Democrats took over both chambers of the Virginia legislature on Tuesday, ensuring the party unified control of the state’s government for the first time in over one-quarter of a century.
Since Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who was not on the ballot this year, is also a Democrat, the party now has what’s known as a trifecta in the state, clearing the way for passage of a number of progressive priorities that Republicans had stalled.
Democrats plan to move swiftly to pass tougher gun safety regulations, protections against discrimination for LGBTQ residents, and an increase in the minimum wage. The legislature is also likely to pursue action on climate change and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ― a key step on the way to the adoption of a national legal standard enshrining gender equity.
Although President Donald Trump, whose approval rating is just 37% in Virginia, was not on the ballot, dissatisfaction with his presidency has fueled opposition to the state’s Republicans, according to Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s center for public policy.
“We all could see the tidal wave coming five months ago and this is the result of it. The anti-Trump energy has never receded in Virginia,” he said. “You can give Donald Trump a lot of credit for Democrats basically owning the commonwealth of Virginia right now.”
Democrats’ consolidation of power in Virginia marks the culmination of a transition that has been underway for decades, spurred first by growth in the highly educated suburbs in northern Virginia and accelerated in other suburban areas by Trump’s election in 2016.
When Virginia voted for Barack Obama in 2008, it was the first time it had backed a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. The Old Dominion is now reliably Democratic in presidential elections, and Democrats make up a majority of its U.S. House seats.
Control of the General Assembly, as the state’s legislature is known, has particularly far-reaching implications, however.
Democrats will now dictate the terms of the redistricting process in the state in 2021 after the U.S. census in 2020. Unified Republican control of state government after the 2010 census allowed it to engage in partisan gerrymandering of both the congressional and state legislative districts. (A federal court ruling in January that forced the redrawing of state House district boundaries benefited Democrats by shifting several Republican incumbents into areas with more Democratic voters.)
In addition to opening the door to passage of some broad-consensus Democratic policies, the new Democratic legislative majority in Virginia is of a qualitatively more progressive ― and diverse ― character than previous iterations of the state party. For example, no fewer than 87 of the Democrats on the ballot on Tuesday pledged not to accept campaign contributions from the state’s infamously powerful electric utility monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
The night’s Democratic winners included the legislature’s first Muslim woman, state Sen.-elect Ghazala Hashmi. Del. Danica Roem, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, was reelected, as was Del. Lee Carter, a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Some Republicans sought to capitalize on this progressive turn by, among other things, tying candidates to the “extreme socialist” agenda of left-wing members of Congress.
They also sought to taint some Democrats with the air of scandal surrounding the state’s top two Democratic officials, Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. The party was rocked by the revelations in February that Northam had worn blackface as a young man and that Fairfax stands accused of sexual assault, which he denies.
But thanks to the national political climate and an infusion of cash from major liberal groups, those attacks were not enough to maintain Republicans’ last political foothold in the state.
“The implications nationally there are pretty gloomy for Republicans,” Kidd said. “Democrats did really well in suburban areas that used to be battlegrounds. Those areas look a lot like a lot of suburbs in the rest of the country.”
This story has been updated with more election results.