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Republicans claim House majority after flipping 6th seat

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Republican members of the House of Delegates raise their hands to call for a recorded vote on the budget bill inside the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 3, 2021, the second day of the General Assembly Special Session.

What looked like a draw for control of the House of Delegates turned into an apparent Republican victory with the defeat of Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, who had appeared to narrowly win re-election over GOP newcomer Kim Taylor.

Instead, Taylor took a late lead in what appears to be an upset victory over Aird, as the battle for a House majority swung back and forth Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning with unofficial results subject to canvassing by local electoral boards to determine final winners.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, declared victory with a statement released at 1:40 a.m.

“Virginia voters made an historic statement, delivering a clear rebuke of the failed policies of the last two years and electing Republicans up and down the ballot," Gilbert said. "In addition to electing Glenn Youngkin, Winsome Sears, and Jason Miyares [to statewide offices], voters have given Republicans a majority in the House of Delegates."

Aird, seeking her fourth term in the House, had claimed victory with a 324-vote lead late Tuesday night, but the Virginia Board of Elections and Virginia Public Access Project showed Kim Taylor ahead by 741 votes two hours later.

"This is a clear referendum on the Big Democrat Corporate spending and radical policies that do not reflect our communities," Taylor said in a statement early Wednesday.

Republicans had appeared poised to regain control of the House earlier on Tuesday, picking up five seats in unofficial vote counts, but then fell short in key races in the Richmond area, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia as votes cast early were counted late.

Democratic candidates declared victory in multiple races, many of them close, but Republicans conceded nothing as the House faces the potential prospect of power sharing by the parties for the first time since 1998.

"We feel good, all things considered," said Sigalle Reshef, spokeswoman for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, shortly after midnight. "But we're still waiting on the numbers."

Democrats, who held a 55-45 majority going into the elections, won a series of critical races that appeared lost earlier on Tuesday night.

In the Richmond area, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg won a third term in the 72nd House District over Republican challenger Chris Holmes in western Henrico County, and Del. Rodney Willett declared victory late Tuesday over Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg in a hotly contested rematch in the adjoining 73rd District of western Henrico.

Both incumbents had trailed much of the night until early votes were counted.

Similarly, Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, also had trailed Republican Mark Earley, a newcomer with a familiar political name, in a district anchored by Chesterfield County and Richmond. Yet, Adams moved ahead by about 600 votes shortly before 10 p.m. and declared victory.

All three seats had been long held by Republicans in House districts that were part of an electoral map Republicans drew under political redistricting in 2001 and 2011, but Democrats flipped them in an electoral wave in 2017, the first in Virginia after Trump won the presidency.

At the same time, Democrats appeared to fall short in trying to win two Republican seats in the Richmond area.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, led Democrat Debra Gardner by 2,000 votes with early votes yet to be counted, and Republican Mike Cherry held a sizable lead over Democrat Katie Sponsler in the district previously represented by former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. Cox opted not to run for re-election and instead ran for the Republican nomination for governor.

Statewide, six Democrats lost their seats, according to projections by the Virginia Public Access Project. Del. Josh Cole, D-Fredericksburg, fell to Republican Tara Durant by about 700 votes in the district that had been represented by former House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, who retired in 2018 after 26 years in the House.

Republicans also defeated Del. Martha Mugler, D-Hampton; Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery; Del. Nancy Guy, D-Virginia Beach; and Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, a 15-year veteran who chaired the House Education Committee. And Aird's late change of fortunes appeared to seal the Republican majority.

Some of the races were so close that recounts are likely. Mugler lost by just 272 votes in her Peninsula district.

Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach, appeared headed to defeat, but rallied on early voting and led by 184 votes and declared victory. His lead had shrunk to 94 votes by Wednesday morning. 

Democrats also came back to win close seats in Hampton Roads and their stronghold in Northern Virginia, where Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, defeated Republican Nick Clemente, in a district that extends from Loudoun County into the Shenandoah Valley.

The elections set the winners for two-year terms in the House, but they could face voters again next year if the federal courts agree with longtime Democratic political operative Paul Goldman that the current districts are unconstitutional.

Goldman filed a federal lawsuit in June that alleges the elections held on Tuesday violate the requirement in the U.S. Constitution that political districts are proportionally equal to guarantee “one man, one vote.”

As a result, House districts that have lost population in the past decade — primarily in Republican-dominated areas such as Southwest and Southside Virginia — are over-represented, while those in Richmond and other cities that generally vote Democratic are under-represented.

Goldman wants the courts to order House elections next year under new district maps just as they did 40 years ago in ordering elections in three successive years.

“We just had an election under unconstitutional districts — that’s a given,” he said Tuesday. “The question is: What’s the remedy?”

A federal judge stayed the outcome of the lawsuit until the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals settles a procedural dispute over whether members of the state election board are immune from being sued, but veteran political analyst Larry Sabato said before polls closed that he expects the party that loses the House elections this year to quickly push for new elections in 2022.

“The courts have to decide whether having three elections in a row is worth the lack of [proportional] representation,” said Sabato, president of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Is the chaos worth it?”

This year, House Democrats ran in districts drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature a year ago, hoping to win two-year terms and avoid running again at the same time that Democrats fight to maintain their majority in the House of Representatives in midterm elections.

Whenever delegates next face the voters, the shape of their new districts is as yet unclear. A new bipartisan state redistricting commission that was supposed to redraw legislative districts based on new census figures bogged down on party lines and failed to produce new maps, leaving the task to the state Supreme Court.

House Democrats raised more than twice as much money as Republicans — $50.9 million to $23.3 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project — but got caught in a backlash against President Joe Biden that intensified after the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

They also weren’t helped by infighting among congressional Democrats over a pair of potentially popular spending packages, totaling almost $3 trillion, that didn’t come to a vote before Election Day.

Democrats also got off to an ominous start in a critical House race when Hurst, seeking a third term, was given notice of driving on a suspended license late Monday night while allegedly helping someone tamper with campaign signs for his opponent, Republican Jason Ballard.

“I am deeply disappointed that Chris Hurst has decided to end his campaign in such a reckless way,” Ballard said in a statement on Election Day.

Ballard was ahead of Hurst by about 2,700 votes and projected as the victor by VPAP.

The Richmond area featured some of the most critical elections in the battle for control of the House.

None was bigger than the Henrico seat held by Willett, who had won his first campaign against Kastelberg two years ago by 1,300 votes. This time, he raised more than twice the money she did — $1.7 million to about $815,000 - and won by about 1,300 votes.

"In the past two years, I have worked hard to push Virginia towards a brighter future for everyone," he said in a statement. "We have accomplished so much, including protecting our environment, expanding access to the ballot, investing in teachers and public schools, passing common-sense gun violence prevention legislation, and so much more."

"I am proud to have worked with Democrats and Republicans to improve the lives of families here in Henrico," Willett said.


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