A once-in-a-generation reboot election heightens stakes in Va. House, Senate races

October 28, 2019 12:02 am

“I Voted” stickers spread out on a table at a polling place in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The curse (or blessing, depending on your viewpoint) of Virginia public life is that every year brings an election. Each is distinct in rhythm and intensity. 

Presidential elections bring the most spending, passion and highest turnouts. One year later, Virginia elects its governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Then come the “off-year” federal elections for U.S. House and Senate races.  

Rounding out the quadrennial cycle is what awaits in eight days: Virginia’s “off-off-year” legislative election. Normally, they’ve been somnolent affairs ― the year voters, fatigued by perennial politics, stay home rather than fret over the General Assembly’s 140 seats. 

There’s nothing normal about 2019 when a once-every-generation quirk of the calendar that could imbue the coming legislative election with extraordinary importance. Republicans, with slim and fragile House and Senate majorities, are desperate not to relinquish their last redoubt of political power in Virginia. Democrats, smelling blood from a wounded GOP president, sense their best opportunity in decades and are all in.

It shows in the numbers. Fundraising through September for this year’s House and Senate races topped $82 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Ahead of the heaviest five weeks of fundraising immediately preceding the election, this year’s candidates nearly matched the $83 million total from 2015, the last off-off-year election. VPAP also reported that in September, Del. Debra Rodman,a Democrat, raised more than $1 million for her Senate bid. That’s nearly double the previous single-candidate September fundraising record of $541,000 set by Democrat Dan Gecker in his unsuccessful 2015 race against Republican Glen Sturtevant for a neighboring suburban Richmond Senate seat.

It’s also apparent from the acrid tone of the races, particularly in the most fiercely contested House and Senate districts where partisan control of the legislature will be decided. The politics of personal insult, a tactic America’s master brander, Donald Trump, employed in 2016, has taken hold in Virginia’s nationalized political climate. 

“Lyin’ Larry” is how Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, refers to Democratic challenger Larry Barnett. And, in this year’s most expensive race, Rodman, a Henrico Democrat, called physician and incumbent Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant a “quack.” In Virginia Beach, a mailer by GOP House candidate Shannon Kane shows her Democratic opponent, Del. Kelly Fowler standing next to MS-13 gang members. 

There’s more than immediate legislative dominance and early 2020 political barometer readings driving this year’s full reboot election. Once every 20 years, Virginia’s off-off-year elections fall in years ending in 9, giving parties that win General Assembly majorities the chance to lock in their numerical advantage for years — even decades—  by dictating the decennial redistricting, always done in years ending in 1. 

The last time it happened, 1999, provided a stark lesson in how political opportunity and the electoral calendar can combine to profoundly change the direction of public policy in Virginia. That year, the Republicans wrested control of the House of Delegates from the Democrats for the first time, creating a majority that still survives. 

That historic shift was engineered by S. Vance Wilkins, who spent years driving hundreds of thousands of miles across the state to recruit and fund GOP House candidates who ate away at the Democratic House majority during the 1980s and ‘90s, then won it all in 1999.  

“The Democrats kept the majority in 1991, and after they did, they stuck 15 Republicans and one independent into eight (House) seats to keep control,” said Wilkins, who served as the first Republican speaker of the House of Delegates before he resigned in 2002 amid a sexual harassment scandal. “It did a number on us.”

“When I got the chance to put things right in 2001, I put 14 Democrats in seven seats,” he said. “We did the same thing to them that they had done to us, but not as bad.”

In 2001, under new maps drawn earlier that year, Republicans went from a bare majority to two-thirds of the House’s seats. The party would also control as many as eight of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts in subsequent years. Democrats won a state Senate majority in 2007, but Republicans subsequently regained control and are fighting this year to keep it.

Over time, thanks to changing demographics and inevitable natural flows of politics, the partisan performance of many politically engineered districts becomes less reliable. Democrats benefited in recent years from the growth of Virginia’s suburbs and from a 2018 federal court ruling that GOP-drawn legislative lines unconstitutionally diluted black voting strength. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in June, dealing the GOP and particularly key House Republicans a potentially staggering blow.

“I can tell you our side is ready,” said Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax County. 

“We’re getting reports that absentee balloting this year is up by 300, in some cases 400 percent over 2015,” he said, referencing the last time all legislative seats were up for election.

What could change it all, Saslaw noted, is a proposed state constitutional amendment that could take reapportionment out of the hands of lawmakers and invest it in a 16-member independent commission. The House and Senate approved the amendment in February, but it must be passed a second time, without amendment, after an intervening legislative election before voters could decide whether to ratify it no earlier than November 2020. 

“Ask me again in two weeks,” Saslaw said. “The picture should be a lot clearer then.”  

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]