Control of the Virginia General Assembly is up for grabs come 2019. Voters, take notice.
On November 5, 2019, Virginia will join three other state legislative chambers, out of 99 in the U.S., to determine the legislative composition of its General Assembly between 2020 and 2022. The stakes are high after the wave of Democratic and Progressive victories in 2017 that flipped 15 House seats and saw the House shift much closer to parity. Politico wrote this helpful overview of the post-2016 presidential election sentiments that spurred the 2017 House victories. According to Ballotpedia, the House went from a 66-34 split under Republican control in 2015 to a 51-49 split in 2017, barely under Republican control. The Senate moved from an even 20-20 split in 2011 to a 21-19 Republican split in 2015 with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax as Senate President. If 15 flipped House seats sounds underwhelming for any reason, consider The Washington Post’s characterization of the change as the “most sweeping shift in control of the legislature since Reconstruction.”
The 2017 elections signaled the changing political landscape in Virginia with a flurry of closely-contested races and legislature firsts. According to Ballotpedia, the margin of victory among the 15 seats that flipped Democratic ranged from 0.8 percent in Dawn Adams’ victory in the 68th District to 25.4 percent in Jennifer Foy’s victory in the 2nd District. The closest House race came down to drawing names hidden in blacked-out film canisters, which contributed to a series of new election laws in 2018. The 94th District’s Democratic candidate Shelly Simonds and Republican incumbent David Yancey faced a random drawing when they ostensibly tied after a recount, a questionable ballot assessed to Yancey and judicial review. Yancey prevailed in the random drawing and Simonds eventually conceded. But even this setback demonstrated the power that a dozen votes, a single vote, can have on the electoral process.
These close races, flipped seats and the wave of Democratic enthusiasm that propelled them also marked a series of important firsts for the Virginia legislature. According to Huffpost, Virginia’s blue bloom produced: Danica Roem for the 13th District, Virginia’s first transgender legislator; Elizabeth Guzman for the 31st District and Hala Ayala for the 51st District, Virginia’s first Latina House legislators; Kelly Convirs-Fowler for the 21st District and Kathy Tran for the 42nd District, Virginia’s first Asian-American House legislators; and Dawn Adams for the 68th District, Virginia’s first openly lesbian legislator. Roem’s victory, especially, garnered a wide audience. She beat conservative Republican Bob Marshall, known to LGBTQ groups as “Bigot Bob,” in a dramatic and necessary about-face for the 13th District.
The 2017 results prompted increased fundraising for worried House Republicans and empowered Democrats gearing up for a contentious 2019. In June 2018, the Daily Press reported that House members’ fundraising increased by eight percent from the same time prior to the 2017 elections despite bill payments from the 2017 campaigns that reduced their cash on hand by 12 percent. Republican Delegate David Yancey, who barely kept his seat during the random drawing tiebreaker, raised 47 percent more money in the first half of 2018 than he did in the months after his 2015 victory. Republican Delegate Tim Hugo, leader of the GOP caucus who only kept his seat by a 106-vote margin in 2017, raised almost $213,000, increasing his fundraising total by 212 percent from the same period after he won in 2015. Freshman Democratic Delegate Danica Roem also showed fundraising strength with her approximately $91,000 haul since the beginning of 2018, “more than any other member of the House except for [Republican Speaker Kirk] Cox and [Tim] Hugo,” according to the Daily Press.
Despite the wakeup call in 2017 in the House, some Virginia state senators seem to be proceeding a little too casually. According to the Daily Press, University of Mary Washington Political Scientist Stephen Farnsworth said, “A lot of Republican senators are looking at 2017 as an aberration, but if you ran in 2017 like the House did, it’s far more real than abstract.” While the total combined state senators’ cash on hand increased by 22 percent compared to the same period in 2015 before the election, their combined fundraising dropped by 11 percent, according to the Daily Press. Christopher Newport University Political Scientist Rachel Bitecofer told the Daily Press that Republican Senators Frank Wagner for the 7th District and Bryce Reeves for the 17th District face the most difficult races for incumbent senators in 2019 because Wagner publicly supported Medicaid expansion in the face of his party’s opposition and Reeves’ district barely voted Republican in the 2017 gubernatorial election. In the same Daily Press article, George Mason University Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Goverment Mark Rozell also suggested that Republican Senator Richard Black for the 13th District, who once tried to defend spousal rape, might finally face a challenger who can rid Virginia, and all of us, of his legislative powers. Flipping any red seat blue in 2019, it still seems, would not only be a great numerical victory in the tight State Senate, but a moral one.
Blue Virginia highlighted a series of Democrats, including Lucero Wiley, Kyle Green and Suhas Subramanyam, who could oust Black from the 13th District in 2019. Lucero Wiley struck an especially determined tone in her campaign announcement, saying, “Today I would like to announce that, tired of living in a world full of discrimination and injustice, I can no longer sit down and do nothing.” She continued, “I cannot watch children being held in cages, I cannot turn a blind eye on discrimination and abuse, and I will not stay quiet while I see my people, OUR people, be object of denigration in this country…” Wiley added, “So I have chosen to stand up. To no longer resist, to no longer condone. Enough is enough. It is time for us to take our power back and to fight for what is right. To speak up and let our voices be heard.” The full list of 2019 races for the House can be found here on The Virginia Public Access Project and here for the State Senate.
With the lion’s share of coverage and money flowing to Virginia’s 2018 elections for all eleven of its seats to the U.S. House of Representatives and its Class 1 Senate seat held by Democrat and 2016 vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, Virginia 2019 might be temporaily obscured. However, that doesn’t diminish its importance. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, as of January 2018, Republicans controlled 32 state legislatures, Democrats controlled 13, four were divided and unicameral Nebraska was listed as “nonpartisan.” Speculation about devolving abortion laws back to the states following the developments with the Supreme Court and the upcoming redistricting following the 2020 Census highlight the importance of flipping Virginia, and any state legislature, blue.
Perhaps the handful of votes that tied Democratic House candidate Simonds and Republican incumbent Yancey and led to Yancey’s victory via random drawing in 2017 will work out to favor the blue team in some of 2019’s closer races. One doesn’t have to hope, just to vote.