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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Virginia Democrats Celebrate Legislative ‘Blue Wall’ Built from Election Day Victories

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, speaks to reporters at the Democratic Watch Party on Nov. 7, 2023. Scott will become the new House Majority Leader. (Vali Jamal/VCU CNS)

RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats maintained control of the Senate and narrowly took control of the House on Tuesday, in a contest some consider a mid-point evaluation of the governor’s leadership and influence.

All 140 seats in the General Assembly were up for election, with many new contestants due to redistricting. The previous majorities in both legislative bodies were narrow and remain tight still.

Democrats kept their 21-19 majority in the Senate. They flipped the House, but one race could hinge on mail-in votes, and the Democrat has not conceded. Their new majority will closely mirror the hold Republicans had, and currently sits at 51-48 until the final race is declared. (Sen. Monty Mason conceded late Wednesday afternoon)

This is the largest group of women of color to be elected to the state legislature, according to political advocacy group Care in Action.

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, will serve as Virginia’s first Black House Majority Leader. Virginians are ready to “move on,” he said, speaking to the significance of his historic appointment in the “oldest continuous democracy” in the U.S.

“To see that this will be the first time that a Black person holds the gavel in the House of Delegates and it would be me? It’s an honor,” Scott said. “All of the commonwealth of Virginia, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, can be proud of this day.”

Democrats hoisted blue bricks at the victory party and thanked voters for giving them a “brick House” and a “blue wall” to stop the momentum of Republican policy, a reference to the “brick wall” often used by Senate lawmakers the past two years.

The campaign efforts of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and state Republicans were substantial but ultimately “rejected” by voters, according to a press release from the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Democrats reclaimed the majority they lost two years ago, but now under a Republican governor. Democrats could struggle to get the constitutional two-thirds majority needed to overturn a veto, meaning their legislative ability could be impacted.

Youngkin expressed optimism at a press conference Wednesday about working with what he described as a “pretty bipartisan-looking” General Assembly, but said legislators need to be dedicated to cooperation.

Senate Republicans celebrated holding 19 seats, and the new freshman senators added to their ranks.

“We had so many partners who aided this effort, which was driven by strong nominees,” stated Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, in a press release. They said Youngkin was an “outstanding team leader” in the effort.

The caucus lamented the loss of Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and recognized her “leadership, strength, resolve, and selflessness.”

Dunnavant’s opponent, Schuyler VanValkenburg, won by just over 7,000 votes. He now moves from the lower chamber, where he represented Henrico as a delegate, into a four-year Senate term. VanValkenburg pointed to the victory as a “sign of social progress to continue,” and shared on X, formerly known as Twitter, that his first act as senator will be to advance legislation on the safe storage of firearms – something that failed to pass last session.

“Henrico County shows up,” VanValkenburg said in his victory speech Tuesday. “People come up, they roll up their sleeves, they put a smile on their face and they talk about the things that matter. Because of that, people show up to vote, and we win elections.”

Nearly 800,000 votes were cast during the early voting period, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. This marks a decrease in early voter participation compared to previous years. Final turnout numbers will not be available until after the election results have been certified, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Del. Kim Taylor, R-Petersburg, announced victory, though her Democratic opponent Kimberly Pope Adams said the race is “too close to call.” The 173-vote margin is too narrow, according to Adams, and there are still mail-in votes to count.

Republican Danny Diggs announced victory over Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, in the Senate District 24 race. Mason conceded Tuesday night.

Such tight margins were seen across several other races. This shows how important it is for voters to turn out.

“If you don’t wanna vote for yourself, vote for your children,” said Chesterfield County voter Patricia Ighodalo. “They’re your future. And if we wanna make a difference in our future, we have to vote.”

Republican early voter participation increased compared to previous years, according to VPAP data, possibly after a hearty endorsement from the governor that included a statewide bus tour. Democrats still cast more early votes this year.

“Sometimes people don’t vote, thinking that nothing’s going to change,” said Stafford County voter Carrie Schaefer. “When we do come out in large numbers, things can happen.”

The last full General Assembly election in 2019 saw the highest turnout for statehouse elections this century, with over 42% of all Virginia voters taking part.

“People died for this privilege and right to vote,” said Petersburg voter Polina Norman, who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. She was up early Tuesday morning “bugging” her neighbors to go vote.

Chesterfield County voter Kirk Johnson said his parents paid a poll tax, which makes him value his ability to vote.

“All I have to do is come up here,” he said.

Elected officials have substantial decision-making power that influence everyday life, though turnout rarely matches the impact.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a presidential election or whether it’s a local election,” said Chesterfield County voter Marlene Wheelhouse. “It’s important to vote at all.”

The election was historic money with a narrow return. Democratic candidates outraised Republicans, according to most recent finance reports. Democrats raised $62,2 million and $48.2 million in the Senate and House, respectively. Republicans raised $41.9 million and $36.8 million.

A lot of the races were predictable. There were only 11 races ranked as competitive — four Senate and seven House — and a handful of closely watched suburban races where turnout mattered. Competition is a positive for the state, said Alex Keena, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The majority of Southern states lack the same competitiveness, according to Keena.

“Virginia isn’t as polarized as other states where Democrats and Republicans can’t really work together,” Keena said, cautiously optimistic for bipartisan progress.

However, a Democratic majority in the legislature could prove troublesome for Youngkin’s future political odds.

“There isn’t a lot of appetite for Youngkin outside of Virginia,” Keena said, despite high in-state approval rates.

Democrats saw their victory as a voter resistance against an abortion ban, and a win against Republican efforts to roll back some recent laws. Virginia is the only Southern state that hasn’t implemented new abortion restrictions after the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

“The number one thing is that [voters] rejected the extremism of trying to tell women what to do with their bodies,” Scott said.

Republican lawmakers “stand ready” to oppose Democrats despite their new majority, according to McDougle.

“[We will] promote our positive agenda of fighting inflation, lowering taxes, supporting law enforcement, and getting energy prices under control,” McDougle stated. “We will also stand strong against the Democrats’ extreme progressive agenda.”

Pundits believe Virginia is a bellwether state and the election results could portend the lean of the 2024 presidential election.

Virginians were not just casting ballots for legislators this cycle. Voters made big decisions on referendums such as the Richmond casino, which failed for a second time and on a larger margin.

“We are proud to have run a community-centered campaign to create more opportunities for residents of this great city to rise into the middle class,” organizers Richmond Wins, Vote Yes stated in a press release.

Additionally, Hanover County voters rejected a contested measure that would have allowed them to elect their school board leaders, with 52% of the vote. Gloucester County voters struck down a 2-cent per $100 assessed real estate tax that would have funded capital projects such as a fire station and renovation of school buildings.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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