Democrats are poised to take control of both of Virginia’s state legislative chambers on Tuesday, bringing the state under unified Democratic control for the first time in a quarter century.
The party needs to pick up three seats in the House of Delegates and two seats in the state Senate to take control of both chambers. Polling indicates that those margins are well within Democrats’ reach.
Democratic takeovers in both legislative chambers would have far-reaching implications for the state’s policies and politics. The party, which also controls the governor’s office, would have the chance to pursue a host of liberal priorities like an increase in the state’s minimum wage, laws protecting LGBTQ rights and abortion rights and tougher gun safety regulations.
It would also mark the culmination of Virginia’s yearslong transformation from a conservative state ― which once was the seat of the Confederacy ― to a progressive one that is not only reliably Democratic in presidential elections, but whose state politics are heavily influenced by a cohort of liberal Democrats that would have been unrecognizable even a decade ago.
“This could be a watershed election for Virginia,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the center for public policy at Christopher Newport University.
And don’t expect the Democrats in Virginia to be moderate quasi-Republicans. The state party has been winning its elections with candidates who are more progressive than the traditional Southern Democrats, touting policies like gun control.
“There will still be [Southern-style] Democrats in Virginia after November 5,” Kidd said, putting Gov. Ralph Northam (D) himself in that category. “But if Democrats win it will because of Democrats who are” more liberal.
Policies On The Ballot
Many of the top priorities for Democrats once in power would be the sort of socially liberal reforms for which there is broad support in the increasingly affluent, suburban state.
Tougher gun regulations would almost certainly swiftly become law. In the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12 people in May, Northam sought to pass a package of reforms to close background check loopholes for private sales and transfers and forbid the sale of assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and silencers, among other things. The Republican-controlled legislative chambers blocked the measures in a special legislative session in July.
Legislation aimed at protecting LGBTQ residents from discrimination is also likely to pass very quickly. Two bills explicitly barring LGBTQ discrimination in housing and government employment passed the GOP-controlled state Senate in January and had vocal support from enough Republicans in the House to suggest they would pass there if put up for a vote. But the following month, Republican leaders in the House denied the two bills hearings or the chance for a floor vote.
The legislative victory will be especially poetic for Democrats if Danica Roem, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker and a first-termer seeking reelection, is one of the legislators casting the deciding vote.
Republican Kelley McGinn, Roem’s challenger and an opponent of LGBTQ adoption, has sold her candidacy as an opportunity to “send in a mom,” of which she said the legislature needs more.
When Roem responded at a debate last month that she is a mom as well, the Prince William County Republican Party questioned her right to call herself that in a tweet it later deleted.
“LGBTQ rights are on the ballot,” said Lucas Acosta, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, which has contributed over $41,000 to Roem’s reelection and tens of thousands more on other Democrats. “Literally, it will take a flip of two seats and new leadership in the House of Delegates and the state Senate for LGBTQ residents to have the most basic protections.”
Virginia Democrats would have the chance to adopt more expansive protections for abortion rights and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But both the fate of the former, and the impact of the latter, are unclear. A Democratic bill making it easier to, among other things, get an abortion in the third trimester of pregnancy lost considerable Democratic support amid false claims from Republicans that it would legalize infanticide.
Virginia would be the 38th state to ratify the ERA, which aims to enshrine gender equity in the U.S. Constitution and thus provide new legal backing for women’s rights crusaders. Virginia’s ratification would make it the final state needed to actually amend the Constitution. But the immediate effect of its ratification would be symbolic. For it to take effect, Congress would need to repeal or revise a law specifying 1982 as the deadline for ratification, and some states that have withdrawn their ratifications of the amendment would have to be pushed to reverse their votes.
A New ‘Virginia Way’?
What makes this potential Democratic takeover different from previous legislative wins is that in addition to socially liberal legislation, the party is seriously considering bills that run counter to the state’s mighty business establishment. The clubby, ethically lax and business-friendly consensus in both parties is so ingrained in the state’s political culture, it has its own name: the “Virginia Way.”
But this time, not only have Democrats vowed to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour, many are also on record in support of repealing the state’s anti-union “right-to-work” law. Virginia was one of the first states in the country to adopt a law barring unions from compelling the workers it represents to contribute dues.
States with right-to-work laws almost all have weaker unions and lower average wages, but such laws have long been the norm in Southern states, which see them as essential to attracting business investment.
Kidd, the CNU academic, said he was shocked to find candidates in contentious elections embracing the idea of repealing “right to work,” which would have been anathema in Virginia until very recently.
“It could very well be the case that Virginia cements itself politically as a mid-Atlantic state after November 5.”
“We’ve been saying since 2008 that Virginia’s been trending purple, trending blue,” he said. “It could very well be the case that Virginia cements itself politically as a mid-Atlantic state after November 5.”
Another sign of the shifting consensus against big business is a greater appetite among Democrats to take on the state’s twin monopoly electric companies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
Forty incumbent Democrats and 47 challengers have pledged not to accept campaign contributions from the two monopolies or own stock in them, according to the progressive nonprofit Clean Virginia, which is seeking to combat their power.
Whether and how much a Democratic legislature is willing to act to combat climate change is likely to depend in particular on lawmakers’ willingness to buck Dominion, long one of the state’s most deep-pocketed campaign donors.
Democrats are likely to enter Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a consortium of largely progressive states that have voluntarily adopted tougher greenhouse gas reductions than are required by the federal government.
With the support of Dominion and Appalachian, Northam has proposed a clean energy standard that would make the state 100% carbon-free by 2050.
But some environmental advocates argue that the deadline for decarbonization is too late. Others worry that climate policies that fail to confront the monopolies’ power will simply extend their dominance into emerging renewable energy sectors, while hurting ratepayers and suppressing the sort of clean energy entrepreneurship that would help Virginia hit its climate targets sooner and more effectively.
“The idea that renewables, which are inevitable and should be mandatory, only come by a utility that has abused its monopoly is a false argument and one that Virginians should reject on the face of it,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia.
Suburban Tides Turning
The explosion of the state’s northern suburbs outside Washington brought an influx of highly educated and racially diverse voters more likely to vote Democratic. As a result, Republicans have been losing ground in Virginia for the better part of a decade; their last statewide wins were in 2009.
The election of President Donald Trump, who lost Virginia by 5 percentage points and repelled many of the educated professionals from the business-friendly wing of the state’s Republican Party, turbocharged that trend.
The liberal anti-Trump “Resistance” raged as hot in Virginia as any state in the country, sparking a major uptick in candidates for elected office, young voter participation and volunteer door-knocking. What’s more, the exodus of socially liberal, suburban Republicans from the GOP in the Trump era created a vicious cycle wherein the state’s party increasingly catered to a right-wing populist base that further alienated it from swing voters.
The result was a wave election in November 2017 that was the first real demonstration of Trump’s toxicity in battleground states. Democrats easily held Virginia’s governorship and flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates. The contest for a 16th seat, which would have handed Democrats control of the chamber, ended in a tie broken with the drawing of a name from a bowl, which kept the seat in Republican hands.
Nonetheless, the enthusiasm didn’t let up. In November 2018, Virginia Democrats continued to capitalize on suburban discontent with the president, flipping three Republican-held U.S. House seats.
“Democratic enthusiasm is as high as it was in 2017 in Virginia.”
This year, Democrats got a hand from the federal judiciary. In January, a federal court ordered a redrawing of Virginia’s House of Delegates districts on the grounds that Republicans had violated the civil rights of the state’s Democratic-leaning Black population by clustering them in a small number of districts to dilute their electoral power. The changes moved six incumbent Republicans, including Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, into districts where voters with a history of voting for Democrats make up a majority of residents. Cox, who represents parts of the Richmond suburbs, is facing a serious challenge from the businesswoman Sheila Bynum-Coleman, who is Black.
Indeed, just as the 2017 class of victorious Virginia House Democrats featured several barrier breakers, many of this year’s Democratic candidates hail from diverse backgrounds. Candidates Ghazala Hashmi, a university educator, and Qasim Rashid, an attorney, would both be the first Muslims in the state Senate. (The House of Delegates is already home to two Muslim lawmakers.)
The prospect of losing their influence in Virginia has Republicans understandably spooked. If they lose their last bastions of power there, they are not entitled to have a say in the statewide redistricting process in 2021 after the next national census.
Republicans are at pains to settle on the right tactics to repel the Democratic onslaught. Some Republican incumbents and candidates have, at times, sought to appeal to moderate voters by highlighting cooperation with Northam on initiatives like the state’s recent Medicaid expansion.
In the final stretch, though, some of those same lawmakers and candidates have emulated the model of unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie: pairing even-keeled campaign-trail rhetoric with race-baiting, partisan red meat designed to rev up the party’s rural base.
The strategy has been at least somewhat effective, according to Kidd.
“Democratic enthusiasm is as high as it was in 2017 in Virginia,” he said. “What’s different this cycle is I do also detect an uptick in Republican enthusiasm.”
When Virginia voted for Barack Obama in 2008, it was the first time the state had voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964.
Some observers characterized that outcome as Virginia’s de facto political secession from the South, Kidd recalled.
Flipping the legislature this year with a more diverse, more progressive group of Democrats, he said, “would be a reaffirmation of that secession from the South ― and it would be on the shoulders of a newer America.”