Joe Biden’s margin of victory in Virginia was the largest for a Democrat since FDR in 1944. On a federal level, the Commonwealth has been blue shifting for two decades, with no Republican Presidential contender winning since President George W Bush’s re-election in 2004. U.S. Senate elections have broken Democratic since then as well.
Virginia has been more Republican leaning in state elections over the same twenty-year period. Republicans controlled at least one state legislative body for all but two in the past twenty years and held at least one of the big three statewide offices in twelve of the past twenty years. In 2021, just a year after Biden’s double-digit victory, Republicans would win all three statewide offices and flip control of the House of Delegates.
Democrats lead the Senate chamber 22-18 and are aiming to retain their majority next month. State Republicans are looking to net at least two seats for chamber control, as Republican Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears can break ties.
Before we get to the races that matter for control, we need to talk about the district boundaries, which were changed considerably. In 2020, voters approved an amendment that altered the redistricting process, putting the task of new lines in the hands of a redistricting commission made up of state legislators and citizens. After that commission failed to produce maps in time, the process was kicked to the state Supreme Court, which appointed a pair of special masters to make the new maps.
Unlike in other states where incumbents are paid some mind in the process, the special masters gave them little, and after a considerable redraw, a slew of incumbents chose retirement over re-election. In the Senate, five Democrats and five Republicans chose the option. Seventeen State House members chose retirement. For State Senate incumbents who chose to stay under the new lines, the primaries weren’t kind to them: five more Democratic incumbents and a Republican lost theirs in June.
State House Republicans currently enjoy a 52-48 majority, and as mentioned earlier, would need to net 2 seats for functional control of the Senate. Defending the former and achieving the latter inevitably forces them to campaign in swaths of the state that have moved against them Presidentially but narrowly voted for them in 2021.
Virginia’s Evolving Political Geography
The where should shock no one familiar with Virginia’s political evolution. Richmond, much of the core Tidewater area, and the innermost DC suburbs have been Democratic for some time. Rural far western Virginia used to be Democratic leaning, but that area has reddened considerably over the last few decades. That reddening pales in comparison to the rapid advance for Democrats across Fairfax County and Henrico, then Prince William and Loudoun, and now, through Stafford, Fauquier, Chesterfield, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Suffolk. As whites with college degrees moved towards the Democratic party, these swaths of the state blue shifted.
Much of this territory was won back by Youngkin in his successful 2021 election, though not enough to flip back Henrico, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties. The road to a narrow majority for Youngkin’s party rolls through them and their competitive districts.
Money Money Money
Of course, a concerted effort across multiple districts requires money, and, oh boy, is it rolling right now across the Commonwealth. Governor Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC has $7 million cash on hand after a surge in fundraising last month which will be used to target key seats. Determined not to be outspent, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is spending over $2 million on 16 state senate and house seats, and the Democratic National Committee has pledged an additional $1.2 million to the Democratic Party of Virginia in the final push. Over $8.5 million has been spent on advertising in just five state senate districts per VPAP: SD-16, SD-17, SD-27, SD-24, and SD-31, and over $39 million has been raised by the 11 candidates therein as of this week..
Districts to Watch
With all 140 seats in both chambers up, we can narrow our focus to those which will likely determine the majority in each. There are four Senate Districts – one held by a Democratic incumbent, Monty Mason in District 24, and three open seats SD-17, SD-27, and SD-31 that voted for both Youngkin and President Biden. You’ll notice they’ve already been mentioned in the advertising spree section.
A fifth, SD-16, features the most vulnerable incumbent up for re-election, Republican Siobhan Dunnavant. This district voted Democratic in the midterms, the Presidential election, and even the 2021 gubernatorial election. Dunnavant was re-elected in 2019 under the old boundaries that included more rural areas. Redistricting lopped all of that off, leaving her to run in Democratic-leaning Henrico County. Her Democratic opponent, current State Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, represents a district politically akin it. Henrico reports relatively quickly, so I’ve included it here as an “early tell”- if Dunnavant manages to hold on narrowly, Republicans have an outside shot at the chamber. If she loses narrowly, that quartet mentioned earlier will likely be close, and if she loses considerably (greater than, say, 5 points), the Democrats are likely in a good position to retain the chamber.
The State House features a plethora of seats that voted for both Biden and Youngkin worth watching: HD-21, HD-22, HD-57, HD-65, HD-82, HD-84, HD-89, HD-94, HD-97. Of these, HD-82 and HD-97 feature incumbent Republican Delegates Kim Taylor, who defeated an incumbent Democrat in 2021, and Karen Greenhalgh. The rest are open seats.
In addition to these nine swing districts, a tenth is worth a look as a possible early tell: Delegate Rodney Willett’s HD-58. The district broke narrowly against Youngkin in 2021 but is also less Democratic than it was previously. Willett has outraised his opponent, Riley Shaia, $1.7 million to $1.1 million, and advertising has been brisk: a combined million between the two. This district, like SD-16, is located entirely in Henrico, so an early, healthy win by Willett alludes to an uphill fight for Republicans to keep the chamber, a narrow Willett win keeps Republicans in play for control, but barely, and a narrow loss probably spells good fortune for the Republicans.
The remaining 90 seats split evenly in favor for the Democrats and Republicans, but if the election turns into a partisan rout, it is possible more break. Of course, by that point nearly all the earlier seats mentioned will have been called, as will control of the chamber.
Virginia’s legislature is one of the few opportunities for both parties to really test their ground operations and ad targeting before a Presidential election. These contests are worth watching, and we hope you join us here at DDHQ for the returns and calls on November 7th.