Virginia races offer an early preview of Democrats' midterm challenges

Voters in Virginia will give Democrats and Republicans the first hints of the political landscape in advance of next year’s midterm elections when they head to the polls in eight weeks.

The marquee match-up is an expensive race for governor between former Carlyle Group chief executive Glenn Youngkin (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D), seeking a return to Richmond after four years out of the governor’s mansion.

But the more revealing test will come in smaller, below-the-radar elections for seats in the House of Delegates. Democrats hold 55 of the 100 seats up for election in November, contests that can approximate what appears to be an uphill battle to maintain control of the House of Representatives in Washington one year from now.

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Delegate elections “can certainly, at times, play the role of canary in the coal mine. And I think that’s even more true now given how nationalized our elections at every level have become,” said Tucker Martin, who served as a top aide to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). “If there are trends developing you’ll see some of them in the results.”

Democrats lost half a dozen seats in Virginia elections in 1993, a year before control of Congress changed hands in the 1994 Republican revolution. Republicans ended more than a century of Democratic control of the House of Delegates in 1999, a year before George W. Bush became the first Republican president since Eisenhower to take office with control of the House and Senate (though Democrats reclaimed control of the Senate after a party switch).

More recently, Virginia Democrats made huge gains in 2017 elections just after former President TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE won the White House, a year before their party reclaimed control of the House of Representatives. And Democrats won back control in Richmond in 2019, a year before Trump lost reelection.

Now, with Trump off the stage, Democrats say they are running this year on the results they delivered in the first two years in full control since Douglas Wilder was governor in the early 1990s.

“I think we’ve done amazing things, transformative things in Virginia these past two years,” said Del. Alex Askew (D), who represents a swing district in Virginia Beach. “We cannot afford to go back to 20 years of Republican leadership.”

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But the Democratic margin for error is slim: Askew is one of seven Democrats who won his seat by fewer than 5 percentage points in 2019. Eight more Democrats won by between 5 and 10 points.

And Republicans are more than happy to talk about what Democrats achieved, through their own lens.

“If we go through with one party rule again for the next two years, what we saw in 2020, once they got both houses, is going to go much further,” said Otto Wachsmann (R), a pharmacist who is challenging Del. Roslyn Tyler (D) in a district that runs along the North Carolina border. “We just have to make a change.”

The two sides are targeting key races in the Northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs, the economic engine of a state that has shifted to the left in recent decades; in Hampton Roads, perpetual swing territory; and in the Richmond suburbs, a microcosm of a broader electorate that regularly switches its votes between parties.

Republicans have seized on an emerging debate over critical race theory in public schools, in a state where school board meetings in places like wealthy Loudoun County have drawn attention from Fox News. And some Republicans have accused their Democratic opponents of harboring ambitions to defund the police, after several votes on limiting qualified immunity taken in the wake of the protests over the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis.

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“A lot of people really like to support law enforcement, and it’s interesting that my opponent voted not once but twice to strip qualified immunity,” Wachsmann said. “When she voted to defund and strip away qualified immunity, most of the sheriffs called me up within 12 hours.”

But Democrats have blunted those attacks by offering pay raises to police and other front-line workers in harm’s way during the pandemic. Askew, one of the few candidates who has released a television advertisement in what are ordinarily low-budget contests, touts the pay raise alongside his work to cap insulin prices.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been on the front line helping folks in the 85th District,” Askew told The Hill. “Not everything needs to be performative.”

Recent election results have not been kind to Virginia Republicans: The party has not won a statewide election since Ken Cuccinelli (R) won the attorney general’s office and Bill Bolling (R) won a second term as lieutenant governor in 2009. In 2018, three Democrats knocked off incumbent Republican members of Congress, and all three — Reps. Elaine LuriaElaine Goodman LuriaBusiness groups create new headache for Pelosi Chamber of Commerce warns moderate Democrats against voting for reconciliation GOP ramps up pressure on vulnerable Democrats in spending fight MORE (D), Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerKatie Hill launches effort to protect Democratic majority in House GOP ramps up pressure on vulnerable Democrats in spending fight Conservative group targets Spanberger, Luria in new ads ahead of reconciliation bill MORE (D) and Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonVirginia races offer an early preview of Democrats' midterm challenges Late Capitol Police officer's family urges Congress to agree to Jan. 6 commission Administration withdraws Trump-era proposal to loosen protections for transgender homeless people MORE (D) — won reelection in 2020. 

Trump managed to earn just 44 percent of the vote in both 2016 and 2020, the lowest total for a Republican presidential nominee in the Old Dominion since Richard Nixon in 1968 — an election in which George Wallace took almost 24 percent of the vote as an independent.

But polls show a Republican path back to a majority is not far-fetched: Voters favor a generic Democratic candidate over a generic Republican by just a 48 percent to 45 percent margin, according to a Monmouth University poll released late last month (A Christopher Newport University poll pegged the Democratic edge at 7 points, 50 percent to 43 percent).

With Trump out of the picture and Democrats in charge of a turbulent world, both in Washington and Richmond, the party’s winning streak is suddenly on the line. And both Democrats and Republicans say they will be watching closely to glean any insight for the midterms to come.

“The Virginia results will provide a clear look at base turnout post-Trump, and whether Republicans are able to stop their slide among college-educated voters,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist who has advised Virginia candidates. “Republicans lost control of suburban and exurban localities like Virginia Beach, Stafford County and Chesterfield County, and those are exactly the battlegrounds for the state legislative races in 2021.”