Slim Democratic Majorities in Virginia

The outcome of the state legislative elections in Virginia, held on Tuesday, 6 November 2023, produced narrow majorities for the Democrats in both houses of the General Assembly. In contrast to the alarming polarization and the populist takeover of one of the major political parties at the national level, this is an encouraging example of democracy in action. I include this chronicling of Virginia’s politics from afar in this series on “Democracy under Threat” with a bit of optimism while also recognizing the worrisome undercurrents that are evident even in Virginia.

As part of this series on democracy, then, I look at Virginia’s results in a relatively positive light. But I do start here with a cautionary  note.  The impartial redistricting of electoral districts following the 2020 census resulted in an unusually large number of open districts (that is, without an incumbent) – some 10 out of 40 for the state’s Senate and 41 out of 100 for the House of Delegates.  Nonetheless, most of the districts favored one or the other party. As identified by the well regarded Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), the Democrats had more safe seats (20 in the Senate and 48 in the House either strongly Democratic or leaning that way) than the Republicans (16 Senate and 45 House seats leaning or strongly Republican).  In these districts, the outcome was determined within each party (whether by primary or other party choice). Only small parts of Virginia, then, had truly competitive districts . VPAP’s data showed four competitive seats for the Senate and seven for the House.

Thus, the focus was on only a few truly competitive districts.  Fair enough, it still made for statewide competition regarding which party would control either or both house(s). Under the previous districts, Democrats held a slim majority of 22 to 18 in the Senate, and Republicans held a slim majority of 48 to 46  (with six seats – four held by Republicans and two by Democrats –  having become vacant).  Essentially, both houses were up for grabs, but early assumptions were that the House would likely stay Republican while Democrats were especially worried about losing the Senate.  Huge sums of money were therefore spent by both parties, especially showing up in the four competitive Senate districts but also in the seven House districts.  The election results were a welcome relief for the Democrats in the Senate, hanging on to a 21 to 19 majority but with a loss of one; and a welcome surprise turnover in the House for a slim 51 to 49 Democratic majority there as well.

It would have been nice to have obtained more substantial majorities to secure Democratic control, but OK.  The most important objective was to counter what analysts were describing as the possibility of a “trifecta”, where the governor and both legislative branches are of the same party. (This concept is irrelevant in most parliamentary democracies, where a legislative body elects the head of the executive branch. But it is commonly used now in the United States, adapted from the horse racing term (trifecta) which has an entirely different meaning.)  In Virginia, then, the Republican governor, who had been elected in 2021 after a previous eight years of Democratic governors, had been advancing his Republican agenda with a Republican House but was blocked by the Democratic Senate. If both houses had gone Republican, he would have had a trifecta to push through his Republican agenda without any effective opposition.

The main worry, besides the desirability in general of a Democratic legislative majority in these fraught times, was the Republican governor’s platform on abortion. The two parties differed on other important issues as well (jobs, inflation, crime and law enforcement but also transgender policies in schools, parental control of educational curricula, gun control- a long list),  but the prominent issue was abortion. As pointed out in previous commentaries in this series, the US  Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade in 2022 had opened up a can of worms for states to deviate one way or the other on abortion rights. Dramatically different positions have been taken by Democrats on “free choice” for women versus Republicans associated with  “right to life” for fetuses. All other “Southern” states other than Virginia had adopted highly restrictive abortion laws,

National and state Democratic strategists and the Democratic legislative candidates in Virginia made this their top campaign issue to protect the provisions of Virginia’s existing law on abortions. The Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, on the other hand, pursued a strategy of publicizing what he described as a moderate compromise to legislate a more restrictive law but not a ban. His “Spirit of Virginia” PAC raised large sums of money and used much of it to emphasize how reasonable his proposal was . Early in the campaign, it caused Democrats to be worried about being overwhelmed financially by a governor with national ambitions. In the end, the Democrats raised more than Governor Youngkin or his Republican allies. And they used it to good effect on broadly advertising their commitment to protect current law while pointing out that Republicans could easily ramp up restrictions or even ban abortions as they had done in other states, especially in the rest of the South.

That same VPAP that indexed the competitive and noncompetitive districts has played a useful role in tallying the record amounts of money that went into these legislative campaigns. The dramatic increases were driven by the national implications on abortion policy, but they also had something to do with Governor Youngkin’s national ambitions, whether for a presidential run in 2028 or for a challenge to Trump in 2024. The election outcomes certainly burst that bubble for the Governor – at least in the short term. He is, to be sure, a figure to contend with in Virginia. Those narrow Democratic majorities make it difficult to override any likely veto for any progressive legislation on things like raising the minimum wage or recognizing collective bargaining or improving any gun control. But on the abortion front, of course, the objective was to keep existing law in place.

The narrow majorities, though, do merit some additional remarks on at least two other matters of concern.  One is that the Republican Party did pursue a strategy modeled on Governor Youngkin’s 2021 success, and it seemed to work rather well in those four competitive Senate and seven competitive House seats. Three elements of that strategy are particularly noteworthy – the unusual (for Republicans) push on early voting, their readiness to target diverse minority groups that have traditionally voted Democratic, and that moderate tone on abortions that was geared to college-educated suburban women voters. Republican strategists are featuring these three elements as part of a longer-term strategy, pointing out that they can make a difference where vote margins are small.

In 2024, furthermore, there is likely to be a lot of uncertainty in presidential politics and spillover effect on Congressional races. Fortunately, Senator Tim Kaine is running for re-election, and he is not likely to have any stiff Republican competition. Governor Youngkin is a possible contender but more likely to aim for Senator Mark Warner’s seat in 2026. But three House districts are likely to be hotly contested – two currently in Democratic hands in northern Virginia and one held by a Republican in the Virginia Beach area. Quite a number of Democratic state legislators are announcing their candidacies for the two in northern Virginia, and one can expect them to be actively campaigning through to the June primaries. Whoever wins in those primaries may produce vacancies in their state legislative positions.

My second concern, then, is that the narrow majorities in the state legislature may also be subject to special elections in 2024 where Republican strategies can be played out in an environment that may be less hospitable to Democrats. It is hard to imagine that Virginia would shift so dramatically away from the ten-point margin when President Biden carried the state in 2020.  But one can worry about what looks like a defensive strategy among Democrats holding onto their loyal voting groups when polling is already suggesting lower levels of enthusiasm among these groups.  Those narrow majorities and the fluidity of the political scene do make for a challenging future in Virginia.

To wrap up here, I am cautiously optimistic about democracy in Virginia. From my outside perspective, I have learned so much about the competitiveness and transparency of Virginia’s political processes. But I understand that national trends are also important. The chaotic nature of Congressional Republicans and the populist hold on the Republican Party are as alarming as ever. So I will be continue to pursue this series on “democracy under threat” with an appreciation for what works to uphold democratic values and practices and a hope that they can prevail against the threats that are clearly there.

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