Expensive Virginia elections set stage for redistricting fight

Virginia Democrats are on the brink of reclaiming total control of state government next week, the first in a series of expensive battles that underscore just how critical state legislatures will be in the years following the 2020 census. 

Commonwealth voters will head to the polls to elect 40 state senators and 100 members of the House of Delegates. Republicans control both chambers, but by the slimmest of margins: They hold 21 of 40 Senate seats and 51 of 100 seats in the House. 

This year’s election is a second chance for Democrats, who came within one seat of sharing control of the House in the 2017 elections. That final seat, which ended in a tie, was awarded to Republicans when the state Board of Elections pulled Del. David Yancey’s (R) name out of a hat. 

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In the intervening two years, the political landscape has looked better for Democrats after a federal court ruled in June 2018 that 11 state House districts had been improperly drawn in a way that illegally diluted the political power of African American voters. 

Of those 11 districts, eight of which are held by Republicans, seven now have substantially more Democratic voters than they did under the initial boundaries, according to calculations by Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist at the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. 

Two other seats — including Yancey’s — have shifted slightly in the GOP’s favor, while two others did not see substantial changes in their partisan makeup. 

Early signs suggest Democratic enthusiasm at levels comparable to last year’s, when Democrats picked up three Republican-held U.S. House seats in the midterms. A statewide survey conducted by the Wason Center earlier this month found Democratic voters were more likely to be enthusiastic about this year’s elections and were more likely to say they would definitely cast a ballot. 

Another Wason Center survey, released Monday, showed Democrats leading a generic ballot in four battleground state Senate districts by 14 percentage points.

“Democrats should be picking up control of both chambers off of all the metrics we’re seeing here. It would be a real shock if they don’t have the turnout that they need to do that,” Bitecofer told The Hill. “You know Republicans are going to vote; the variable is Democrats.” 

Sensing an opportunity, the most prominent Democratic groups in the country are pouring millions into ordinarily sleepy legislative contests. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, EMILY’s List and Everytown for Gun Safety have all written seven-figure checks, far outstripping Republican outside spending in the state. 

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In fact, this year’s elections mark the most expensive set of legislative contests Virginia has ever seen. Democratic and Republican candidates have reported raising more than $82 million so far this year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending and elections. 

“It’s a stunning amount,” said Jason Miyares, a Republican delegate who represents Virginia Beach. He said voters complain to him about outside groups spending so heavily to influence Virginia elections. “I’ve never heard constituents bring that up on their own, unprompted.” 

Five candidates running for seats in the House and 10 in the Senate have raised at least $1 million.

The record-breaking sums illustrate the stakes in this year’s contests, which go beyond next year’s legislative session. The senators elected this year will serve through the next redistricting and reapportionment process. Virginia voters will have the chance to elect a new governor and a new House of Delegates in 2021, but this year marks the first chance for either Democrats or Republicans to guarantee themselves a seat at the redistricting table. 

Democrats are playing defense in some of the seats they picked up in 2017. Of the 15 seats Democrats gained that year, four were decided by margins of 5 points or less. Perhaps the party’s most significant hurdle will be turning out voters who do not usually show up in off-year contests. 

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“It’s really what I call a base turnout year. We’ve got to get our people out,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor who has stumped at 119 events for Democrats this year. “We’ve got to give Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE credit where credit is due. He’s been the largest motivator that Democrats have ever had.” 

In a sign of just how rapidly Virginia has shifted in recent years, many of the top Democratic challengers have called for gun control legislation in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May that killed 13 people. One of those candidates, Del. John Bell (D), is running for a state Senate seat just a few miles from the National Rifle Association’s headquarters in Fairfax. 

Even some Republicans have acknowledged the shift in public sentiment: State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R) is running a television spot in which she supports a federal ban on bump stocks, even though she voted against a statewide ban last year. 

Democrats have also pledged to protect Medicaid expansion, which the legislature passed last year. Republicans are running their own advertising, playing up their support for the expansion deal. 

“Those are all issues that favor the Democrats so much so that the Republicans are actually running ads on Democratic issues,” McAuliffe said. “They know they’re in trouble, so now they’re trying to pretend they’re Democrats.” 

Other Republicans say they are not concerned about the debate over new gun restrictions or Medicaid expansion. 

“I am not hearing much discussion about Washington, D.C. I hear a lot of discussion about local issues,” said Miyares. “The election in November is going to be whether we have a tax and regulatory climate like California and New York, or whether we’re going to have a tax and regulatory climate that makes us the best state in the country to do business.” 

As part of its election strategy, the GOP is revisiting a fight from earlier this year over a Democratic-backed bill that would have eliminated some restrictions on women seeking abortions in the third trimester. Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) comments in support of the bill earlier this year were the genesis of the blackface scandal that nearly forced him from office. 

Democrats “think that everyone is sitting at home caring about background checks,” said John Findlay, executive director of the Virginia Republican Party. “Our people have seen it coming. They have good health care arguments, whether they voted for or against Medicaid expansion. They’ve said they’re committed to some form of red flag law.” 

With early voting already underway, both sides say they are poised to make gains. 

“I’m very bullish on the House and the Senate,” McAuliffe said. 

“I like where we are,” Miyares countered. “I’m very confident. You have members who are known in their comm or who are running very smart races, or members who really fit their district.”

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