If you’re Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, life must seem pretty good right now.
Getting elected governor of Virginia is sweet enough, but he also brought in a Republican House of Delegates with him. He need only consult with Terry McAuliffe to find out how frustrating life can be for a governor when the other party controls the General Assembly.
There’s just one catch to this Republican renaissance in Richmond: Democrats still control the state Senate. It’s not much of a majority – 21-19 – and two of those votes (Joe Morrissey of Richmond and Chap Petersen of Fairfax) are somewhat problematic, although not as problematic as, say Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Simena are for Democrats in the U.S. Senate. But it’s still a majority and that majority will be there until at least the next election, which won’t be until 2023, midway through Youngkin’s term.
Furthermore, that slim majority is misleading – that 21-19 vote count only matters if an issue gets to the floor. As the majority party, Democrats control all the committees and, as anyone who follows the General Assembly knows, it’s often in committee where the real action takes place. Republicans made a long practice of killing bills in committee that might have had a chance on the floor; Democrats do exactly the same. It’s no wonder that state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, declared “We’re the Senate Democratic Alamo.” Of course, the real Alamo didn’t end so well for the Texas defenders in 1836, but we get his meaning. The reconstituted Republican majority in the House can pass all the bills it wants to, and Youngkin can be waiting up on the third floor of the Capitol with his signing pen ready, but none of that makes a difference if those bills get summarily executed in a Democratic-controlled Senate committee.
Youngkin is going to have to use some mighty powers of persuasion if he really wants things passed these first two years. He seems an affable fellow who already has started courting Democratic legislators in a way that not even Democratic governors have. Still, his life would be a lot less complicated if there were a Republican state Senate – and if he didn’t have to wait for two years for even the chance to make that happen.
And that’s what led to the flurry of rumors recently that Youngkin was trying to talk to state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, into joining his administration. Edwards immediately spiked those rumors and, to some, they seemed quite preposterous. John Edwards in a Republican administration? Really? “I can’t imagine they’d want me,” Edwards said.
Well, certainly not in some policy-making position. But any position other than the state Senate? Sure. Jim Gilmore, elected in 1997, did not exactly have what one might call in the medical profession a good bedside manner. Some considered him, well, aggressive would be a polite word. I remember the first time I met him – at the so-called Republican “advance” in Roanoke in 1992 – he spent much of the time poking his finger in my chest to emphasize why he was going to win the party’s nomination for attorney general. He did, but I didn’t appreciate getting poked in the chest. Gilmore, though, did show a surprisingly soft touch for persuading some Democratic legislators to resign their seats and join his administration. He talked Del. David Brickley, D-Prince William County, into becoming director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Maybe Gilmore valued Brickley’s expertise on conservation and recreation, but what he really valued was that Brickley represented a district that would surely go Republican without him – and did. That turned a 51-48-1 Democratic majority in the House (with one independent) into a 50-49-1 House. That independent, Lacey Putney of Bedford, sided with Republicans, and that created a tie, which forced a power-sharing agreement that completely changed the dynamics in the House.
Gilmore then talked longtime state Sen. Charles Waddell, D-Loudoun County, into becoming deputy secretary of transportation. That opened up a state Senate seat that, you guessed it, went Republican. Instead of a 20-20 Senate, Gilmore had a 21-19 Senate in his favor. With those adroit moves, Gilmore upended Democratic majorities in the General Assembly. A new era of Republican dominance in Virginia was ushered in.
Youngkin is surely looking at the current 21-19 lineup in the Senate – not in his favor – and wondering what he could do to change that. Could he pull a Gilmore? (If he does, let’s hope that his intended repeal of the grocery tax doesn’t become “Son of Car Tax,” as Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro recently described it. Gilmore’s “no car tax” campaign slogan turned out to be a way for rural Virginia to subsidize local governments in affluent Northern Virginia. The trick is that many car tax revenues are dedicated to local governments who aren’t keen about the prospect of having to raise local taxes to replace them.) But back to the politics of the moment:
Gilmore had a distinctly easier job than Youngkin does. Here’s why: In Gilmore’s day, there were still moderate Democrats who represented Republican-leaning districts. In today’s more polarized political environment (plus some gerrymandering in between), there simply aren’t many swing districts left anymore. We see this nationally; presidential elections are really decided by a half-dozen or so states. We see this at the state level, too.
Here’s something that might blow your mind (it sure blew mine when I did the math): Edwards actually represents one of the swingiest districts in the state – and even that isn’t very swingy, as repeated elections have shown.
I’m relying on data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project for the numbers. It doesn’t have figures available yet for 2020 or 2021, but between 2013 and 2018, the Democratic candidate in statewide elections won Edwards’ district every year – and usually it wasn’t even close. In the 2018 U.S. Senate race, Tim Kaine took 59% of the vote. In the 2017 governor’s race, Ralph Northam took 56%.
Only one Democrat didn’t win a majority but he still won a plurality: McAuliffe took 49% to 40% for Ken Cuccinelli in a three-way governor’s race in 2013.
If Edwards were to give up that seat, the Democratic candidate – whoever it might be – would be the odds-on favorite to win. Maybe Republicans think they might be able to win a special election, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Youngkin doesn’t have very good options elsewhere, either. There are only two other state senators who represent districts that are closer to being swing districts, and then it depends on how you measure them.
Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack County, barely won his seat in a 2014 special election, but the district (a bizarrely shaped one that includes parts of Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Mathews County besides the Eastern Shore) hasn’t been close since. It went 60% for Kaine and 58% for Northam, so is a percentage point or so more Democratic than Edwards’. Unlike Edwards’ district, McAuliffe actually won a majority in Lewis’ district – 53% – in 2013.
John Bell, D-Loudoun County, might represent the most swingable state Senate district and even that’s debatable. Kaine took 58% and Northam 55% in their races, just below what they did in Edwards’ district. What’s notable is that in 2013 this was a district that Cuccinelli carried, with 50%. Before Bell, this district was represented by Republican Richard Black, who was one of the most conservative voices in the Senate. However, that was before the Donald Trump years, when suburban districts like this one recoiled from Trump and started rejecting Republicans on sight.
The point is: If Youngkin is trying to find a Democratic state senator to join his administration – in hopes that a Republican might replace him or her – he doesn’t have many choices. In fact, he might not have any choices.
That’s not to say that the Senate has a permanent 21-19 majority. Far from it. Sometimes incumbents do things that make them vulnerable. Sometimes there are really strong challengers. But simply from a numbers perspective, Youngkin has no obvious Democratic senator he ought to be schmoozing – and dangling a plum state job in front of.
If you’re a Democrat, maybe that’s a relief, although maybe it shouldn’t be. All this underscores how sharply divided our society has become. We’d be better off if we had a lot more swing districts. Maybe the Supreme Court will create some when the justices approve new district lines, but don’t count on that, either. A lot of our realignment has been geographical – author Bill Bishop wrote a book about this called “The Big Sort” – which means it’s hard to draw districts (at least logical ones) that are neither red nor blue, but some shade of purple. In some parts of Virginia – such as deep red Southwest and Southside, or deep blue Northern Virginia – it’s simply impossible.
The bottom line: Youngkin probably has a better chance of getting Taylor Swift to sing at his inauguration than he does at luring away a Democratic state senator.