A Tough Outlook for Virginia Republicans as November Approaches

Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia delivers a speech in Hampton, Va., August 24, 2019. (Michael A. McCoy/Reuters)

Virginia holds state-legislative elections this year, and the outlook is cloudy for the state GOP, despite this year’s earlier scandals of Governor Ralph “Blackface” Northam, allegations of sexual assault against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and another blackface scandal involving Mark Herring, the state’s attorney general. If Virginia Republicans have a lousy year, many outside the state will wonder how they could fail to capitalize on the series of scandals. But the state party has been sailing into headwinds throughout the cycle.

On November 5, Virginians will vote in elections for all 40 seats in the state senate and all 100 seats in the state house of delegates. In both chambers, Republicans are holding onto a razor-thin majority: 21 to 19 in the senate, and 51 to 49 in the state house. Republicans entered the 2017 election cycle with comfortable majorities and saw them nearly disappear, driven by huge turnout among Democrats in the first full year of Donald Trump’s presidency. That dynamic, furiously motivating progressive voters in northern Virginia’s Washington D.C. suburbs, has barely abated during Trump’s presidency.

Then there are the retirements. This year will see twelve open-seat races in the House; seven incumbent Republicans retired, and five incumbent Democrats. In the Senate, three Republican incumbents are retiring.

One more disadvantage for Virginia Republicans: in more than a quarter of the state-house districts, they couldn’t find a candidate. According to Ballotpedia, seven state-house races have no Democrat running, but 27 state-house races have no Republican running. (Of the open-seat races, only the race in the 57th district, which includes all of Charlottesville and a portion of Albemarle County, is uncontested. Sally Hudson will become a state-house representative as a result. Districts like this one, full of students and professors, are always an uphill climb for the GOP, but you can’t win a seat where you didn’t run a candidate.)

In the state senate, four Republicans are running unopposed, while 15 Democrats are – including Creigh Deeds, who was the party’s nominee for governor in 2009.

It gets worse: In the 30th House district, two-term Republican delegate Nicholas J. Freitas “should have been a shoo-in for reelection in a rural Virginia district east of Shenandoah National Park that heavily favored President Trump.” Except his campaign didn’t file the paperwork in time to appear on the ballot, and now he has to run as a write-in candidate. (That’s F-R-E-I-T-A-S, everyone.)

In most of these districts, the partisan divide is so strong that not having a candidate on the ballot probably won’t make a huge difference. (Even as a write-in, Freitas has a decent shot to keep his seat.) Control of the state legislature will come down to just a handful of seats in both the state senate and state house.

But there’s one more complication: new district lines. As one analysis by the conservative Virginia-politics-focused blog Bearing Drift put it, “almost all the negative shifts in competitive districts are currently held by Republicans. Of course, there are equal, counterweight shifts just as big that impacts Democratic districts, but those are so overwhelmingly blue that they will remain uncompetitive.” While the new district lines shouldn’t determine the makeup of the new legislature all by themselves, note the incumbent facing the toughest new lines is GOP house of delegates speaker Kirk Cox.

A new poll from Christopher Newport University out today surveyed likely voters in four key state-senate districts and found Democrats lead Republicans by 14 points on the generic ballot, 51 percent to 37 percent. While voters don’t vote for generic candidates, Virginia Republicans have their work cut out for them. (D. J. McGuire, writing at Bearing Drift, says the poll result suggests the Democrats are extremely likely to win control of the state senate.)

Gun-control groups have dumped millions of dollars of advertising in these swing districts. Their calculus is simple: if Democrats win a few more seats to secure a majority, they are almost certain to pass Governor Northam’s proposed package of gun laws, which includes universal background checks on gun buyers and limits handgun purchases to one a month.

In July, Northam called a special session of the state legislature, demanding they pass gun-control legislation. The session lasted an hour; Republicans in both chambers voted to adjourn until after election day. “The speed which the governor called the session, the partisan demands for floor votes, the roadshow all demonstrate to me how the whole thing is just an election year stunt,” Cox said at a news conference following the adjournment. “We all share the goal of reducing gun violence in Virginia.”

Depending upon how November 5 goes, Northam could find himself with a much more agreeable state legislature — leaving a big smile on his face, no matter what color he chooses to make it in the future.

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