Rouse on track to flip GOP seat, boosting Democratic edge in Virginia Senate

Democrats declare victory in special election ahead of 2023 General Assembly session

By: - January 10, 2023 10:03 pm

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Democrat Aaron Rouse, a former professional football player who served on the Virginia Beach City Council, declared victory in a closely watched special election Tuesday for an open state Senate seat as he appeared set to give Senate Democrats a stronger majority heading into the 2023 legislative session.

As of late Tuesday night, Rouse seemed to have narrowly defeated Republican Kevin Adams, a Navy veteran, in a close finish that underscored the district’s toss-up status. With all votes counted except provisional ballots and late-arriving mail ballots, Rouse received 50.41% of the vote according to unofficial results posted Tuesday night, compared to 49.51% for Adams. Those results are not yet official, but Rouse led Adams by almost 350 votes.

The outcome, if it holds, will give Senate Democrats more power to block Republican proposals, such as tougher abortion restrictions, pushed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates in the legislative session that starts Wednesday.

“The people of Norfolk and Virginia Beach have delivered a powerful mandate: Glenn Youngkin’s hateful and extreme attempts to ban access to safe, legal abortion have no place in the Commonwealth,” Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker said in a news release Tuesday night.

Republican leaders had not yet weighed in on the results shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Last year, Democrats had a 21-19 majority in the upper chamber. The addition of Rouse would grow that majority to 22-18, allowing the Democrats to vote down legislation even if one of their members sides with Republicans.

The apparent Democratic victory is somewhat temporary, because all 140 General Assembly seats will be up for election again this fall, when the state will use its redrawn legislative districts for the first time after the pandemic-delayed 2021 redistricting process. Still, a Rouse win would put Senate Democrats in a better position heading into the regular election cycle as Republicans reassess their chances of winning a Senate majority in November.

Republicans will continue to control the House of Delegates with a 52-48 majority after two other special elections held Tuesday produced no surprises.

The competitive 7th District Senate seat came open after its former occupant, Republican Jen Kiggans, flipped a Democratic-held congressional seat by defeating former Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in November. Kiggans was recently sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives after a tumultuous intra-GOP speakership fight delayed the process for several days.

Democrats and abortion rights supporters had characterized the Virginia Beach election as a referendum of sorts on how Virginia should respond to the demise of Roe v. Wade. Rouse campaigned as an adamant defender of maintaining abortion access in Virginia, while Adams indicated he supports Youngkin’s push for tougher restrictions on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The PAC arm of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia said it was putting $100,000 behind Rouse’s candidacy, and the group framed the race as an opportunity to protect abortion access by growing the Democratic majority in the Senate.

“The voters of SD-07 responded loudly and clearly that they want to see abortion protected, not banned — as do the majority of Virginians all throughout the commonwealth,” Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said in a news release congratulating Rouse. “When our rights are on the line, voters show up in support of reproductive freedom.”

Adams pitched himself as a Youngkin ally in campaign ads that often featured images of the governor, whose Spirit of Virginia PAC contributed nearly $250,000 to the Adams campaign, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Republicans also attacked Rouse for comments he made at a 2020 rally following the police killing of George Floyd in which Rouse compared 21st-century policing to the “slave patrols” of Virginia’s racist past.

In Tuesday’s two other special elections to fill General Assembly vacancies, Democrat Holly Siebold won a Democratic-leaning seat in Northern Virginia and Republican Ellen Campbell won a Republican-leaning seat in western Virginia. Siebold will replace former Del. Mark Keam, a longtime Democratic lawmaker who resigned to take a job in the Biden administration. Campbell will replace her late husband, former Del. Ronnie Campbell of Amherst County, who died of cancer late last year.

The General Assembly will gavel in at noon Wednesday, with lawmakers set to debate taxes, abortion, the mental health system and energy prices in a a short, election-year session.


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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.