Updated 6:46 p.m.
Less than 24 hours after Republicans swept all three of Virginia’s statewide offices and reclaimed the majority in the House of Delegates, the fight over the speakership had begun. The first to throw his hat in the ring is Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, who announced Wednesday afternoon that he would run for the top job in the House.
“Since the Republican Caucus of the House of Delegates picked up enough seats to take back the majority, I am announcing my intention to run for Speaker,” Kilgore said in a news release. “It is time for fresh leadership and leadership that will keep and grow our new majority. Let’s get to work!” Republicans flipped seven seats in the House, winning back the majority with 52-48.
Kilgore, 60, has represented House District 1 – the state’s westernmost district – since 1994. His is a safe seat for Republicans, and he ran unopposed in Tuesday’s election. Kilgore currently serves on the Commerce and Labor, Courts of Justice and Rules committees, and he was the House Republican campaign chair for the 2021 elections. Last weekend, he hosted then-gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at a campaign event at his farm in Scott County.
Kilgore’s vying for the speakership will almost certainly set off an intra-party clash with Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House Minority Leader. Gilbert has represented the 15th House district since 2006 and became House Majority Leader in 2018, when former Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, assumed the speakership.
After the 2019 elections, when Democrats won the majority in the House, Gilbert became the minority leader. He did not comment on Kilgore’s announcement Wednesday.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that there is no advantage to waiting when a candidate seeks to step up to this role. “You want to let people know early on that you’re interested and start building up the base of support to make it clear that you’re the candidate with the inside track on that very powerful job,” he said.
While Kilgore’s record in the House and in the Virginia GOP makes him a top candidate to become the next Speaker, Gilbert has been “a very aggressive” minority leader, Farnsworth said. “The judgement that a lot of members will make on his suitability to be Speaker will be based on how they felt about how he has treated them during these two years in the minority,” he said, adding that the fact that Republicans lost the majority in the House during Gilbert’s tenure as the leader will likely have little negative impact on his electability.
“For some, losing the majority might be pinned on the minority leader, but there are a lot of politicians whose actions or inactions combined together create a change in the legislature. Donald Trump had more to do with Republicans being in the minority in the House of Delegates than anything Delegate Gilbert did,” Farnsworth said.
Del. Sam Rasoul, a Democrat from Roanoke, said in an interview Wednesday that he is ready to work “across party lines, and also working regionally to do our best to ensure that all parts of Virginia are treated equitably and that we have a voice in Richmond.” Much like Player 456, who survived a bloodbath in the Netflix hit series Squid Game, Rasoul is the last man standing as the only remaining Democrat in the House hailing from west of the Blue Ridge. And Rasoul finds himself in the same situation as he did at the onset of his first term in 2014.
For the 2022 session under new Republican leadership Rasoul hopes lawmakers from both parties will find common ground on issues like school construction and economic development, “within the need for clean energy as we articulated in a bipartisan way” in the previous legislatures. “As long as there’s a political will to continue down this path, then there is certainly plenty for us to discuss, especially making an impact on the region,” Rasoul said.
Farnsworth, the political scientist, is less optimistic. “The most likely outcome I think is going to be gridlock on most issues,” he said. “There tends to be bipartisan support on economic development matters, and keeping the state’s bond rating. But beyond that, things sometimes devolve into partisan combat quickly.”
Especially in the state Senate, where Democrats are holding a slim 21-19 majority, they will likely face an uphill battle because a few more moderate members of their caucus are bound to hold some of their agenda items hostage, including state Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who has previously sided with Republicans on restricting abortion rights, and Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.
“The U.S. Senate has one Joe Manchin, but it may turn out that the Virginia Senate will have at least two senators like him,” Farnsworth said. “Make no mistake – the Democratic majority in the Senate might not consistently speak with the same voice.”
Petersen released a statement Wednesday, urging Democrats to give working with Republicans a chance. “Over the next couple of years, we will have many debates and certainly disagreements with the new governor,” Petersen said. “The Senate will be a blue wall when it has to be. But we can also work together on some critical issues that can benefit all Virginians.”
Among his examples, Petersen cited legislation that he has sponsored for the last five years that would prohibit Dominion Energy from making political donations to state lawmakers who write the company’s regulations. He also renewed his call for Virginia to raise its minimum standard tax deduction to the federal level of $24,800 – a proposal that is philosophically akin to Youngkin’s plan to double taxpayers’ standard deductions. “We have the surplus money to do this and it’s the right thing to do,” Petersen said.
State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said in an interview Wednesday that it “would be a huge mistake” for Senate Democrats not to look for opportunities to work with Youngkin. “I would hope that we’d be able to find several areas of agreement on election reforms that had bipartisan support in the Senate previously, and also transparency reforms like parole board votes, and then some Youngkin initiatives like tax relief on groceries,” Suetterlein said. “Glenn Youngkin got a clear mandate from voters on that, and I would hope that those things would combine for bipartisan successes in the Senate,” he said.