Whittney Evans)

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert took it a step farther.

“Virginians should expect public policies that look a lot more like the train-wreck that is California than the Virginia of good fiscal management and common-sense conservative governance,” he said in a statement.

The 2019 races were a wallet-busting spending spree on both sides of the aisle, though Democrats held an overall edge through September. A record 21 candidates raised over $1 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In some state senate races, candidates raised over $2.5 million — more than some Congressional candidates.

Some of the most expensive and closely watched races occurred in the Richmond area.

In Henrico, incumbent Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant appeared to have edged out Del. Debra Rodman in the 12th senate district by less than 2,000 votes. The two candidates spent over $1 million apiece on TV spending alone. And Republican Glen Sturtevant succumbed to Democrat Ghazala Hashmi in another spendy race.

Richmond area Democratic candidates Dawn Adams, Schuyler VanValkenburg and Rodney Willet all won their respective House races. 

Democrats coordinated with national liberal groups like the League of Conservation Voters and Everytown for Gun Safety as well as the Democratic Party of Virginia, the House and Senate Caucuses, and Gov. Ralph Northam’s political action committee. The groups shared polling and campaign strategy and collectively claimed to have knocked on two million doors by election day, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Republican candidates, meanwhile, drew most heavily from the national Republican Party via the Republican State Leadership Committee, according to VPAP.

The president’s unpopularity in Virginia has stymied Republican efforts to win over the state’s diversifying suburbs; a September poll from the University of Mary Washington found 54% of voters disapproved of his job in office, while a poll from Christopher Newport University of four key state senate districts found that 59% of voters there were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported Trump.

But Virginia’s off-off year elections generally suffer from low turnout that tends to favor Republicans, whose voters turn up more reliably. Democrats saw increasing turnout as key to their electoral odds.

There were early signs of success for those efforts. Voter registration was up over 55% from similar elections in 2016.

And voters cast nearly 136,000 absentee ballots as of Monday morning, doubling the totals from similar elections in 2015 and eclipsing highs from the generally higher-turnout 2013 gubernatorial races and 2014 midterms.  An analysis from VPAP found that absentee voters skewed slightly Democratic.

The wins help continue a turnaround for Governor Ralph Northam, who just 9 months ago was a pariah of the party after a racist photo surfaced from his medical school yearbook photo. The Eastern Shore doctor now finds himself with more power than any Democratic governor in the last 25 years.

“Tomorrow, the work begins,” Northam said. “Tonight it’s time to celebrate.”

The Democrats’ win shows that Virginia is becoming more consistently blue rather than a swing state, according to political analyst Bob Holsworth. And it could move the center of state policy debates to lawmakers within the Democratic Party.

“There'll be a debate that will emerge inside the Democratic Party between the progressives and the more moderate, pro-business wing of the Democrats that has often been in control,” Holsworth predicted. “Governor Northam in some instances may be the moderate break on some of the progressive tendencies in the Democratic Party.”