Last week, the Wason Center for Public Policy, a highly respected political science institute at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, released the results of its latest statewide polling ahead of next month’s General Assembly elections, and the data point to the possibility of major shifts of power in Richmond.
Before anything else is said, though, we must emphasize that any poll is just a snapshot in time. The Wason Center poll, for example, was mostly completed before much detailed information about Ukraine had come out, and it’s unknown if that news would have affected the numbers one way or the other.
One of the most interesting pieces of data to emerge from the poll is Gov. Ralph Northam’s approval rating of 51 percent, coming on the heels of the scandal of a photograph of two people in blackface and a KKK costume appearing on his page in his 1985 medical school yearbook. Several newspapers across the state, including The News & Advance and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, our sister BH Media newspaper, called for the governor to step down after his muddled response to the matter. Voters seem to have forgiven Northam and feel relatively optimistic about the state of affairs in the commonwealth.
That apparent forgiveness of Northam, a Democrat, seems to be undergirding what could be a good election cycle for Virginia Democrats. In the midst of the yearbook scandal, Virginia Republicans had hoped a drop in support for Northam and his party would buoy their chances of retaining control of the General Assembly. The GOP holds a two-seat advantage in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate.
That doesn’t appear to be the case, and Republicans should be concerned.
On the question of which bloc of voters is more enthusiastic about turning out on Election Day, the Wason poll shows Democrats have a 13 percentage-point advantage, with 62 percent of Democrats saying they’re excited about the upcoming contests, as opposed to only 49 percent of Republicans. Delving deeper into the numbers, fully 84 percent of Democrats say they’ll “definitely vote,” compared with 74 percent of self-identifying Republicans and 75 percent of independents.
Indeed, when pollsters presented respondents with a generic ballot of a Democratic candidate vs. a Republican candidate for any given seat, would-be voters expressed a preference for the Democratic candidate. By a margin of 53 percent to 37 percent, backed up with a 17-point advantage among independent voters, respondents preferred Democrats to control the Assembly.
Like it or not, the polling data points to President Trump and national issues being a drag on efforts by Virginia Republicans to maintain control of the legislature. The president’s approval rating in the commonwealth stands at 37 percent, again with the data predating most of the Ukraine revelations. The Wason poll asked respondents about the 2020 presidential matchup between President Trump and a generic Democrat, and the generic Democrat was their choice, 51 percent to 36 percent.
Though there’s much truth to the adage from the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill that all politics is local, national politics can’t help but creep into local and, especially, state contests. That appears to be the case in Virginia’s legislative races. “It’s clear that national politics are on the minds of Virginia voters this fall,” Quentin Kidd, the executive director of the Wason Center, said in the news release announcing the poll results. “Like it or not, there’s no way for state legislative candidates to run in a vacuum — their national party brands influence their fortunes.”
We can’t forget the November 2017 elections for the 100 House of Delegates seats when, out of the blue, voters all but erased the GOP’s 66-34 advantage, flipping 17 seats to the Democrats. Dissatisfaction with President Trump played a key role in those races two years ago.
If Democrats again manage to capitalize on the president’s low approval ratings in the commonwealth, coupled with the poll indicating 62 percent of respondents believe the United States is on “the wrong track,” and flip both the House and Senate, it would represent a policy and political sea change in Richmond.
First, it would be the first time in a generation that Democrats would control both the executive and legislative branches of state government. The last time that happened was during the administration of Gov. Doug Wilder from 1990 to 1994.
Second, issues that Republicans have killed off with relative ease will be back on the table, with the support of Democratic legislators and a Democratic governor to back them up. Gun reform, minimum wage, abortion rights, health care, the environment and the federal Equal Rights Amendment — these and others suddenly have a chance of passage and enactment into law.
Again, though, we must reiterate that polls are but snapshots in time, and with 23 days until Election Day, anything can happen. But if the statewide trends keep moving in the direction the Wason Center poll indicates they were earlier this month, Virginians could wake up on Wednesday, Nov. 6, to an utterly changed political landscape.