Both Virginia State Houses in Play This Year

A statue of Capt. John Smith stands over the site of the 1607 fort in Jamestown, Virginia. (Photo by Roger Green/National Park Service)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — President Trump hopes to turn Virginia red for the first time in more than a decade in 2020, but analysts see a different outlook for the commonwealth. Trump will find out just how strong his message is this year, as all 140 House and state Senate seats are up for election before the end of 2019.

Politico reported Friday that those close to Trump say he has set his gaze on states he lost in 2016, including Virginia; he’s even sent Vice President Mike Pence to Richmond to help fundraise.

But recent election history, and polling data, paints a challenging picture.

While 2013’s gubernatorial race saw Republican Ken Cuccinelli lose to Democrat Terry McAuliffe by about 3 points, those margins shifted dramatically after Trump took office. In 2017, Governor Ralph Northam overtook former Republican fundraiser Republican Ed Gillespie — a moderate — by about 9 points. That margin jumped again in 2018 when Senator Tim Kaine beat Trump acolyte Cory Stewart by almost 16 points.

And Trump’s numbers aren’t much better; a February Quinnipiac University poll put the president’s approval rating at 36 points in the state.

According to Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies in Fredericksburg, there’s little in the tea leaves that would suggest something different for the 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats up for grabs this year.

“The old saying ‘all politics is local’ hasn’t been as true in Virginia lately,” Farnsworth said in a telephone interview. He cited the 2017 statehouse elections which saw Democrats pick up 15 seats and nearly take over the House in what many considered a blue wave.

While the candidates did not go head to head against Trump, his actions, in the eyes of analysts, triggered the increased Democratic turnout.

“Trump dominates the news cycle like no president in a generation,” Farnsworth said. “And the efforts to create a counternarrative about [scandals] in Richmond might be difficult to sustain.”

Virginia Republicans are clinging to stories that Governor Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, admit being involved in, or wearing, blackface during college. Meanwhile, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, also a Democrat, faced renewed questions about sexual abuse allegations he managed to dodge during his 2017 run for office.

Trump has taken shots at the governor on Twitter, and the state’s Republican Party has followed suit with press releases and tweets dragging Northam and company through the mud, despite their own blackface scandal with Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.

Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox called for, but failed to follow through with, an investigation into the Fairfax allegations during the 2019 legislative session which ended last month.

Shaun Kenney, former state Republican Party executive director, thinks these scandals might taint the Democrats in the short term, but Republicans have failed to offer a reasonable alternative and continue to be burdened by scandals in other parts of the state.

“Democrats may not know the appropriate use for shoe polish,” he said, before pointing to the racially motivated violence that continues to haunt Charlottesville after 2017’s deadly gathering of white nationalists that left one woman, Heather Heyer, dead, and dozens injured.

After the murder, Trump said there were bad people on “both sides,” though one of those sides waved Nazi flags.  

“That doesn’t mean the GOP has figured out the appropriate use for Tiki torches and citronella either,” Kenney said.  

Beyond the scandals in Richmond and Washington, D.C., there’s another player in Virginia which could be the saving grace for the Republicans’ current majority: the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court in March heard arguments on the state’s House district maps for the second time.

The first time the court found lines drawn in 2011 were racially gerrymandered. They were overturned and redrawn with a map many considered favored Democrats. Republicans appealed and returned to the Supreme Court, this time with a Republican-appointed majority. While the court denied a Republican request for a stay, allowing the new maps to go into effect for now, the possibility remains that the reconstituted court reverse itself, and keep previous years’ lines.

Republicans have made other efforts to improve their standing in an increasingly diversified political landscape as a record number of women and candidates of color have entered the race.

Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said in a telephone interview that this increase in diversity means the Republican Party might finally be becoming cognizant of its lack of diversity.

“You don’t want the image of the party to be all white men in an increasingly diversifying country and commonwealth,” she said.

There have been a handful of retirements on both sides of the isle, but mostly from the Republicans, with five delegates retiring and two running for state Senate seats.

Three Democratic delegates are running for state Senate and House Minority Leader David Toscano is retiring.

“One of the key signs for when your party is headed to a bad election is when you say you don’t want to run again,” Farnsworth said. “A lot of Democrats aren’t making that call.”

But Chaz Nuttycombe, a Virginia political analyst who focuses on voter and precinct data, said in a telephone interview that analysts from outside Virginia are “egregiously incorrect (in) saying Dems are heavily favored to win the house.”

He cited two of the Democratic delegates who are leaving vulnerable districts to run for state Senate. “If we lose those two seats and win the other three seats Republicans hold that we’re favored in, that’s a tied House,” he said.

Nuttycombe said he was looking forward to the first round of fundraising data, expected in mid-April.

“I’ve heard good things about Democratic fundraising, so I’m expecting to move some seats and probably my chamber rating leftward,” he said.

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