Virginia voters will render a judgment today on a question they haven’t faced in 20 years: Should we change which party controls the General Assembly?
Technically, of course, voters deal with this question every two years for the House of Delegates and every four years for the state Senate. As a practical matter, though, Virginia voters haven’t had this much power in their hands since 1999.
That was the year Republicans won control of the General Assembly for the first time since — well, it depends on how you do the counting. The Reconstruction-era Readjuster Party briefly controlled the General Assembly in the 1880s; its members were affiliated with the national Republican Party, although they didn’t actually call themselves that on the state level. In any case, after more than a century of Democratic control, Virginia voters handed both the House of Delegates and state Senate to Republicans in 1999 for the first time since either 1883 or maybe ever.
In the two decades since that realignment, the state Senate has flipped back and forth between parties, but the House has remained in Republican hands — usually firmly so. For awhile, Republicans held a two-thirds majority — maxing out at 67 seats to 32 Democrats and 1 independent. Effectively, that was 68 Republicans because the lone independent caucused with the GOP — the late Lacey Putney of Bedford County.
Two years ago, that all came crashing down. Depending on your political proclivities, you can either thank or blame Donald Trump. Virginia’s off-year legislative elections have historically seen a relatively small electorate, dominated by voters who are older, whiter and more conservative than the state at large — that benefited Republicans over Democrats. In the first Virginia elections since Trump became president, that changed. Suddenly people who had never voted in a General Assembly election turned out at the polls, and they elected so many Democrats that the party almost forced a tie in the House of Delegates. Only a random drawing to break a tie election in Newport News preserved the thinnest of Republican majorities — 51 to 49.
Now, here we are two years later, and the House is again on the ballot — along with the first state Senate elections of the Trump era. Democrats see the prospect of electing a Democratic General Assembly for the first time in two decades. Republicans — who have seen the Legislature as their rock upon which to ride out a succession of Democratic governors — suddenly see the prospect of being shut out of power completely.
It’s fair to say that today’s elections are important.
Both parties agree on this: A Democratic General Assembly would have different priorities than a Republican one. All those gun bills that Republicans routinely kill in committee would suddenly advance to the floor and almost certainly pass — and get signed into law by a Democratic governor. That’s just the beginning. Lots of other issues now dead on arrival in Richmond would find new life. Democrats are as thrilled by that prospect as Republicans are apoplectic. Keep in mind that today’s Democrats are quite different from their predecessors who last controlled the Legislature in the ’90s. They are more liberal and more Northern Virginian. If Democrats win, the new speaker of the House would surely be Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County, who would check off at least three historic boxes. Virginia has never had a female speaker or a Jewish speaker or one from the modern-day Washington suburbs. The last speaker from Northern Virginia was John Ryan of Loudoun County who served from 1901 to 1906 when that part of the state was agricultural. Historical note: That meant Ryan was speaker when Virginia enacted its odious state Constitution of 1902 that systematically disenfranchised as many African Americans and poor whites as possible.
Today’s election will have national implications, no matter what the outcome.
If Democrats win one or both houses, that will be seen as a major electoral rebuke of Trump. For better or worse, Virginia’s state elections have been “nationalized.” A survey by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy that concentrated on four competitive Senate districts found that 59% of voters say they’re less likely to vote for a candidate who supports Trump, and 54% say they’re more likely to vote for a candidate who backs impeachment.
Meanwhile, if Republicans manage to hang on, they’ll rightly be able to say that Democratic outrage about Trump doesn’t necessarily translate into victory even in a state that’s been trending blue — an important lesson for both parties going into the 2020 presidential election.
There’s also a third and even fourth scenario: Neither party wins, and we wind up with ties in one or both chambers. A tie in the Senate would still benefit Democrats, because Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax can break ties there. A tie in the House would force a power-sharing agreement because that chamber has no tie-breaking mechanism. A tie there also means Democrats wouldn’t be able to pass legislation unless there’s a Republican defector to create a majority.
Unfortunately for those of us west of the Blue Ridge, we’re mostly spectators to all this drama. There are some contested races in this part of the state, but they are mostly only formalities. Both parties are ruthlessly practical in distributing money, and neither has put much effort into challengers out here (mostly Democrats since most incumbents in this part of the state are Republicans). There’s little that partisans on either side out here can do to affect the outcome, barring some major upset that would confound everyone.
Instead, we must await the outcome of races in the places that now control Virginia’s destiny: the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. More specifically, these would be the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia in Loudoun, Prince William and western Fairfax counties as opposed to the inner suburbs of Arlington, Alexandria and eastern Fairfax County. The former are competitive, the latter now so thoroughly Democratic that many of them have no Republican candidates. Indeed, if you mapped the state’s uncontested legislative races, the two biggest blobs would be in inner Northern Virginia — and Southwest Virginia. There’s not much the two places have in common, but we do have that. Today, both will find themselves waiting to see whom a relative handful of voters elsewhere decide to put in charge of the state.