Commentary

Virginia heads into the fall as a barometer for U.S. House control

August 29, 2022 12:02 am

If you are determined to stay awake until you know which political party will control the U.S. House of Representatives next year, you will be sleepless throughout the long night of Nov. 8 and possibly past dawn on Nov. 9.

Or, if you want a pretty good idea how things are going to go, just follow a pair of Virginia races in the state’s 2nd and 7th Congressional Districts. Those two bellwethers are likely to presage a trend for one party or the other.

“If Virginia 7 flips, I think that’s indicative of a pretty good night for Republicans,” said Kyle Kondik, a researcher at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and managing editor of its nationally followed newsletter, “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.”

“Likewise, if Virginia 2 stays Democratic, that’s the kind of world in which Democrats could still be holding the House,” he said.

Both races feature incumbent Democratic women elected in the 2018 blue wave midterms who are being challenged for a third term by Republican women in brand-new districts whose electoral history and demographics make them prime political barometers.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA). (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The respected Cook Political Report rates the 7th District race between Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Republican nominee Yesli Vega and the 2nd District contest pitting Rep. Elaine Luria against Jennifer Kiggans, a Republican state senator from Virginia Beach, as toss-up races — two of 33 nationwide that, by Cook’s reckoning, could break either way.

The “Crystal Ball” and the nonpartisan Inside Elections also rated Luria’s district as a toss-up as of last week, but both gave a very tenuous edge to Spanberger in the 7th District. Sabato’s newsletter listed 21 House races nationally as a coin-toss, and Inside Politics listed 19.

The political cognoscenti forecast a Republican takeover of the House, where Democrats as of last week held 221 seats and Republicans held 212. The GOP needs to flip just five Democratic seats to take the majority. Out-of-power parties have a built-in advantage in midterm elections. And this year, the major steering currents – an uncertain economy with the highest inflation in 40 years and an unpopular president – are headwinds for Democrats.

Democrats are given better odds for retaining control of the Senate. But Virginia is sitting out this fall’s Senate races. Sen. Mark Warner won a new six-year term in 2020; Sen. Tim Kaine is up for re-election in 2024. So that puts all the focus on the U.S. House races.

Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega (left). (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

Besides the 2nd and 7th districts, the only other race generating buzz is Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton’s bid to keep her 10th District seat in Northern Virginia. Reapportionment added GOP-leaning precincts in Rappahannock and Fauquier counties to her district, making it less favorable than the 10th District she won twice before. But it is still a district that has given Democrats comfortable margins in recent elections, though former Gov. Terry McAuliffe edged out Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin by just 1.6 percentage points there last fall. Cook and Inside Elections rate Wexton’s seat as safe from little-known GOP challenger Hung Cao. Sabato is slightly less generous, downgrading Wexton’s seat this summer from “safe” to “likely Democratic.”

With the stakes so high, expect unprecedented spending on Virginia’s marquee House races underwritten by national partisan organizations such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. There will be even more by secretive special interest groups whose donors are opaque and whose claims are often wildly exaggerated, sometimes false.

In the final week of the summer doldrums, before campaigns throttle up for the fall’s stretch run, the advertising spend was nearly $7 million in the 2nd ($2.8 million supporting Luria or attacking Kiggans; just shy of $4 million on Kiggans’ behalf or attacking Luria) and nearly $9 million in the 7th, with its pricier D.C.-area media market ($4.7 million for Spanberger or slamming Vega; $4 million supporting Vega or attacking Spanberger). And those figures, based on Federal Communications Commission filings tabulated by the Virginia Public Access Project, don’t include independent expenditures by outside organizations allied with various candidates or parties.

Virginia 2 ... just so happens to be the median district for presidential performance of all 435 districts in the country.

– Kyle Kondik

Virginia’s new U.S. House district lines bear little resemblance to those of 2020. They were drafted by the state Supreme Court, a task foisted onto the justices after the new independent redistricting commission failed to do the job. Analysts who’ve crunched precinct-by-precinct election data say the plan is balanced overall. Rural districts in the Southside, Southwest and Shenandoah Valley will remain predictably Republican. Urbanized and suburban districts near the Beltway will reliably back Democrats. The battlegrounds are in districts that meld rural areas with urban or suburban ones.

U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk.

The fiercest is likely to be Luria’s fight for survival in a district that covers Virginia’s entire Atlantic Coast, from the Eastern Shore’s border with Maryland to the North Carolina line before it juts westward. Redistricting cost Luria Democratic-friendly precincts in Norfolk and on the Peninsula. Her district, now slightly redder, is also known for shifting partisan allegiances. Should Kiggans win, it will be the fifth time since 2000 that one party has taken the seat from the other.

“An interesting thing about Virginia 2 is that it just so happens to be the median district for presidential performance of all 435 districts in the country,” Kondik said. That means if you took all the new districts and arrayed them along a spectrum from the strongest support for Trump in 2020 to the strongest for Biden, “the one smack-dab in the middle at 218 is Virginia 2, and Biden won it by 2 (percentage) points,” he added.

A year later, Youngkin would carry those same precincts by 11 percentage points over McAuliffe.

Luria and Kiggans are both Navy veterans in a district closely tied to the world’s largest naval base and highly attuned to foreign affairs and national security. Luria is betting heavily on her role on the House committee probing the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol siege by a mob loyal to former President Donald Trump. The only endangered Democrat on the panel, Luria had a starring role in the nationally televised July 21 primetime hearing, during which her questioning led witnesses to detail the former president’s callous inaction as rioters intent on hanging then-Vice President Mike Pence came within feet of him inside the Capitol before his besieged security detail evacuated him from it.

State Sen. Jennifer Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

How much her moment in the spotlight will help or hurt Luria is unknowable. It will steel the resolve of Trump admirers to vote against her just as it will motivate those who detest the former president to vote for her.

But bigger issues are at play in the highly nationalized 2nd and 7th District races. While the economy favors the GOP, that edge could soften if energy prices continue easing and inflation cools.

Other issues emerged over the summer from which Spanberger and Luria could benefit. The most potent is the conservative U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal in June of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that upheld women’s right to reproductive autonomy for 49 years, unleashing furious protest and handing Democrats a formidable organizational, fundraising and mobilization tool. Republicans were alarmed when voters in conservative Kansas resoundingly defeated a referendum on a proposed statewide abortion ban. Abortion also figured significantly in Democrat Pat Ryan’s victory last week in a special election to fill a vacant New York House seat.

Biden remains a burden on Democrats, but his fortunes improved over the summer. He won passage for several key pieces of his policy agenda in a narrowly divided Congress. In the middle of it all, he authorized a precision missile strike that killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist and architect of the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawhari, as he sipped his morning coffee on the balcony of his Kabul townhouse.

Though his poll numbers have been underwater for a full year, Biden’s job approval mark in the Real Clear Politics Average of Polls surged last week to 42%, its highest mark since early May and a 5 percentage point jump from his all-time low of 36.8% a month earlier.

“Could Democrats actually hold the House? I don’t think the door’s entirely slammed shut. Maybe it’s cracked open more than it was,” Kondik said. “But if the Democrats are going to hold onto it, Virginia 2 is the kind of seat they need to hang onto.”

This story has been corrected to note that reapportionment added GOP-leaning precincts in Rappahannock, not Loudoun, County to the 10th District.

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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]

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