Friday, March 1, 2024

Virginia Democrats Triumph in Statehouse Elections, Reducing Youngkin’s Power

Senate Democratic leaders Scott Surovell and Mamie Locke hold up blue bricks symbolizing their “brick wall” against the GOP agenda during the Democratic Election Night Party in Richmond City, Va., November 7, 2023. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats beat back Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s effort to turn the state fully red by defending their state Senate majority in Tuesday’s General Assembly elections and flipping control of the House of Delegates.

While the final counts in the high-stakes battle for the statehouse weren’t fully clear at midnight, with multiple races still too close to call, Democrats appeared to have secured control of both chambers.

Even before outlets including the Associated Press called the House races around midnight, Democrats were already hailing the night as a victory, one that will further erode Youngkin’s ability to enact his conservative agenda as he begins the second half of his four-year term.

At a watch party in downtown Richmond, caucus leaders pulled out a pair of blue bricks to symbolize that the so-called “brick wall” against Youngkin’s agenda had endured.

“We’re more than just a brick wall now. We are building a house,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

On the House side, where Republicans had a 52-48 majority earlier this year, Democrats are now poised to elevate Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, to become the first Black House speaker in Virginia history.

“The people of the commonwealth of Virginia have spoken,” said Scott. “What they said was we won’t go backward. What they said was, we believe in freedom. …We have the blueprint for freedom in the Democratic Party.”

House Minority Leader Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) cheers as election results are announced during the Democratic Election Night Party in Richmond City, Va., November 7, 2023. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

According to unofficial results, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, defeated incumbent Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, in one of the toughest suburban districts Republicans were trying to defend. In Northern Virginia, Democrat Russet Perry beat Republican Juan Pablo Segura in a competitive race for an open seat representing parts of Loudoun and Fauquier counties. In another Northern Virginia contest, Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, triumphed over Republican Bill Woolf, making her the first transgender person ever elected to the state Senate.

Republican Dels. Tara Durant, R-Fredericksburg, and Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, won two other close contests, defeating Democratic opponents Joel Griffin and Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk, respectively.

The Senate matchup between Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, and Republican Danny Diggs was too close to call at night’s end and may take days to resolve as election officials continue to tabulate votes cast under the same-day registration system.

Youngkin has spent months rallying Republicans to flip the Senate and hold the House, but the GOP’s failure to achieve that ambitious goal shows the limits of the governor’s brand of conservatism, as well as the staying power of Democrats, who gained new evidence for their belief that Youngkin’s 2021 win was more of a pandemic-era anomaly than a lasting realignment of state politics.

“The emperor has no clothes except for a red sweater vest,” Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said as results rolled in.

Democrats ran largely on preserving abortion access, launching a wave of ads that declared a vote for their party was a vote to stop Youngkin from passing his proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks. Youngkin had portrayed that plan as a reasonable “limit” because it would have allowed exceptions for cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s life or physical health is at risk.

The GOP effort to defuse abortion as a motivating issue for Democratic-leaning voters wasn’t enough to stop the tide in the suburban battlegrounds.

In an interview, Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said “abortion rights won” despite Republican efforts to obfuscate the issue.

“Voters weren’t fooled,” Lockhart said. “They showed up.”

Though he has two more years left in office, Youngkin will have to spend that time working with a new crew of Democratic leaders at the statehouse who have been sharply at odds with him on virtually every major issue.

Republican candidates mostly campaigned this year on the same themes Youngkin ran on in 2021: cutting taxes, getting tougher on crime and giving parents a bigger role in K-12 schools. Many of the GOP candidates running in swing districts echoed the governor’s stance on abortion, characterizing their position as a reasonable compromise that would keep the procedure legal in the earliest stages of pregnancy, when most Virginia abortions occur.

Tuesday’s results are also a setback for the lingering buzz about Youngkin as a possible late entrant into the GOP presidential primary by complicating the governor’s narrative about flipping a blue state red.

Youngkin and other Republican leaders had not yet weighed in on the results as of publication.

At an election night event in Henrico, Dunnavant indicated she was not conceding her race but acknowledged she was “down.”

“I am 100% proud of my campaign,” she said.

Mercury reporter Charlie Paullin contributed to this report.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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