State Watch

Virginia races will gauge Trump’s appeal in suburbs

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A year after President Trump won the White House, voters in Virginia delivered a startling rebuke to Republicans, choosing a new Democratic governor and pushing out more than a dozen GOP state legislators — foreshadowing the wave that handed Democrats control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections.

Later this year, 12 months before Trump faces voters again, Democrats hope for a repeat of the suburban slaughter that caught the GOP so off guard. 

Strategists on both sides will watch Virginia’s legislative elections closely for clues about voter energy ahead of the 2020 presidential contest.


“We were the beginning of the blue wave that has swept the nation. It was the first sign to people post-2016 that things could be different,” said Justin Fairfax (D), who won election as Virginia’s lieutenant governor in 2017. “We gave the nation both a glimpse of what’s to come, and hope.” 

Voters this year will elect all 40 Virginia state senators and all 100 members of the House of Delegates. 

Both chambers are under Republican control, but by the slimmest of margins. Republicans hold 51 of 100 delegate seats and 21 of 40 seats in the state Senate.

The momentum, observers on both sides agree, is firmly on the Democratic side. 

Democrats have won Virginia’s electoral votes in the past three presidential elections. They have won the past two gubernatorial contests, and Republicans have not won a U.S. Senate seat there since John Warner’s reelection in 2002. And in 2018, Democrats reclaimed three Republican-held House seats in suburban districts across the state.

“Democrats are still on offense,” said Chris Jankowski, a Republican strategist who has led some of the party’s most prominent campaigns in recent years. “Republicans have nothing but defense to play.”


Since its founding as a colony, Virginia has been defined by its competing regions. The coastal Tidewater was the home of some of the nation’s aristocratic Founding Fathers. Those traditionally Republican voters have shifted left in more recent years.

The Blue Ridge Mountains and Appalachian Plateau were settled by the hardscrabble Scots-Irish, who have mined their homeland for centuries. Those voters, long Yellow Dog Democrats, are moving to the right.

In recent years, the fast-growing Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia have become dominant, accounting for an increasing share of the state’s overall vote totals — votes that have trended starkly Democratic.

Republicans now control almost every state legislative seat to the west, along the borders with West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee, while Democrats control almost every seat in the Washington suburbs south to Richmond. 

Reflecting the state’s new political divide, Republicans hold just seven legislative seats — four in the Senate, three in the House — in districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Democrats hold only one district in the House of Delegates that chose Trump over Clinton.

Those seats are virtually all in territory where Democrats have made gains in recent years.

Two are in the Virginia Beach area, which has shifted about 10 points toward Democrats in recent years. In the 2013 race for governor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli narrowly carried Virginia Beach over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Four years later, Democrat Ralph Northam carried the city over Republican Ed Gillespie by a 5-point margin.

Two more Republican-held delegate seats are in Newport News and Norfolk, coastal cities where Democrats have won statewide and presidential contests by increasingly large margins in the past two decades. 

Two critical state Senate seats are in the Richmond suburbs; Trump and Northam both won Chesterfield County by slim margins in their respective elections, a sea change from the turn of the century, when George W. Bush carried the county by nearly 2-to-1 margins.

Most troubling for Republicans, they are defending two seats this year in the Northern Virginia suburbs. A state Senate district in Loudoun and Prince William counties, held by retiring Sen. Dick Black (R), went for Clinton by an 8-point margin. An Assembly district in Fairfax and Prince William counties gave Clinton an 11-point edge.

Further complicating the picture, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Republican appeal of a District Court ruling that 11 House of Delegate seats must be redrawn. The District Court ruled those seats had been drawn with an improper consideration of race. A special master appointed by the court is in the process of sketching out new maps.

“The House map is clouded by litigation,” Jankowski said. “We don’t know what the maps are for sure. That’ll have a huge impact.”

Almost all of those seats that Democrats will target sit within the boundaries of three House districts in which Democratic Reps. Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton knocked off Republican incumbents in 2018.

Both Democrats and Republicans said they would focus on economic development and tax reform in the legislative session that began Monday in Richmond. Legislators have to bring Virginia’s tax laws into conformity with the federal tax overhaul passed in 2017, and they must once again decide whether to maintain the Medicaid expansion they voted for in last year’s budget.

And both Democrats and Republicans have put forward competing proposals to deal with gun violence and school safety. Democrats, led by Northam, have proposed a number of gun safety and control measures, while state House Speaker Kirk Cox (R) created a special committee to look into improving school safety. 

But both parties acknowledge that Virginia politics have become increasingly tied to national political trends — and that therefore, in some respects, this year’s contests will become a referendum on Trump.

“Voters are coming out in record numbers for these elections, and they’re sending pretty unmistakable signals that they are not happy with the Trump administration,” Fairfax said. “The sort of toxic politics that we’re seeing out of the Trump administration or the White House, people are rejecting that.”

Virginia elections in recent years have attracted an increasing amount of outside interest from national groups. Already, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) has said it will spend at least $1 million on behalf of its candidates.

The DLCC’s counterpart, the Republican State Legislative Committee (RSLC), has yet to announce its plans for Virginia. But the RSLC’s sister organization, the State Government Leadership Fund, on Friday filed an amicus brief backing the Virginia GOP’s appeal against the District Court ruling.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Donald Trump Elaine Luria Hillary Clinton Jennifer Wexton Virginia State Elections
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