The Battle for the Virginia State Legislature, Part One
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik
Democratic presidential lean muted in lower-turnout legislative races, but political environment appears to be different than 2021.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— In this year’s state legislative races in Virginia, Republicans are trying to do something that has become rare: forge a state government trifecta in a state that voted for the other party for president.
— At first blush, Democrats would appear to have a clear edge on the map, but in an off-year election, the key districts’ presidential voting patterns overstate how Democratic they are in these legislative races.
— While President Biden’s approval rating is actually worse than it was in November 2021, when Republicans scored victories in that year’s Virginia races, the political environment is likely better for Democrats now than it was back then.
The stakes for this November’s state legislative elections in Virginia are probably the highest of any state-level election being conducted this year, because the election has the potential to create something that is relatively unusual in today’s nationalized politics: A one-party state government that is different from the party that won the state in the most recent presidential election.
As of now, there are only two such state governments in the entire country: Republican-controlled Georgia and New Hampshire, both of which Joe Biden carried in 2020. These states have Republican “trifectas,” which means that one party controls the governorship as well as both chambers of the legislature. Georgia, despite recent Democratic successes at the presidential and Senate level, has been dominated by Republicans at the state level for nearly two decades, while New Hampshire Republicans benefited from ticket-splitting in their favor to surprisingly capture the state House and Senate in 2020 (although the giant, 400-member House could fall into a tie as a result of special elections later this year). Virginia is the only state that could plausibly join that short list this year. While Republicans may end up creating trifectas in Kentucky and Louisiana this year, those are of course red states at the presidential level.
Republicans currently control the Virginia House of Delegates and the state’s three statewide elected offices (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), victories achieved as part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) 2-point victory in November 2021. Republicans won a 52-48 edge in the 100-member state House that year; Democrats won a 21-19 edge in the 40-member state Senate in 2019, the last time those races were on the ballot. In Virginia, the lieutenant governor — Republican Winsome Earle-Sears — presides over the Senate and acts as a tiebreaking vote, meaning that Republicans need to win just 20 Senate seats to hold functional control of the chamber, while Democrats need 21. However, the lieutenant governor cannot break ties on the budget — arguably the most important matter the legislature considers on a regular basis — so Democrats would retain some sway there in the event of a tied Senate. There is no equivalent tiebreaking vote in the House, so a true 50-50 tie is possible, which happened in the Virginia House in the late 1990s.
The governance stakes have focused on reproductive rights — namely, what sort of limitations on abortion rights that Republicans would attempt to pass if they controlled a governing trifecta in Virginia, with Youngkin pushing for a 15-week ban with exceptions after that for rape, incest, and the health of the mother. Public opinion on abortion is complicated, and Republicans hope that a limitation of 15 weeks is acceptable to the public while Democrats hope that any sort of new restriction on abortion rights is anathema to voters. Looming in the background is the possibility of Youngkin making a late entry into the presidential race: Elite Republicans across the country, pining for an alternative to Donald Trump as the previous top alternative — Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) — has struggled, seem to like Youngkin a great deal.
Youngkin has taken a keen interest in this year’s legislative races, and his Spirit of Virginia PAC is a major financial player in this election, having raised more than $16 million since its inception in 2021. A victory in Virginia’s elections could act as a springboard for Youngkin, although he would have to contend with the reality that every current candidate is well behind former President Donald Trump in both national and early state polls. We also doubt that what happens in Virginia will matter all that much to GOP primary voters in other states. At the moment in the GOP race, there’s not much oxygen for Youngkin — or, for that matter, anyone not named Trump.
Youngkin himself has posted solid approval ratings, although that may at least partially be a function of the divided government he leads. Without unified control of state government, Youngkin and his fellow Republicans are blocked from pursuing more ideologically conservative legislation (we suspect this also plays a role in the popularity of Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who is up for reelection this year and faces a deeply Republican state legislature). That means fewer waves emanating from Richmond in a commonwealth where state government, as is the case in so many other places, seems to take a backseat to national matters.
In last week’s Crystal Ball, Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson noted that Republicans have been doing better in state legislative elections than their presidential performance might suggest. Few states illustrate this better than Virginia, where Joe Biden’s 10.1-point victory in 2020 is not an accurate reflection of the state’s political landscape in an election year such as this one. For Democrats running in state legislative races in Virginia, the presidential results generally represent a difficult-to-reach political ceiling.
Virginia is one of just four states — Louisiana, New Jersey, and Mississippi are the others — that hold state legislative elections in odd-numbered years. Turnout, naturally, is much lower in these elections than it is in presidential and even, generally, midterm elections. In 2019 — the last comparable election to this one, which featured the elections for all 140 seats of the Virginia state legislature but not the elections for statewide officials — the turnout of registered voters was 42.4%, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. That was actually high for this kind of election, although it still lagged the turnout level of the most recent midterm (2022, 49.3% turnout), gubernatorial (2021, 54.9%), and, of course, presidential (75.1%, 2020) elections. Since 1996, when Virginia began to implement the national “motor voter” law that both made it easier to register to vote and eliminated purges of non-voters, the average turnout has been 71.8% in presidentials; 46.7% in gubernatorials; 44.5% in midterms, and 32.9% in elections like this one, standalone odd-year state legislative elections.
It is not necessarily the case that high turnout equals good results for Democrats and low turnout equals good results for Republicans in Virginia. This may particularly be the case in the Trump era, where Democrats have added more affluent, higher-education (and higher turnout) white voters to their coalition. And the share of voters who show up doesn’t tell us anything about who actually does vote. A few examples:
— In 2021, Republicans performed very well in Virginia amidst the highest gubernatorial-year turnout of registered voters in the post-1996 timeframe noted above.
— But it is also the case that in 2019, when turnout in the standalone state legislative election year was by far the highest in this era, Democrats won both chambers.
— That said, consider that in 2014, turnout of registered voters was also about 42% in that midterm election, very similar to 2019: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) was nearly upset that year as Democrats cited low turnout as a problem among their core voters.
We noted above that presidential results in Virginia’s state legislative districts can be deceptive. With just a cursory glance, one might think that winning both chambers should be an easy task for Democrats: Under the current state House and Senate maps, which will be used for the first time this year after their creation by special masters appointed by the state Supreme Court, Joe Biden would have won 59 of the 100 House districts and 24 of the 40 Senate districts. But it is not that simple.
On average, Republicans frequently run ahead of — and Democrats run behind — the presidential margins in their districts. This disconnect makes intuitive sense in Virginia, as these races are not held concurrently with presidential or midterm elections. Let’s look back at the 2015 and 2019 state Senate and 2015-2021 state House elections to illustrate this dynamic. For elections in 2015 and 2017, we compared the legislative results to the 2016 presidential election (sandwiched in between those two elections). For 2019 and 2021, we used the 2020 presidential district-level results. We also accounted for the redrawing of some House districts in advance of the 2019 election, a court-ordered reconfiguring of a GOP-drawn map that assisted Democrats in their bid to flip the state House that year. For each election, we only used elections that featured both a Democratic and Republican nominee. We then compared the difference in the two-party legislative margin to the two-party presidential margin.
In 2015, Democrats in contested races ran well behind the margins Hillary Clinton would win in these House districts a year later — on average, their margin was 22 points worse. At that time, Republicans had what seemed like an unassailable House of Delegates majority: They would win a 66-34 edge in the chamber that year, comparable to other elections in the early 2010s. In the state Senate, the much more competitive chamber at the time, Democrats still did way worse than Clinton would do a year later, but the difference was a smaller 13 points. Republicans held a narrow 21-19 edge that year.
Two years later, Democrats stormed back and shockingly almost won the House, cutting the GOP edge to a slim 51-49 (and they would have forced a split chamber had the Republicans not won a drawing to decide a tied race). In that election, Democrats did nearly as well, on average, in state House districts as Clinton had: They ran just one point behind her margins (Clinton won statewide by a little over 5 points).
In 2019, with both the House and Senate on the ballot — and the point of comparison shifting from 2016 to 2020, when Biden won by a little over 10 points — Democratic candidates in contested races ran on average 7 points behind what Biden would win in House races and 8 points behind in Senate races. (Keep these figures in mind as we’ll revisit them later.) That was good enough for Democrats to win a 55-45 edge in the House and 21-19 in the Senate.
Finally, in 2021, Democratic candidates on average ran 12 points behind Biden in House races, or about 5 points worse than they had done in 2019. That was enough for Republicans to win a 52-48 edge in the House.
Of the 16 key races we’re going to look at in Part Two of this analysis — 10 in the House and 6 in the Senate — Biden won every single one. But Youngkin won roughly two-thirds of them in his 2021 victory. The great question of this election is where the bulk of these races fall on the fairly wide spectrum from Biden 2020 to Youngkin 2021. Youngkin split the Senate districts, 20-20, with his 2021 opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), while Youngkin carried 52 of the 100 state House districts. That basic fact helps reinforce our own thinking, as well as the thinking of others, that the Republicans have a heavier lift in trying to flip the Senate compared to holding the House.
One other important factor is the overall political environment. At the time of the 2021 election, Biden’s national approval rating was 42% approve/52% disapprove, per the FiveThirtyEight average. Right now, the Biden split is slightly worse, 41%/53%. However, it is likely the case that the environment is better for Democrats than it was a couple of years ago. First of all, the Dobbs decision, which came out in summer 2022, is likely helping Democrats and giving them a highly salient issue for this year’s election. One other issue looming over Virginia is the prospect of a federal government shutdown driven by the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, which could hurt Republicans in a state with a lot of federal workers. A 2013 shutdown pushed by Republicans may have helped McAuliffe in his close gubernatorial victory that year, although there were also other federal matters (like the shaky Obamacare rollout right before the election) that could have negatively contributed to McAuliffe’s smaller-than-expected victory.
Additionally, the aggregate results of special elections held all over the country can also tell us something about the political environment. According to calculations from analyst and recent UVA graduate Ethan Chen, Republicans ran on average about 5 points ahead of Donald Trump’s presidential margin in his aggregation of state legislative and a handful of U.S. House special elections held over the course of the 2021 calendar year.
But here in 2023, Chen’s calculations show a reversal of the 2021 trend: It’s now Democrats running ahead of Biden’s performance by an average of 6 points in these special elections so far this year. That sort of overperformance was also apparent in 2022 specials held after the Dobbs decision, and that environmental shift likely contributed to the Democrats’ better-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterms.
Speaking of special elections, a Virginia special from earlier this year stands out. In that race, Republicans ran ahead of Trump, but not by enough to win.
In January, now-state Sen. Aaron Rouse (D) won a special election for a previously Republican-held district in Hampton Roads, which bumped the Democrats’ Senate edge up to 22-18. Biden had won that district by a little under 10 points, roughly matching his 2020 statewide margin. Rouse won by a little under 2 points, meaning he ran about 8 points behind Biden’s margin (Rouse is running in a bluer district on the new map in November that is on the periphery of the competitive map).
That kind of showing is around what Democrats need in the key districts to win majorities in both chambers — if they ran 8 points behind Biden in every district, that would still translate to a 52-48 Democratic edge in the House and 22-18 in the Senate. This is also about what the average difference was between the 2020 presidential results and 2019 state legislative results that we noted above.
So it’s not like Democrats need to match Biden or even really come all that close to him in the key districts. It’s just that they can’t run behind Democratic presidential performance to the extent they did in years like 2015 or 2021. Meanwhile, the Youngkin margins from 2021 provide the roadmap for Republicans — as noted above, capturing the districts he won would give them the House and, very narrowly, the Senate too, thanks to the lieutenant gubernatorial tiebreaker.
Check out the forthcoming Part Two of this analysis for a more detailed look at what we see as the most important races.
— Crystal Ball Associate Editor J. Miles Coleman and summer intern Jackson Hamilton provided valuable background research for this analysis.
See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.
See Other Political Commentary.
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