Blue wave: Dems take General Assembly—but GOP keeps local legislators

Delegate-elect Sally Hudson will be part of the first Democratic majority in the General Assembly in a generation. 
Photo by Eze Amos Delegate-elect Sally Hudson will be part of the first Democratic majority in the General Assembly in a generation. Photo by Eze Amos

Governor Ralph Northam declared Virginia “officially blue” following Tuesday’s election that gave Democrats control of both houses in the General Assembly for the first time in 26 years. And Dems swept Albemarle County, taking the Board of Supervisors, commonwealth’s attorney, and sheriff races.

Yet the local House of Delegates races resulted in no upsets and no surprises. Eleven House districts were redrawn after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that they were racially gerrymandered, but that didn’t affect those around Charlottesville, “which aren’t really drawn to be that competitive,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Republican incumbents Rob Bell and Matt Fariss easily held onto their seats by hefty margins. Steve Landes did not seek reelection and opted for the Augusta clerk of court job instead. His successor, Chris Runion, who vowed to get to Richmond to fight the “liberal left” and protect the unborn, kept the 25th District red, while Democrat Sally Hudson sailed into office unopposed.

Democrats ended Election Day with a 21-19 majority in the Senate, and a 55-45 hold in the House of Delegates.

Kondik is not surprised at the two Democratic flips in the General Assembly. “The Trumpian White House was the driving force,” he says, and the prognosticators are moving Virginia from “leans Democratic” to “likely Democratic.”

So what will a blue legislature mean for the state?

“A Democratic General Assembly can pass the Equal Rights Amendment and be the 38th state to do so,” says Democrat state Senator Creigh Deeds, who easily held onto his seat with 67 percent of the vote over independent challenger Elliott Harding. He also anticipates a $15-an-hour minimum wage and an LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill “to protect all Virginians” to pass in the upcoming session.

Gun safety is another hot-button issue for Democrats after the Virginia Beach shootings and Republicans’ refusal to consider any legislation at a special session in July. Background checks and red flag laws are measures Deeds is “confident” can pass in the next session.

The one local General Assembly race that was surprisingly close was former Charlottesville school board chair Amy Laufer’s challenge to incumbent state Senator Bryce Reeves in the 17th District. Democrat Laufer garnered 48 percent of the vote to Reeves’ 52 percent.

It was also the race that was TV ad-heavy, with Laufer calling out Reeves’ insurance industry connections and Reeves firing back with “lying, liberal Lauper.”

The district was competitive when Reeves was elected in 2011, but Kondik says he would have been surprised if Laufer had won because its rural sections have become more sharply red.

In his victory speech, Reeves sounded like the underdog when he told supporters, “Against all odds, against all the stones, you held the line.” He promised to hold Democrats accountable in Richmond and to fend off “infanticide.”

For David Toscano, outgoing House minority leader, the only surprise in the Dem insurgency was that they took 55 seats rather than the 54 he expected.

He noticed some Republicans using abortion to energize their bases. In most races, “It didn’t pan out for them,” says Toscano. “People were more concerned about guns than reproductive rights. That worked for us.” Immigration was another GOP issue that failed to resonate, he says.

One of the indicators Toscano eyed on Election Day was turnout. “The last off-off-election year, turnout was under 30 percent statewide,” he says. This year, “turnout was off the charts.”

In Albemarle County, turnout was 50 percent compared to 31 percent in 2015. “For an off-off-year election, this is a pretty big jump,” says Albemarle registrar Jake Washburne.

Money was another factor in the 2019 county races, with progressive donor Sonjia Smith putting an eye-popping $114,000 into Democrat Jim Hingeley’s commonwealth’s attorney bid. Hingeley raised $200,000 to oust incumbent Robert Tracci, who raised $119,000, 56 percent to 44 percent.

Smith also pumped $60,000 into Laufer’s race, and gave Hudson nearly $103,000 for the 57th District before Toscano had announced he wouldn’t seek another term.

“I don’t really like how significant money is becoming and candidates relying on one person to get elected,” says Toscano. Huge donations make candidates “too beholden,” he says, and he’d like to see the General Assembly enact some campaign finance restrictions.

A big issue for Charlottesville is the state law that prohibits the removal of Confederate statues. Toscano’s bills the past two years to give localities the power to chart their own statue destiny haven’t gotten out of subcommittee.  He’s certain another bill to do so will be introduced, but doesn’t think its passage is a sure thing. “Some Democrats are a little leery of that bill,” he says. However, Governor Northam says he supports letting localities decide.

Toscano’s prediction for future races: “As long as Trump is in the White House, Democrats are going to do well.”

Political operative Paul Wright, a former Republican who became a Democrat in 2016, was Chan Bryant’s campaign manager. He spent November 5 at Ivy polls. “Turnout was a pleasant surprise,” he says. “The enthusiasm at the polls was clearly with the Democrats.”

He was confident about Bryant’s 8,000-door-knocking campaign, but didn’t expect her to win with 60 percent against former Charlottesville Police spokesman Ronnie Roberts.

He attributes the statewide Dem swell to demographic changes that are making the state bluer, the amount of money Dems had to get their message out, and “compelling candidates.”

He says, “A lot of people were vocal about wanting to send Trump a message.” In contrast, he didn’t see that same intensity from Republicans at the polls.

Democrats took control of the legislature with Republican-drawn lines, says Wright, and he anticipates more competitive races in Albemarle in two years when the lines have been redrawn.

One issue he can’t figure out: “As of today, I have trouble coming up with a pathway for Republicans in Albemarle County.”

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