With the midterms over, Virginia Democrats are looking to keep riding a wave of voter discontent with President Donald Trump and take control of the state legislature next year.
Virginia is set to return to the national political spotlight in 2019 when all 140 state House and Senate seats will be up for grabs. It’s one of only a handful of states with off-year elections, and will host some of the country’s most competitive legislative contests.
Republicans currently hold razor-thin majorities in the House of Delegates and the state Senate, but have been on a losing streak since Trump took office. They’ve lost a near supermajority in the state House and three U.S. House seats. Democrats want to build on that momentum and are working to recruit candidates and identify key races to target.
“We’re on a roll in this state,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw.
On Tuesday, Democrats dominated a U.S. Senate race and flipped three congressional districts. The success mirrored last year’s closely watched race for governor, where Democrats trounced Republicans in all three statewide races in 2017 and won more seats in the state House than virtually anyone expected.
Democrats Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria both won close congressional races Tuesday thanks to strong showings among suburban voters unhappy with Trump. Now state Democrats are eying a number of GOP-held legislative seats in those same areas as potential targets.
“Based on last night’s results, we’re feeling very good about our prospects,” said Del. David Toscano, the leader of the state House Democrats.
Virginia’s off-year legislative elections and status as a quasi-swing state make it an attractive place for out-of-state groups to get involved, boosting attention on the races and nationalizing the debate.
In 2015, a gun-control group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent millions in an unsuccessful bid to help Democrats take control of the state Senate. And Virginia was swarmed with liberal-leaning outside groups last year, looking to send a message of rebuke to the president during his first year in office.
Upping the ante for next year’s elections is the fact that the winners will get to draw the state’s congressional and legislative boundaries for the next decade. After Republicans successfully won key state-level races around the country in 2010 to help control the redistricting process, Democrats have made it a top priority to reverse those gains ahead of the 2021 redistricting.
Virginia provides national party organizations and outside groups a good venue to fine-tune messaging and methods ahead of major election cycles, said Chris Jankowski, a GOP operative who helped Republicans keep control of the state Senate in 2015.
“It’s typically the party that got beat in the midterm that’s trying new things in the run up to the next one,” he said.
State Republicans said they expect many tough races, but said keeping control of the General Assembly is not a lost cause. They pointed out that Spanberger and Luria won with small margins and were helped by having Sen. Tim Kaine, a popular incumbent, at the top of the ticket. Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart, a die-hard Trump supporter and outspoken advocate of preserving Confederate imagery, had little money and performed poorly in key suburban districts.
Former GOP Del. Greg Habeeb said the Richmond and Hampton Roads suburbs, as well as the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, are battlegrounds that Republicans can win with the right candidates, tone and message.
“The suburbs are totally willing to vote for Republicans still,” he said.
Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, where Luria beat incumbent Rep. Scott Taylor, said he’s not worried about being a top target of Democrats next year.
He said his takeaway from Tuesday’s election was that health care was foremost on voters’ minds. Wagner noted he broke with his party earlier this year to support expanding Medicaid earlier and said he’ll works to control health care costs during next year’s legislative session.
“I’m much more issue focused, I think my constituents recognize that,” he said.