When Virginia Democrats didn’t lose a statewide election from 2012 through 2020, the conventional wisdom shifted toward viewing Virginia as an out-and-out blue state. But in 2021, the Old Dominion reaffirmed its purple bona fides when the GOP narrowly swept all three state offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — as well as the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the state’s General Assembly. This left Democrats in control of only the state Senate — which wasn’t on the ballot in 2021 — where their small advantage stood as the main impediment to Republicans’ ability to implement their legislative priorities.
But this November, Republicans could capture the Senate in Virginia’s 2023 legislative midterm elections. If they can also hold onto the House, where they won a 52-to-48 seat majority in 2021, victory in the upper chamber would give them a “trifecta” — control of the governorship and both chambers in the state legislature — for the first time since 2013. GOP victories in Virginia could open the door to conservative initiatives, most notably Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed 15-week abortion ban, which would reverse Virginia’s status as the last Southern state with lesser restrictions on abortion rights.
Looking ahead, Republicans will hope that Youngkin’s strong job approval rating and public concern about issues like education and public safety will boost their fortunes. Yet Democrats still have a decent shot at retaining the Senate, where Democrats hold a 22-to-18 seat advantage, and even winning back the House, despite President Biden’s weak approval rating. This is thanks in part to the electorate’s concerns about abortion, an issue that has troubled Republicans since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
These state and national forces are also playing out on new legislative maps, which have helped precipitate a huge number of open-seat races in both chambers via legislators’ retirements and runs for higher office.
What the polls say about the electoral environment
We don’t have a lot of polling to go on, but things look highly competitive. A handful of recent polls asking likely voters in Virginia if they plan to vote for a Democrat or Republican in the upcoming General Assembly election (much like generic ballot surveys for U.S. House of Representatives elections) have found party preferences pretty evenly split.
Virginia voters are sharply split on their preferred party
Generic ballot polls of likely voters for the 2023 state legislative elections in Virginia, since late September 2023
Washington Post/Schar School
Christopher Newport University
Sept. 28-Oct. 11
*The poll required respondents to choose a preference, while other polls had alternative responses such as “other” or refused.
Three surveys conducted between late September and mid-October gave Democrats a nominal advantage, but each result was well within each poll’s margin of error. In mid-October, The Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School found Democrats up by 2 percentage points, while the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University found Democrats just ahead, but with a larger share of undecided voters. The GOP pollster co/efficient found similar data in its early October survey. Its mid-October survey then found the parties tied at 50 percent, but unlike the other surveys, the pollster compelled respondents who were undecided to pick a side.
These polls also showed how perceptions of Biden might weigh down Democrats. Both the Washington Post/Schar School and Christopher Newport surveys found Biden’s approval rating in the low 40s. The last legislative midterm in 2019 demonstrated why this could matter. That year, Democrats captured the Senate and House of Delegates to gain a trifecta for the first time since 1993, thanks in part to then-President Donald Trump’s moribund standing. They managed this despite the controversy surrounding then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat, who in early 2019 faced calls to resign after a racist photo from his medical school yearbook surfaced. Here in 2023, though, there is an unpopular Democrat in the White House and a clearly popular GOP governor in Richmond. Recent surveys have placed Youngkin’s job approval in the mid-50s, while Northam’s approval was in the 40s in most polls heading into the 2019 election.
The issues affecting the landscape
Democrats hope that abortion, and fear over the implications of a Republican trifecta for abortion rights in the state, might mitigate damage from Biden’s poor standing. In the Christopher Newport poll, nearly three-fourths of respondents thought Virginia’s current abortion law — which permits abortions up to about 26 weeks into a pregnancy (with certain exceptions beyond that point) — should remain as it is or become less restrictive. As of late September, tracking firm Ad Impact found that more than 40 percent of television ads run by Democratic candidates had highlighted abortion rights, making it far and away Democrats’ most-mentioned issue. Such messaging could strike a chord: The Washington Post/Schar School poll found 60 percent viewed abortion as “very important” to their vote, not far from the 68 percent who said the same of the economy. Similarly, 17 percent in the Christopher Newport poll said abortion was top of mind, second only to the 27 percent who named the economy. More broadly, the Post/Schar poll found that 48 percent thought it would be a “bad thing” if Republicans gained full control of government, compared with 43 percent who said it would be a “good thing.”
Elections in 2022 and 2023 demonstrated that the post-Dobbs landscape may be more advantageous to Democrats. Nationally, voters who somewhat disapproved of Biden broke very slightly for the president’s party instead of the opposition party, a change from past midterms. And in special elections for congressional and state legislative seats in 2023, Democrats have substantially outperformed expectations, on average, compared with the partisan lean of those districts. Among those was a Virginia special election in which now-Sen. Aaron Rouse, a Democrat, flipped a formerly Republican-held state Senate seat in January. That race centered on abortion, too, and Rouse’s victory may have prevented Republicans from having a shot at passing a more restrictive law.
Still, Republicans aim to ride other issues, particularly education, to majority control. That topic has featured most often in Republican ads, along with more traditional GOP messaging issues like public safety and taxes. The focus on education undoubtedly follows Youngkin’s 2021 example, when he centered much of his campaign on parental rights issues that resonated with voters in the wake of COVID-era remote learning, masking policies and controversy over critical race theory. Voters are still thinking about education: 70 percent told the Post/Schar poll education was “very important” to their vote, putting it in the same company as the economy. And while that same survey found that voters were slightly more likely to trust Democrats than Republicans on handling education — 47 percent to 41 percent — there’s been a broader decrease in Democrats’ traditional edge on this issue since the pandemic that the GOP is looking to capitalize on.
Key races and electoral math
Although there’ll be 140 elections on the ballot, most seats are uncompetitive, so a few key contests will decide party control. Synthesizing information from the Virginia Public Access Project, Cnalysis and Elections Daily, the maps below highlight those highly competitive districts to watch in each chamber and how they voted in the 2021 gubernatorial and 2022 U.S. House elections.
In the Senate, Democrats appear to have a slight advantage. Of the chamber’s 40 seats, Democrats are clearly favored in 19 seats versus the GOP’s 16. That means Democrats need to win just two of the five highly competitive races to retain an outright majority, while Republicans need four of the five to get to a 20-20 tie, which would hand them control via Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears’s tiebreaking vote.
Of these competitive Senate races, three in particular probably hold the key to the next majority because of how expensive they’ve become, and because two involve the most endangered incumbents in the chamber.
In the 16th District in the Richmond suburbs, incumbent Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant faces Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg in a seat that redistricting shifted from fairly even to Democratic-leaning — Youngkin lost it by 6 points and Democratic congressional candidates carried it by 10 points in 2022. Dunnavant has only narrowly outraised VanValkenburg, but she’s leaned into her background as an OB-GYN doctor to fend off Democratic attacks over abortion.
In the 24th District in southeast Virginia, incumbent Democratic Sen. Monty Mason is battling Republican Danny Diggs, a retired sheriff. Although Mason has outraised Diggs, this seat presents the GOP’s best shot at taking down a Democratic incumbent, as Youngkin carried the district by 3 points and Democrats won by 1 point in 2022. Mason has stressed his support for abortion rights and reducing gun violence, while Diggs has backed Youngkin’s 15-week abortion limit and backed tougher penalties for criminal offenders.
In Northern Virginia’s exurbs, the open 31st District is a seat that Youngkin carried by less than 1 point and Democrats won by almost 6 points in 2022. The contest has turned into an extremely expensive race between Democrat Russet Perry and Republican Juan Pablo Segura. Perry has attacked Segura’s support for Youngkin’s 15-week abortion ban proposal, while Segura has highlighted his support for parental rights in education. Education is an especially salient issue in Loudoun County, where in 2021 the school system’s handling of a sexual assault case involving two students provoked a firestorm.
Control of the House is also very much up in the air. Overall, Democrats appear favored in 48 seats and Republicans in 44, leaving eight highly competitive seats that are most likely to decide the majority.
Most of these races are in districts that Youngkin carried in 2021 and House Democratic candidates carried in 2022. And all of them are in suburban or exurban areas of the state’s three major metropolitan areas of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
Six of these eight seats are open, while two races include Republican incumbents trying to stay in office. In the 82nd District south of Richmond, GOP Del. Kim Taylor has been neck-and-neck in fundraising with Democrat Kimberly Pope Adams, while in the 97th District in Virginia Beach, Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh had a sizable war chest edge over Democrat Michael Feggans heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
Meanwhile, the race that’s attracted the most attention is the 57th District in the western Richmond suburbs. There, Republican David Owen might now have an edge in this swing seat after news broke in September that Democrat Susanna Gibson had performed sex acts with her husband in live online videos. While this revelation probably hurt Gibson — Owen outraised her in September after trailing Gibson earlier in the money race — the contest may still be quite competitive. After all, the Republican Party of Virginia raised eyebrows this week when it sent anti-Gibson materials to voters that featured censored screenshots from the videos. Elsewhere, an open seat on the map that might surprise is the 30th District in the exurbs of Northern Virginia, a district that has a GOP lean but where Democrat Rob Banse has substantially outraised Republican Geary Higgins.
Overall, Democrats in competitive Senate and House seats have spent more on ads, according to AdImpact. Yet there’s plenty of money to go around in both chambers. Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC has shelled out more than $3 million to Republican candidates, and the lingering hope among Republican donors that the governor might mount a late run for president has potentially helped his fundraising efforts for Virginia Republicans. National Democratic-aligned groups like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the States Project have also gotten involved with millions of their own.
Low turnout is a given, but who shows up will matter
One last thing to keep in mind with the 2023 election is turnout. While who shows up always matters, participation in Virginia’s legislative midterms is usually quite low, so a surge in Democratic or Republican turnout could have an outsized impact on the results. In 2019, about 39 percent of Virginia’s voting-eligible population cast a ballot, well below the turnout rate in the 2020 presidential (72 percent), 2021 gubernatorial (52 percent) and 2022 federal midterm (48 percent) elections.
Yet 2019’s turnout was actually far higher than in previous legislative midterms, in line with a broader trend of increased turnout in Trump era elections — as seen in the 2017 gubernatorial, 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections. This higher degree of voter engagement has continued into Biden’s term with even higher turnout in the 2021 gubernatorial race and continued high turnout in the 2022 midterms.
As a result, we can probably expect turnout this November to be higher than pre-2019 legislative midterms, although how much higher is harder to say. Considering the high stakes of these elections in deciding whether Republicans will take full control of Virginia’s state government, both parties will be fighting hard, and spending big, to turn out their bases.
Virginia's legislative contests may be the most important races in 2023 originally appeared on abcnews.go.com