Fueled by President Donald Trump’s unpopularity, Virginia voters on Tuesday handed control of the state’s General Assembly to Democrats, setting up the most progressive legislature in modern times.
Democrats have not held both the state House and Senate and the governor’s mansion in 26 years, and Tuesday’s results give them power to pass an agenda and allow Gov. Ralph Northam to sign his party’s bills into law.
Democrats celebrated across the state Tuesday night. Their momentum began two years ago when Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates. They outraised Republicans this year to finish the job, doing well in Northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs. Results were mixed in Virginia Beach, where Republicans held some key seats.
Among GOP casualties of the continued Democratic momentum was powerful House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who faced daunting odds in a newly drawn district that favored Democratic challenger Clinton Jenkins. Jones, a key architect of the state’s budget, was defeated just over a month before Northam presents his budget proposal for 2020-22.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, won a victory over Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman in another transformed district. But he will take his seat in January in the minority party.
In one of the closely watched Senate contests, Democratic Del. John Bell won election to the Loudoun-based seat of retiring Republican Sen. Dick Black, flipping it to the Democrats.
Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, a retired professor and community college administrator, unseated Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, and will be the first Muslim member of the Virginia Senate.
Hashmi stirred the loudest cheers of the night at a Democratic victory party in Richmond when she declared, “I guess you’ve proven that Ghazala is truly an American name!”
“We did it, Virginia, we did it,” she said, accompanied by her husband and two daughters.
In Henrico, GOP Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, appeared to hang on to overcome a big-spending challenge from Democratic Del. Debra Rodman, who attacked Dunnavant on health care and called her a “quack” in advertising.
Democrat Shelly Simonds defeated GOP Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, flipping a Republican seat in a rematch of the race that two years ago decided control of the House for the GOP. After a tie election result in 2017, Yancey’s name was drawn from a bowl, giving him the seat and Republicans a 51-49 advantage in the state House.
“Today, the people of Virginia made their voices heard by voting in elections that were hard-fought and spirited,” Senate Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment said in a statement. “Obviously, tonight’s results were not what we wanted. But, we respect the judgment of the voters when we prevail and on those occasions when we do not.”
Health care and guns were driving issues this year, with Democrats touting their support for Medicaid expansion. Some Republicans, such as Jones, joined Democrats in that vote last year to approve expansion.
Frances Nelson, a Chesterfield voter who chose Democrats, choked up during an interview after voting when she told a reporter her son recently had a kidney transplant.
“We need Medicare for all,” said Nelson, who said she is an independent who always votes. And she said she felt like the Democratic candidates were running as “status quo” candidates and wants to see a stronger agenda from them on health care and climate change.
“In some sense, we’re voting to keep things from getting worse,” she said. Trump, she said, “is horrendous but he’s a symptom of a bigger problem.”
The outlook for Republicans was hindered by a federal redistricting lawsuit brought in 2015 by a group of African American voters who alleged that the GOP had unconstitutionally packed too many black voters into certain House of Delegates districts in 2011, diluting their voting power.
House Republicans took the legal fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, at millions in taxpayer expense, and lost in June when the court dismissed a GOP appeal on a 5-4 vote.
Districts of Cox and Jones, an architect of the 2011 lines, were tipped significantly toward Democrats under the lines that were in effect Tuesday.
This year’s election saw unprecedented sums of money in Virginia politics.
In Northern Virginia, more than $3.6 million had been spent by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, and Democratic challenger Dan Helmer, making it the most expensive Virginia House of Delegates race in history. Helmer won the job, which pays a salary of $17,640, flipping the seat and ending the tenure of the last Republican member of the General Assembly from Fairfax County.
Over 20 General Assembly candidates by late October had spent more than $1 million in this cycle, which was the most ever, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Democrats benefited from a spike in spending by interest groups. Everytown for Gun Safety in America boasted of spending more than $2.5 million on Virginia’s elections, saying it was a record for the group. Fueled by anti-Trump sentiment, Democrats outraised Republicans, who kept pace in some districts through funding by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is funded by a variety of national corporate interests.
The scandal over Northam’s racist yearbook photo did not become the November election issue Republicans had hoped it would. Many Republican candidates avoided looping Northam into their campaign, and when they did so they focused on late-term abortion.
Sturtevant attacked Hashmi for calling on Northam to resign but then rescinding the call after Northam’s PAC gave her $25,000.
After quietly raising money on the sidelines, Northam emerged in the campaign in late October, announcing he’d be campaigning for Democratic candidates including Rodman, Hashmi, Bynum-Coleman and Jenkins.
The sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax were not widely used by Republican candidates in attacking Democrats, but were used by GOP Senate candidate Geary Higgins in Loudoun, the Republican who lost to Bell.
And in Virginia Beach, Republican candidate Shannon Kane attacked Democratic Del. Kelly Fowler over Fairfax, saying Fowler was “silent on rape victims” because she joined other Democrats in opposing a General Assembly hearing on the allegations. Fowler won re-election.
Joining Democrats at an election night party in Richmond, Northam said Virginia is now “officially blue.”
“The voters like the progress that we as Democrats have made the last few years,” Northam said. “They want us to continue that progress.”
Trump’s election has been bad news for Virginia Republicans. The 2017 gain in the state House reduced Republicans’ 66-34 majority to what was then a mere 51-49 as a diverse group of freshmen lawmakers arrived in Richmond.
In 2018, anti-Trump hostility in Virginia helped the Democrats flip Virginia’s U.S. House delegation from 7-4 Republican to 7-4 Democrat, as three GOP members of Congress lost re-election bids.
Trump tweeted support for Virginia Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence helped Virginia Beach Republicans close out the campaign with a rally over the weekend, while former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned for Democratic candidates in Northern Virginia.
Outside of Virginia’s countryside, where they continue to dominate, Republicans fared strongest Tuesday in Virginia Beach, where Jen Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot, defeated Democratic Del. Cheryl Turpin for the Senate seat formerly held by retired Sen. Frank Wagner, a Republican.
That seat stayed in GOP hands as did the seat of Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who faced an aggressive challenge from Democrat Missy Cotter Smasal, who challenged DeSteph’s A-rating from the NRA in a district that was the scene of the mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.
Another vulnerable Republican — Del. Chris Stolle, who is the brother of Dunnavant — was in a close race in Virginia Beach against Democrat Nancy Guy. Democrats held two key state House seats in the city; Fowler was re-elected against Republican challenger Kane and Democrat Alex Askew won the seat Turpin vacated for her run for Senate. Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, was leading Democratic challenger Karen Mallard.
On the Peninsula, the seat of retiring Del. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson, was won by Democrat Martha Mugler, flipping party control of the seat. And in a sign of the changing nature of Virginia’s politics, Democrat Josh Cole defeated Republican Paul Milde in the seat of former GOP House Speaker Bill Howell, flipping it to the Democrats.