In just over four months, on Nov. 5, Virginians will head to the polls to select their representatives in the General Assembly with all 40 seats in the state Senate and all 100 in the House of Delegates up for grabs. It’s going to be a battle royale for control of the Assembly in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election with the once-every-10-years redistricting following in 2021.
Assembly elections in Virginia have always been heated with Democrats and Republicans jockeying for power, at least in the decades since Virginia became a true two-party state. But since Virginia emerged in 2008 as a presidential battleground, the stakes are even higher.
The gusher of dollars to flip the Assembly to the Democrats or keep it in Republican hands has only just begun to flow. Just in the last week or so, three high-profile donors have pledged $1.6 million to the effort to wrest control of the Assembly from the GOP.
At a statewide level, Democratic candidates have held the upper hand for much of the last 19 years. Four of the past five governors — Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam — have all been Democrats, with the lieutenant governor and attorney general posts being a bit more competitive but still leaning Democratic. In the U.S. Senate, George Allen was the commonwealth’s only Republican, but he went down in defeat in the 2006 midterms; ever since, Democrats have held both seats.
But at the level of state legislative races, Republicans have maintained a tight grip on the Assembly, especially the House of Delegates, since 2000. Prior to the November 2017 House elections, for example, Republicans held a 2-1 majority in the chamber. The 40-member Senate, on the other hand, has been more evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats; currently, the GOP holds sway on a 21-19 count.
GOP control of the House rested upon the 2011 legislative maps drawn up after the 2010 U.S. Census. Almost from the moment the new districts went into effect, they were at the center of legal fights in state and federal courts with Democrats charging the process was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Federal courts agreed, finding Republican lawmakers packed African American voters into what are known as “super-majority/minority” districts, the result being safer surrounding districts for white candidates. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the lower courts’ rulings, and roughly a third of the House seats up for grabs in November will be in newly drawn districts that, on paper at least, are more competitive than before.
The 2017 state elections and the 2018 congressional midterms provide insight into why outside election organizations believe there’s a good chance to flip one or both houses of the Assembly.
In the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, turnout by female voters was key. In 2016, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, women increased their turnout rate by a staggering 1.47 percent over the average state turnout, while men dropped an equally staggering 1.73 percent. In the 2017 state races, the turnouts flipped with men outperforming the state average by 0.41 percent and women dropping 0.36 percent. The 2018 congressional midterms, though, returned to the mold of 2016 as women outperformed the average by 0.7 percent and men underperformed by 0.81 percent.
An equally important statistic is the turnout rates over the last five years for the youngest voters, ages 18 to 29. In 2014, according to VPAP, this demographic represented only 7.62 percent of the turnout for the last midterms of the Obama presidency when Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate. That percentage dipped even lower for the 2015 state elections, the last time the full Assembly was up for grabs. But since, the youth vote has been rising faster than other age groups, peaking in the 2016 presidential contest and remaining high, though predictably dipping a bit, in the 2017 and 2018 races. In the 2018 midterms, when three Virginia seats in the House of Representatives flipped from Republican to Democratic control, the youth vote represented 12.72 percent of the turnout.
These two sets of demographic data explain why Democratic climate activist Tom Steyer just last week pledged $1 million to an effort to increase turnout in that key 18-29 age demographic and why, two weeks ago, Priorities USA and Emily’s List pledged $600,000 on a digital campaign to mobilize female voters. For example, the 2018 midterm turnout by women, an anomaly when compared to past midterm cycles, translated into about 53,000 additional women casting a ballot, according to VPAP analysis. If the two Democratic PACs are able to replicate that in the 2019 Assembly races — and if Steyer is able to keep the upward trajectory of the youth turnout — Republican control of the Assembly could be in danger.
Which is to say that we’ve seen only the beginning of the tsunami of dollars about to inundate Virginia in the months and weeks leading to to Nov. 5. This election truly will be like nothing Virginians have seen in the commonwealth’s modern political history.