House Democrats have overthrown their leader, ousting Minority Leader (and former Speaker) Eileen Filler-Corn in an unusual out-of-cycle leadership vote.
Does this mean anything in a part of the state that presently sends just one Democrat to the House (Sam Rasoul of Roanoke) and realistically might not send any others?
Here’s what Republican-minded voters in Southwest and Southside should keep in mind. The odds that Democrats will someday regain a majority in the House of Delegates are high. Whether that happens in 2023, I have no clue. But Virginia is too closely divided politically for one party to stay in power forever, so even if you never intend to vote for a Democrat, this Democratic leadership struggle matters because whoever emerges might someday be speaker of the House. For now, Democrats voted out Filler-Corn without voting in a replacement; the word is they want to give a chance for other candidates to emerge besides Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, the chief rebel in this uprising.
If Scott eventually becomes the Democratic leader, he will diversify the House Democratic leadership in a way not often talked about. When Democrats controlled the House in 2020 and 2021, the three most important positions – speaker, House majority leader and chairman of House Appropriations – were all held by legislators from Northern Virginia. In the Senate, the Senate majority leader and chair of Senate Finance are also all from Northern Virginia. If you’re in Northern Virginia, that may feel like a region finally getting its due. If you’re not in Northern Virginia – particularly if you’re from Southwest and Southside – that might feel like an unhealthy concentration of power in one part of the state. If Scott does become the new House minority leader, he’d be in a position to possibly become Virginia’s first Black speaker of the House someday – but he’d immediately diversify the Democratic leadership geographically.
This party rebellion came as a surprise, but if Virginia had a parliamentary system it would be quite routine. In a parliamentary democracy, it’s the rare party leader who survives a loss. In fact, it’s expected for a party leader to resign after the party loses. We don’t work on the same system, but in a way, this was a matter of House Democrats acting according to those same principles. The pro-Democratic website Blue Virginia explained the vote this way: “From what I’ve heard, it was a mixture of gripes and grievances from a variety of Virginia House Democratic caucus members. Among other things, I was told that Virginia House Democratic caucus members didn’t see their loss of the majority in November 2021 coming, and felt that they should have seen it.” (It also didn’t help that Filler-Corn left nearly $900,000 in the bank. Some Democratic legislators might wonder if they’d still be in the majority if some of that campaign cash had been spent on candidates who wound up losing).
The feeling that Democratic legislators didn’t see their party’s loss coming is both plausible and symptomatic of the problem. If I, a mere scribbler in the backwoods of Fincastle, could see the prospect that Democrats would lose their majority, why couldn’t the then-speaker from Fairfax County? I don’t profess to be some kind of Nostradamus, but it always seemed that there was a good chance Democrats might lose their majority because that majority was never as solid as Democrats seemed to think it was. Whether they actually would lose the majority came down to a handful of close elections that went the Republicans’ way – but we should remember that there were also some close House elections that still went the Democrats’ way. In other words, it wouldn’t have taken much for the new Republican majority to be even bigger than it is. Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, won by just 823 votes (1.98%); Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, by just 794 (1.15%). Some Republicans thought they might win even more seats than they did. So why did some Democrats think last year was going to be a slam dunk until suddenly it wasn’t?
Let’s go back to the analysis I posted shortly after the election. I listed nine reasons why Republicans won and Democrats lost. One of those nine was that many Democrats simply misread the big legislative gains they had made in 2017 and 2019 that eventually gave them control of the House. Those wins in 2017 and 2019 came almost exclusively in suburban districts. In hindsight, which is always clearer, those voters weren’t necessarily electing Democrats because they wanted to see Democratic policies. They were voting Democratic because they were repulsed by Donald Trump and wanted to punish every Republican they could.
There is certainly a realignment going on in American politics, with many (but not all) suburbs swinging from right to left, but that realignment is not nearly as decisive as some Democrats came to believe. Once Trump was out of office, many of those suburban voters reverted to form and felt safe electing Republicans again. In many suburban districts, Republican voter shares that plummeted during the Trump years rebounded to numbers that were at or near pre-Trump levels. (I went over some of those numbers here.) Democrats should have been prepared for this but obviously they weren’t. They fell victim to hubris, believing they had achieved a permanent majority when clearly they had not. They also missed a counter-realignment going on, with many working-class voters moving into the Republican column. That’s how Republicans were able to win some Democratic seats that Democrats clearly didn’t expect, such as the one that Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, gave up to Kim Taylor, R-Chesterfield County. That was perhaps the most shocking upset of last November.
Put another way, Democrats who believed that Virginia had become permanently blue were simply out of touch. That’s what happens when your party leadership is concentrated in communities that vote so overwhelmingly for just one party. Fairfax County, where Filler-Corn is from, voted 65% Democratic last November. Alexandria, where caucus chair Charniele Herring is from, voted 78% Democratic. Of course, that’s also a cautionary lesson for Scott (Portsmouth voted 65% Democratic) as well as for Republicans. Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, is from a county that voted almost 75% Republican. House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, is from a county that voted almost 87% Republican.
The challenge for all of them is to be able to understand localities that aren’t like their own. In these polarized times, we don’t have many districts that are true swing districts – but we do have some, and that’s where elections are decided. In the case of the Democrats, their ability to regain the majority may come down to some districts that don’t look very much like the urban crescent. Democrats don’t have to win districts in rural Southwest and Southside – and won’t – but their chances of regaining the majority would be helped immeasurably if they could be competitive in districts such as the new open seat that covers parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties (which is officially rated as 50.6% Republican and 49.4% Democratic) or even the Lynchburg-based district held by Del. Wendell Walker (which is officially rated as 55.7% Republican and 44.2% Democratic but which some on both sides feel could be closer).
Under Filler-Corn, we never heard much that spoke to swing voters in those districts. Will the Democratic message under some other leader be any different?
Here’s something that illustrates Filler-Corn’s leadership, as seen from this side of the state. When I was editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, we invited her to come meet with the editorial board – on multiple occasions. Her Republican predecessor, Kirk Cox, never waited for an invitation; he offered to come meet because if you’re speaker of the House you essentially hold a statewide office and have to act like you’re representing the whole state. Cox also spent the whole visit talking about higher education and workforce development, two interconnected issues that have special resonance in this part of Virginia. Whether I agreed or disagreed with Cox didn’t matter; it was one of the most substantive policy discussions I’d ever had with a visiting politician. Filler-Corn’s staff, though, never responded. The only time I heard from her office was the day she cleared out the Confederate busts from the Old House Chamber. Then she called us to brag about this.
This is a sign of tone-deaf leadership. I’m certainly not going to defend Confederate statues, but I will gently suggest that from the vantage point of Roanoke, the biggest problem in the state isn’t some statuary in a room in Richmond that most of us have never been to or even heard of. It’s the challenge of building a new economy in a part of the state that has seen traditional employers decline or sometimes die altogether. If you’re only going to call us once, don’t make it over some symbolic gesture. Could Filler-Corn have spent an hour outlining her views on how to build a stronger talent pipeline in Virginia and what that means for rural Virginia? I have no idea; all I know is her views on Confederate statues.
Another telling example: Under Filler-Corn, we never heard House Democrats talking up the problem of rural – or even urban – localities that can’t afford to modernize their school buildings. On the contrary, it was House Democrats under her leadership who routinely killed measures by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, to do something about that. (I’ll make an exception for Rasoul, who was the only Democrat on the House Privileges and Election Committee who voted in favor of Stanley’s proposed constitutional amendment to try to close the constitutional loophole that allows for school disparities in Virginia. Filler-Corn and Democrats in general would be better off if they spent more time listening to Rasoul on how the party can reconnect to this part of Virginia.)
Now maybe Stanley’s proposed solutions weren’t the right ones – I’ll leave that to the policy wonks – but the point is that Democrats, a party that likes to claim to be the education party, completely ceded this aspect of education to Republicans. (Well, some Republicans. I have yet to hear Youngkin champion state funding for school modernization, either.)
It’s fashionable for some these days to view everything through the prism of race. I, sitting here west of the Blue Ridge, tend to view things through the prism of geography. Here’s my observation: Virginia Democrats these days too often come across as the party of Northern Virginia – the party of the haves – and show little connection to, or interest in, rural Virginia, or have-nots in general. Then they wonder why they get blown out by such big margins in rural Virginia – margins that in November helped elect a Republican governor.
Filler-Corn alone wasn’t responsible for ignoring rural Virginia, but if she did anything as speaker to address the problems confronting this part of the state, they sure weren’t well advertised. The new Democratic leader – whoever he or she may be – may be no better. But this leadership change does give House Democrats an opportunity to make at least some small nod to places outside the urban crescent. If and when Democrats ever regain the House, it would be nice to have a speaker who acknowledges our existence, however politically inconvenient that might be sometimes.