Every election answers one set of questions, then poses another set. Here are some of the ones raised by last week’s election:
- How will Republicans govern? It’s the rare majority that doesn’t eventually overplay its hand. Virginia Democrats made the mistake of thinking the state was more liberal than it really is. Republicans should not make the mistake of thinking the state is more conservative than it really is. The surest way to lose that new majority would be to embroil the state in some turmoil that draws national attention and gets the business community upset. We’ve seen this play out before, with the “bathroom bill” in North Carolina a few years ago (which saw one company choose to locate in Virginia instead, and some sports events decamp to Salem), and more recently with the voting laws in Georgia and Texas. Let those be cautionary examples for Virginia Republicans. By contrast, the surest way to keep that new majority is to provide steady, sure-footed governance that produces some tangible results for ordinary Virginians. Glenn Youngkin promised to repeal the state’s tax on groceries; that used to be a top issue for the liberal populist Henry Howell. Democrats should rue the day they let that issue slip away from them.
We’ll get some indication of how Republicans will govern on Nov. 14 when the House Republican caucus decides who its new leadership will be. Specifically, will the next speaker be House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County or Del. Terry Kilgore of Scott County? Gilbert would seem to have the edge. After all, if he was your leader in the minority, why wouldn’t you make him the leader now that you’re in the majority? On the other hand, the Republican agenda will have to make it through a Senate that is 21-19 Democratic. Two of those Democrats are regarded as “free spirits” – Joe Morrissey of Richmond and Chap Petersen of Fairfax. Still, the numbers in the Senate are not immediately on the Republican side. (Of course, they won’t be on Democrats’ side, either, if just one of those senators flip on any given issue and future Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears gets to break the tie) Gilbert has a reputation of a hard-charging partisan, befitting a former prosecutor. Kilgore might be more of a dealmaker who would be better positioned to fashion legislation that could actually get enacted. A Speaker Kilgore would send a powerful signal that Republicans mean business in a very practical way. Either way, though, someone from rural Virginia will preside over a legislative chamber of a state whose population is mostly in the metro areas. Republicans would be wise to remember that their next speaker, no matter who it is, will be misaligned with the state in many ways.
- What lessons will Virginia Democrats learn from their defeat? Sometimes parties learn their lesson, sometimes they don’t. We’re already seeing national commentators chatter away with explanations of the Virginia election that bear little resemblance to the actual facts on the ground. The commentator Wajahat Ali of The Daily Beast blamed white women for the Democratic defeat, in a piece entitled “You Damn Karens Are Killing America.” He writes, quite colorfully, “These Virginia Karens can now sleep peacefully at night knowing their cultural warriors will confront and annihilate that loathsome and fearsome beast known as CRT. Their children still have to deal with coronavirus and mass shootings, but at least they might not be traumatized by Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘Beloved’ and other triggering books or discussions that mention America’s spectacular history of racism.” That’s one way to view the election. Republicans certainly whipped up a furor over the phantom menace of critical race theory. But Democrats would be making a big mistake if they think that was the only thing motivating voters, particularly the female voters who swung toward Youngkin by 13 percentage points. For instance, who bore the brunt of all the COVID-related school closings over the past year? Women, mostly. Maybe, just maybe, they weighed the risks and decided they’d rather have their kids in school – something Youngkin promised he’d make sure of. And who got the closest look inside the educational system while their kids were home learning by Zoom? Women. Maybe, just maybe, some of them didn’t like what they saw. And maybe, just maybe, none of that had to do with critical race theory. Maybe, just maybe, some of them – and some men, too – didn’t much like their kids reading books with explicit sex and bestiality. As one letter-writer to The Washington Post put it: “Students don’t need to read graphic sex scenes to know slavery is bad.”
Ali goes on to say that “Democrats must finally stop chasing Amy and Karen, and start chasing Stacey: lean on women of color and a multicultural coalition that will inspire and bring out voters of color, who are your base and helped deliver you Georgia and Arizona.” That’s all well and good for winning a statewide election in certain states, but it won’t help win a majority in a state legislature where districts are drawn geographically and, to win, Democrats must win in a lot of white-majority districts. (This fits into a point I’ve made before: The Democratic vote is inefficiently distributed, overly concentrated in a relative handful of places.)
- How will Democrats respond now that Republicans have stolen their education issue? Republicans will say that education was never a Democratic issue to begin with, but that’s beside the point. Historically, Democrats always thought it was. They also tended to frame the issue as they were pro-education because they supported better pay for teachers. Better pay is certainly important – the free market doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. If you want good teachers, you need to pay for them or some of them will go into other fields. But a lot of parents this year just said that they have a different set of priorities for education, and that higher teacher pay isn’t synonymous in their minds with better schools. This could produce some awkward conversations for Democrats.
4. Who will the new Democratic leadership be? The immediate question is whether House Democrats retain their current leadership team, just with their ranks reduced. In a parliamentary system, the leader who presides over a defeat is usually replaced. Will House Democrats feel the same way? Or will they blame external factors? Regardless of whether House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn gets bumped down to House Minority Leader or back-bench status, Democrats more broadly face a leadership crisis now that the 2021 ticket has been wiped out. Much like a forest that’s been clear-cut opens the way for new growth, this defeat opens the way for a new generation of leadership. Who will it be? Democrats aren’t quite in the same position that Republicans were, because they still have Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as U.S. senators, but unless either of them plans on running again for governor, Virginia Democrats need to start thinking about their 2025 ticket. For the first time in a dozen years, there are no natural heirs. Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, sought the party’s nomination for attorney general this year. He lost but came away with a lot of respect. He will certainly figure in any discussion. So will Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. He surprised a lot of people by running such a strong campaign for the lieutenant governor’s nomination this year. He pulled off something many considered impossible: He inspired both the party’s left wing and a lot of voters in rural areas. Now, winning what few rural Democrats remain is not the same as winning those communities in a general election, but Rasoul showed more commitment to Southwest and Southside Virginia than many Democrats show these days. Given the way things turned out this year, it may be best for Rasoul that he wasn’t on the ticket – but he could make a good case for being on a future one.
5. Will rolling back clean energy requirements make a difference? Gilbert, in his first public comments after the election, said Republicans want to roll back parts of the Clean Economy Act, which mandate closure of most coal-fired plants by 2024. (The Clover plant in Halifax County and the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County got exemptions to stay open until 2045.) Allowing utilities to keep coal plants open, though, isn’t the same thing as mandating that they keep them open. Appalachian Power doesn’t have any coal-fired plants in Virginia, so we’re really talking here about Dominion Energy. (Dominion is one of our donors, but, as per our rules, donations have no influence on news decisions.) Dominion has already closed or converted 11 coal-fired plants over the past three years and is scheduled to retire the last two coal units at the Chesterfield Power Station in 2023. Exemption or no exemption, Virginia Business reports that the Clover plant, co-owned with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, is projected to be retired by 2026. Even if the entire Clean Economy Act were repealed, Dominion’s not going to go back and reopen those old coal plants. Maybe it would hold onto Chesterfield and Clover a while longer – I have no inside information – but I’m reminded of what Appalachian President Chris Beam once told me about why that utility isn’t building any new coal plants. Utilities have to plan for the long term; investments have to pay off for decades. Does anyone think coal is going to be a big thing three or four decades from now? If so, you’re probably smoking some of that newly legalized cannabis. Utilities are just like any other business: They like certainty. If the political pendulum is going to swing back and forth between pro-fossil fuel and pro-renewable factions, the safest course of action is to invest in renewables because you don’t want to invest in a coal plant that Democrats might someday order closed. We also see a lot of businesses, from Amazon to Walmart, that are demanding renewables. The marketplace is changing regardless of what politicians think.
6. How will Youngkin repay rural Virginia? Rural Virginia delivered votes for Youngkin at levels nobody really expected. I wrote about this last week. So did former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. This bill may come due in some unexpected ways. Youngkin says he wants to cut taxes, a typical Republican thing to say. He also says he will deliver the biggest education budget ever, which isn’t. Those two things aren’t irreconcilable. You can cut taxes and raise the education budget in one of at least two ways: if overall revenues increase or, if they don’t, you make cuts somewhere else.
Here’s real trick, though: Virginia Republicans generally aren’t in favor of spending a lot of tax dollars (that’s part of what makes them Republicans). But two parts of the Republican base are potentially at odds here. Youngkin has mused about how he’d like to cut state income taxes. However, 70% of state revenues come from the income tax. Meanwhile, rural school systems get most of their funding from the state – up to 65% in Scott County, which voted nearly 87% for Youngkin. The new governor could please one group of Republicans by reducing the income tax, but if that has the effect of leaving less money for school funding, that winds up hurting actual Republican voters in rural Virginia. To really repay rural voters, Youngkin needs to increase school funding – plus find ways to pay for school construction, something Richmond historically hasn’t done much of, but which increasingly stresses rural school budgets. Can he do all that and still cut taxes? Maybe the former co-CEO of the world’s second largest private equity firm can figure out that math. That’s just one of many questions that this election produced.