Kerr: Democratic majority could be in danger | opinion
If the Virginia Democrats asked me about their chances of holding a majority in the House of Delegates this fall, I would say, “Don’t be too confident because it won’t be that easy this time.”
2017 and 2019 were banner years for the Virginia Democrats. In 2017, while they did not win a majority of the seats in the lower chamber of the General Assembly, they reduced the GOP’s super majority to one vote. It was the largest number of seats a party has won since 1899. In 2019, they brought six more Republicans to the House of Representatives and secured a solid working majority. In the Senate, which, in contrast to the two-year terms of office of the House of Representatives, is elected every four years, they won a majority of one seat.
For the first time in 25 years, the Virginia Democrats held not only both houses of the General Assembly, but also the governor’s mansion. It is what political observers call a “trifecta,” and the Democrats, with a long list of liberal policies that have been crushed by Republicans for more than a generation, went to work with a vengeance.
The pace for a state known for its steadfast approach to governance has been staggering. Progressive or liberal guidelines – whichever term you prefer – have been enacted sequentially: allow municipalities to remove Confederate monuments without national approval, approve changes to equality, pass red flag laws on gun ownership, re-enact Guns Act, introduction new rules on unexcused absentee voting, expanding access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (which was actually approved in the previous session), and passing less restrictive abortion laws, including lifting requirements for an ultrasound and a 24-hour wait and necessary advice.
It was a liberals’ paradise. But will it be until 2021?
The answer, to sound like a true equivocator, is maybe yes and maybe no. On the one hand, the dynamics of the 2021 election will be different. Democrats benefited greatly in 2017 and 2019 from strong anti-Trump sentiment in Northern Virginia, the suburbs of Richmond (historically not that Democratic but things seem to have changed) and the Norfolk and Newport News area.
Take away the Trump factor, which is likely to wane, and face a reasonably acceptable candidate for governor along with mainstream Republicans in swing districts (there are around 12 districts that could be considered fluctuating), and the Democrats might have a problem. They only have a majority of five seats.
The list of democratic victories in 2019 also included several close races. Democratic success was heavily dependent on voter turnout, and 2017 and 2019 were the only opportunities for voters to express their opposition to the Trump presidency. That made these two out-of-year elections a high-participation affair.
There’s one more thing that Democrats need to remember that Republicans probably haven’t forgotten. With Virginia’s new Reallocation Commission lagging behind with its work due to delays in census data, the counties will be the same seats that the GOP created 10 years ago. Demographics have changed, as have politics – which is why the Democrats won – but even if many districts are not as red as they used to be, they are still marginal.
This is especially true of Northern Virginia. The GOP was wiped out in the last two elections. There are no longer any Republican members in either Prince William or Fairfax County’s delegations. But without Donald Trump in the White House to motivate voters, some of these districts might be ready to push back, especially if Republican voters upset over the plethora of liberal laws coming from Richmond.
Simply put, the dynamics will be different.
Who is at the top of the ticket also plays a role. If, through a nightmare, the GOP nominates State Senator Amanda Chase as governor (she calls herself “Donald Trump in Heels”) or another Trump kowtowing candidate, the Republicans could have an albatross. That would help the Democrats. Republicans would have a much better chance with former House Speaker Kirk Cox as a candidate for governor, for example, but how far he can distance himself from the Trump wing of the party and still win the nomination is an open question.
It’s an intricate puzzle to play in at least a dozen boroughs currently held by Democrats. It doesn’t take much to turn the House of Representatives around; it could be done, but right now it’s not so obvious that Republicans have the drive or the leadership to do it.
David Kerr is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked for many years on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies.