In the Final Days of the Virginia Elections

In these last few days before Election Day in Virginia (Tuesday, November 7th), I have the impression that democracy is alive and well in this part of the world. One can lament the enormous and unrestricted amount of money that has gone into the 140 state legislative races for the Virginia General Assembly, as well as the barrage of negative advertising by or on behalf of many of the candidates, especially in the hotly contested districts. But it is a truly competitive election, thanks to the involvement of the media and civil society groups and academic commentators in publicizing where all that money is coming from and how the candidates are positioning themselves on the issues. I am impressed.

The state legislative races in Virginia are among a relatively small number of elections in various states throughout the US in this typically “off” year for American elections. But Virginia has attracted heightened interest because it is viewed as a Southern state that has yet to cave in on an anti-abortion agenda among all the rest of the states classified as “Southern”. (One can be thankful that it is not as “Southern” as the rest, even if historically it is where the Confederacy had its capital and where resistance to civil rights remained entrenched, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1965.) Current pundits have been classifying it as a state that has run from red (a color dominated today by Republican dominance) to blue (Democratic dominance) and back to purple (competitive and maybe even running back to red).

The fact that the state’s voters, who had moved to voting mostly blue in 2019,  elected a Republican as governor and a lower house majority in 2021 has made all of this highly significant for the future of democracy. The Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, has maneuvered a “not-anti-Trump” stance in national Republican politics to be the prospective golden goose for anti-Trump Republicans. Lots of wealthy Republicans have filled the coffers of his “Spirit of Virginia” PAC to underwrite his continuing in this role. With 100 seats for two-year positions in the House and 40 seats for four-year positions in the Senate currently at stake in 2023, he needs a simple majority in the House and at least an even split in the Senate (where the Republican lieutenant governor could deliver a majority) for his Republican platform to be enacted, including on abortion.

The redistricting for these seats that typically occurs every ten years following a national census, had been carried out in an unusually non-partisan way for this particular round of elections. It has resulted in an unusually large number of open seats (i.e. with no incumbents).  This has been reflected in the polls showing a competitive race in several pivotal districts for both House and Senate.  The old House had a simple Republican majority, and the old Senate had a simple Democratic majority. Either house could go either way, it seems.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Virginia scene is the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), with its mission to provide nonpartisan information about politics. It started operating in 1997 as a joint effort by the five leading newspapers in Virginia to track political contributions. Its specialty is providing detailed donor information for every candidate in every election, plus information on how the candidates are spending that money. But it has  expanded since then to provide a variety of services, including a steady “Political News” flow of all the political news across the state. I have noted that it had maintained its nonpartisan character by having a board that is drawn from the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties in Virginia.

On the spending front, VPAP maintains updated information on total contributions for Senate and House races by donor and by candidate, as well as how much is being spent by each candidate for what.  Their most recent report shows what was raised in the course of the latest month of October – $12.7 million for Senate Democrats versus $10.6 million for Senate Republicans; and $14.2 million for House Democrats versus $8.4 million for House Republicans. The largest donors include corporations (Dominion Energy, a corporation), NGOs (the Clean Virginia Fund, mostly financed by one individual), PACs (Governor Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia and others affiliated with either Republicans of Democrats) and individuals (the wife of the Clean Virginia financier and others with particular interests), as well as the two political parties.  The very loose campaign finance laws in Virginia seem to benefit Democrats more than Republicans, but it is certainly the case that both sides have mobilized far more resources than in recent history.

For the current legislative elections, VPAP has also used a neutral methodology to identify the most contested elections in this cycle (seven in the House and four in the Senate).  Focusing on the Senate where the maintenance of Democratic control is recognized to be the most relevant, there are 11 out of the 40 seats where there is no incumbent running.  Some of those, however, are either strongly Democratic or strongly  Republican in recent trends. So the VPAP’s list of four to be of interest – one in northern Virginia (Loudoun County), one along the coast (Newport News) area for one and southeast of there for the other) and one in the area around Fredericksburg.  That is to say, all four are suburban districts where the voters are pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. We’ll keep an eye on all four (plus at least one more that has become noticeably competitive) and report the results next week.

Along with monitoring VPAP, one can conclude that the media are doing well in drawing on the commentaries of academic experts, of which Virginia seems to have a goodly number. I have long been familiar with the excellent political analysis of Larry Sabato and his Crystal Ball at Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, but I have also become acquainted with many others – Stephen  Farnsworth at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, Mark Rozell at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and others at the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech, VCU, Roanoke College and Christopher Newport University. Along with the excellent reporting at the Washington Post, the Richmond Times Dispatch, Axios, Virginia and Cardinal News, the coverage of the legislative races is unusually solid. And national media have also picked up on the pivotal potential of Virginia’s legislative elections.

As previously noted in earlier commentaries, the Democratic candidates have been emphasizing the importance of defending against restrictions on a woman’s right to abortions.  Many independent entities (e.g. the ACLU and Women Speak Out Virginia) are spending extra money on independent advertising on this issue, both for and against. In fact, Governor Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC has been running ads on why his proposal to restrict abortions is a reasonable one (that 15 weeks limitation with a few exceptions)  rather than one that could be far more restrictive as has happened in many other Southern states. Other issues are relevant but less prominent than this one – such as parental rights in education, lowering or not lowering taxes, security, gun rights, climate change and so forth. Negative advertising has also been rampant.

Whether the state moves forward or falls back on these key issues (especially abortion) may affect both what happens in Virginia and what happens in the national elections in 2024. On the whole, though, I see this election cycle in Virginia to be encouragingly (small d) democratic.  I am hopeful, of course, that the voters will support Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate. And I recognize that, even if the results are to the contrary (and therefore worrisome for their national implications), they will still be (small d) democratically legitimate.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply