Virginia Democrats win control of General Assembly, sealing Trump-era power shift

By: - November 6, 2019 12:07 am

Lily Mirjahangiri cheers as Democrat Ghazala Hashmi takes the stage as a newly elected Virginia senator at an election party in downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Democrats won enough seats in Tuesday’s elections to take control of the General Assembly next year, ushering in an era of unified Democratic governance for the first time in a quarter-century.

Powered by a spike in voter turnout for a legislative election year, Democrats gained at least eight seats, locking in majorities in both the state Senate and the House of Delegates.

Given full control of state government for the first time since 1993, Democrats will have the power to take action on progressive priorities like gun control, LGBTQ protections, gender equality and raising the minimum wage.

Republicans — long accustomed to controlling the policy agenda in one or both chambers — will be relegated to minority status in the legislature, eliminating the last stronghold of power for a party that hasn’t won a statewide office in a decade.

All 140 seats in the state legislature were up for election. But the outcome was decided in a few dozen suburban battlegrounds where voter resistance to President Donald Trump has forced Republicans to play defense.

Gov. Ralph Northam leads a chant of “Blue! Wave!” at a watch party downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

At a victory party in a hotel ballroom in downtown Richmond, the crowd’s volume grew progressively louder as emcees took the stage to announce each flip. Around 10 p.m., Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam took the stage to declare “Virginia is officially blue” and lead the crowd in a “blue wave” chant.

“Tomorrow, the work begins,” Northam said.

In the Senate – where Republicans had held a 21-19 majority – Democrats gained at least two seats, achieving a 21-seat margin with a handful of contests still undecided. Democratic Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, defeated Republican Geary Higgins in the Northern Virginia district long represented by retiring Republican Sen. Dick Black. In the Richmond suburbs, Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, a college professor who will become the first Muslim-American woman to serve in the state legislature, defeated Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield.

“I guess I’ve proven that Ghazala is truly an American name,” Hashmi said to the cheering ballroom crowd.

Democrat Ghazala Hashmi speaks after winning her senate race against Republican Glen Sturtevant at an election party in downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. Hashmi is first Muslim woman elected to the Virginia Senate. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

In the more unpredictable House contests, Democrats picked up at least five seats, resulting in a majority of at least 55 seats, according to unofficial results.

The power shift caps an extraordinary turn for a chamber where Republicans held a 66-34 majority just a few years ago. That majority was almost wiped out in the 2017 blue wave, when Democrats gained 15 seats and Republicans had to win a random tiebreaker to keep a 51-seat majority. On Tuesday, Democrats finished the job, defending all 15 seats they added in 2017 and adding six more.

“Virginia, we heard you loud and clear,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. “What a mandate.”

One of the first orders of business for the incoming Democratic majority will be selecting a replacement for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. Several Democrats are said to be interested in the job, and a meeting has been scheduled for Saturday. Depending on how that leadership debate plays out, the House could be led by a woman or a person of color for the first time in its 400-year history.

Cox, the House majority leader, survived a challenge from Sheila Bynum-Coleman in a district that was redrawn to be more favorable to Democrats after a key racial gerrymandering decision last year.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, declared victory at his election night party . (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In a brief victory speech to supporter at the Keystone Tractor Museum in Colonial Heights, Cox said the campaign was successful because he ran on protecting conservative values.

“I feel like the luckiest person in the world,” Cox told the crowd of supporters. “With that, we won.”

He slipped out of the back of the museum without talking to reporters.

Another senior House Republican wasn’t so lucky. Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who has been in the General Assembly since 1998 and chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee, conceded defeat to Democrat Clint Jenkins, who manages a real estate business.

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who easily won re-election in his conservative district, released a statement attributing the outcome to “liberal judicial gerrymandering and millions of dollars in outside spending from Democrat billionaires and special interests.”

“Virginians should expect public policies that look a lot more like the train-wreck that is California than the Virginia of good fiscal management and common-sense conservative governance,” Gilbert said. “Republican policies have kept Virginians safe, prosperous, and free for more than two decades. In the months ahead, Democrats will seek to make good on their extreme agenda. We will fight that agenda at every turn.”

Tuesday’s results also ensure Democrats will be in control for the 2021 redistricting process, when the General Assembly – or potentially a bipartisan commission sought by redistricting reform advocates – will redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps for the next decade.

The Democratic victory could also transform the second half of Northam’s four-year term in office after his political career nearly came to an abrupt end over the blackface scandal that erupted in February. Numerous Republican campaign ads spotlighted the racist photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, but the controversy didn’t appear to turn voters away from Democrats. With Democratic majorities able to pass bills that will need his signature to become law, Northam will play a key role in setting the party’s new agenda.

“Oh my goodness, what an opportunity for him to be able to sign all these bills,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has been a regular presence for Democrats on the 2019 campaign trail nearly two years after he left office.

Around the state, voters made clear national politics — and Trump in particular – were top of mind as they cast their ballots.

“I’m fighting him 1,000 percent,” said Tony Washington, a 54-year-old disabled Navy veteran. He voted for the Democratic candidates for state House and Senate at his polling place at Colonial Baptist Church in Virginia Beach. That meant Del. Kelly Fowler in House District 21 and Del. Cheryl Turpin, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican Jen Kiggans for the open Senate District 7 seat vacated by Frank Wagner earlier this year.

“Republicans are being blind to the true issues,” Washington said. “They stand in line” with Trump. “It all trickles down” – even to the state and local levels.

It was a common sentiment among Democrats, many of whom said that while they didn’t necessarily know much about the candidate they were supporting, they wanted to send a message to the GOP.

“He’s very unpresidential,” Joe Haskin, a production manager at a chemical plant who said he hadn’t had time to follow the election, said after casting his ballot in southern Chesterfield County.

But Republicans appeared to benefit from a Trump bump of their own – voters who said that, while in past year’s they wouldn’t have bothered to cast ballots in local statehouse elections, their support of Trump has inspired them to become more politically involved.

“This is our first time,” said Rick McKinney, who voted in Chesterfield with his wife, Leslie. The couple, who work in retail, described Trump’s candidacy and subsequent election as a political awakening that’s driven them to the polls every year since. “We registered to vote just for Trump.”

And then there were the Republican voters the party spent much of the campaign fretting over: suburbanites who in the past have delivered high margins but are turned off by the president.

“Kirk Cox – I always like the guy,” said Barton Atkins, a tire salesman from Colonial Heights on his way to cast a ballot for the Republican House Speaker. “I’m not a big fan of Trump, but I wanted to support our state Republicans.”

At Glen Allen High School in Henrico, 71-year-old Carole Miller said she was voting for General Assembly Republicans as a show of support for Trump, a president she said “stands up for rights” and supports the military and religion.

“I don’t know another soul that could do and accomplish what he’s done under all the adversity he’s had to stand up to,” said Miller, a retired property manager. “Just think if he had support what he could do. He’s had to fight. For everything.

But at Henrico County’s Lakeside Elementary School, Teresa Hurt said she was voting for the Democrats because she wants a Virginia that’s “more fair for all.”

“I want to make sure there’s a change,” said Hurt, a 59-year-old retiree. “And the change stays.”

Ned Oliver, Mechelle Hankerson and Roger Chesley contributed.


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.