We were reminded during the flurry last week of failed formulas to avoid another shutdown, that the one in 2013 coincided with the Virginia gubernatorial election of Terry McAuliffe. Republicans had wanted to defund the Affordable Care Act then (and ultimately failed), but a side effect of the 16-day shutdown was a higher turnout for the Democratic candidates. The off-year cycle of Virginia elections in this latest federal budgetary confrontation does not involve a governor, but it does involve the 140 seats (40 for the Senate and 100 for the House) of the Virginia legislative assembly.
At the very last minute on Saturday, September 30, the US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy essentially decided, as he himself expressed it, “There has to be an adult in the room…to govern with what is best for the country.” Surprisingly, he put forward a “continuing resolution” for what is described as a “clean stopgap funding bill” that ultimately passed with the support of 209 Democrats. That is to say, this bill had none of the budget cuts that Republicans had been pushing in other resolutions, leaving government spending at existing levels for the next 45 days, much to the delight of puzzled Democrats. But it also excluded additional funding for Ukraine, resulting in the one Democratic vote against the resolution in the House coming from the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus. (Apparently, this was what was needed for other Republicans, perhaps mostly in the Senate, to support the resolution.)
The same resolution quickly passed the Senate and was signed into law by President Biden before the midnight bewitching hour. Speaker McCarthy will face the wrath of his Freedom Caucus right-wingers (some 90 Republicans having voted against his resolution) and may lose his speakership. And, of course, the Biden Administration will have to mobilize separate legislation to continue funding Ukraine. And, furthermore, the Virginia elections will likely not be affected one way or the other by what happened here. As in 2013, a shutdown would have been blamed on the Republicans once again, and the fact that the stopgap measure had bipartisan support saved them from being held responsible.
One can speculate, though, that most Virginia Republicans and the big money supporting Governor Glenn Youngkin were very active in wooing Speaker McCarthy to avoid a shutdown, while that Freedom Caucus crew, clearly aligned with Donald Trump, would just as soon as seen him suffer a bit. Such is the internecine warfare underway within the Republican Party, it seems, that they would let the political havoc of a shutdown in a state like Virginia, with 170,000 federal employees and 130,000 military personnel, spill over into the legislative elections! I may be overstating this, but it is strange that even one of Virginia’s Republican Representatives Bob Goode was so loyal to this Freedom Caucus crew that he voted with them and not with his Virginia colleagues against the resolution. (His district in southwestern Virginia apparently has few of those federal employees or troops.)
The point here is that Governor Youngkin is being funded by all those anti-Trump Republican billionaires through his “Spirit of Virginia” PAC to sink massive amounts of money into these legislative races. If these resources help to produce Republican majorities in both the Virginia House (where he has had a slim majority) and the Virginia Senate (where a slim Democratic majority has blocked his Republican agenda) , he could not only do things like enact new restrictions on abortion rights, but elevate his visibility as an alternative to Trump. No wonder his second annual “Red Vest Reunion” is being held in mid-October in the famed Virginia Beach Cavalier Hotel – for all those Republican billionaires! One has to wonder why his PAC is financing such a big splash instead of directing all that money for the legislative races. But then, perhaps, the Republican funding has been so substantial in all the key races that they can’t absorb much more without looking ostentatious.
Democrats are emphasizing the abortion issue in their stateside strategy in support of their candidates. As the only “Southern” state that hasn’t restricted abortion rights since the 2022 Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade and opened it up for states to act independently, it is an important priority. Republicans are tackling the issue by supporting Governor Youngkin’s proposal for a 15-week ban with exceptions as if it is a modest proposal. We’ll take a look at some of the specific races, especially for the Senate – how the issue is being debated and what the political ads look like, including from both official and unofficial sources.
Another hot issue, of course, is the way transgender concerns are being addressed in local school boards. While this may not have a direct impact on the state legislative elections, there are parallel school board elections under way. So more will be written on this one, too. Clearly, the very open and lively way that Virginia’s elections are being contested on these issues (and others, of course) is what democracy is all about. Nonetheless, they are high-risk issues for a political system in turmoil nationally.