If Virginia Democrats were to ask me about their chances of holding the majority in the House of Delegates this fall, I would say, “don’t be overconfident because it’s not going to be that easy this time around.”
2017 and 2019 were banner years for the Democrats in Virginia. In 2017, although not winning a majority of the seats in the General Assembly’s lower chamber, they took the GOP’s super majority down to a one-vote edge. It was the most seats gained by either party since 1899. In 2019, they picked off six more Republicans in the House and secured a solid working majority. In the Senate, which is elected every four years as opposed to the House’s two-year terms, they won a one-seat majority.
For the first time in 25 years, Virginia Democrats held not only both houses of the General Assembly but also the Governor’s Mansion. It is what political watchers call a “trifecta,” and Democrats, with a long list of liberal policies that had been batted down by Republicans for more than a generation, went to work with a vengeance.
The pace, for a state known for its steady-as-she-goes approach to governing, was staggering. Progressive, or liberal, policies – whichever term you prefer – were enacted one after another: allowing localities to remove Confederate monuments without statewide approval, approving the Equal Rights Amendment, enacting “red flag” laws on gun ownership, re-enacting the one-gun-a-month law, establishing new rules on no-excuses absentee voting, expanding Medicaid access under the Affordable Care Act (which actually was approved during the prior session), and passing less restrictive laws on abortion, including lifting requirements for an ultrasound and a 24-waiting period and required counseling.
It was a liberal’s heaven. But will it last into 2021?
The answer, to sound like a true equivocator, is maybe yes and maybe no. For one thing, the dynamics of election 2021 are going to be different. Democrats benefited heavily in 2017 and 2019 by the strong anti-Trump sentiment in Northern Virginia, the Richmond suburbs (historically not that Democratic, but things seem to have changed) and the area around Norfolk and Newport News.
Take away the Trump factor, which is likely to wane, and face a reasonably acceptable candidate for governor, along with mainstream Republicans in swing districts (there are some 12 districts that could be considered swayable), and the Democrats may have a problem. They have only a five-seat majority.
Also, the list of Democratic victories in 2019 included several close races. Democratic success was highly turnout-dependent, and 2017 and 2019 were the only opportunities voters had to voice their disapproval of the Trump presidency. That made these two off-year elections high-turnout affairs.
There is one other thing Democrats need to remember and Republicans probably haven’t forgotten. Because Virginia’s new redistricting commission is behind in its work, due to delays in census data, the districts will be the same gerrymandered seats the GOP created 10 years ago. The demographics have changed, and so has the politics – that’s why the Democrats won – but while many districts may not be as red as they once were, they are nonetheless marginal.
This is particularly true in Northern Virginia. The GOP was wiped out in the past two elections. There are no Republican members left in the Prince William or Fairfax county delegations. But, without Donald Trump in the White House to motivate voters, a few of these districts might be ready to push back, especially if Republican voters are starting to get riled up over the raft of liberal legislation coming out of Richmond.
Simply put, the dynamics will be different.
Who is at the top of the ticket will matter as well. If by some nightmare the GOP nominates state Sen. Amanda Chase for governor (she calls herself “Donald Trump in heels”) or some other Trump-kowtowing candidate, the Republicans may have an albatross. That would help the Democrats. Republicans would have a much better chance with, say, former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox as the gubernatorial nominee, but just how far he can distance himself from the Trump wing of the party and still win the nomination is an open question.
It’s a complicated puzzle to be played out in at least a dozen districts currently held by Democrats. It won’t take that much to flip the House of Delegates; it could be done, but at the moment, it’s not all that evident that the Republicans have the oomph or the leadership to do it.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.