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For those who believe in term limits (I am not one of them, by the way), you will get a real-life test of their impact come January 2024.
The obvious consequence of the record number of legislative retirements we’ve seen will be a record number of freshmen taking their seats in next year’s General Assembly. Based on retirements alone, more than one-quarter of the state Senate will be new, and one-third of the House of Delegates will be first-timers.
Those numbers will almost certainly go higher, though. Some incumbents facing primary challenges will lose – we know for a fact that some will because there are multiple districts where two legislators are paired together. And then it’s always possible an incumbent or two or three might lose in November.
For those who think frequent turnover in the legislature is a good thing, as term limit advocates do, you’re getting your wish even if term limits aren’t what’s driving all these exits. For those who worry about the loss of institutional memory (I’m one of those), this is troubling. Either way, this will be fascinating as a political experiment.
Before we get to all that, let’s review the numbers.
The driving factor behind many of these retirements is, of course, redistricting. This is the first time that the majority party hasn’t been the one drawing the new lines; instead, two court-appointed “special masters” did. Every redistricting cycle sees a jump in retirements when some incumbents look at the maps and say that new district just isn’t for them; this year’s numbers are elevated because the mapmakers intentionally didn’t take into account where legislators live. There are incumbents in both parties who feel wronged by that.
In the Senate, 10 legislators have announced their retirement, according to a list compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. Another – state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond – left for Congress. That’s 11 out of 40 senators who won’t be back. It will go to at least 12 because two Democratic incumbents – Louise Lucas and Lionel Spruill – were drawn into the same district covering parts of Chesapeake and Portsmouth. Ten others are facing nomination challenges. I won’t hazard a guess on those except to point out some of those incumbents are running in districts very different from the ones they have in the past.
The most extreme example: Only 6% of the constituents that Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, represented in his old district are now in his new district, according to the Fairfax County news website FFXNow. He’s facing Fairfax County school board member Stella Pekarsky. By my math, more voters in this district might already have voted for her for school board than have the experience of voting for Barker.
Another unusual example: Creigh Deeds has represented Charlottesville and Albemarle County for more than two decades but during that time he’s lived in Bath County. Now he’s moved to Charlottesville – a good base for a Democrat – but finds himself challenged by a hometown politician from Charlottesville, Del. Sally Hudson. He’ll also be running in some counties he’s never had to run in before as a legislator, such as Amherst County and Louisa County (although voters there should remember him from his previous runs for attorney general and governor and Hudson hasn’t run in those localities, either).
Not all those 12 senators facing nomination challenges will lose, but in theory, if all did, we could see more than half the Senate turn over.
The high mark for Senate turnover was 13; that was in 2011, a combination of six retirements, three members seeking other offices, two defeated in the general election, one leaving for another job and one who died. We know we’re already at 12 guaranteed turnovers, even before we get to the June 20 primary or the November general election. It’s probably safe to wager that we’ll top that 2011 mark.
In the House of Delegates, 18 legislators have announced their retirement and 14 are leaving to run for other offices, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, so that’s 32 out of 100 delegates who won’t be back in the chamber – nearly one-third. That number will go to 33 – Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, and Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, were paired together in the same district. One of them won’t survive the June 20 primary. Five other incumbents face nomination challenges, so in theory the turnover could go as high as 38 seats even before we get to the general election. I wouldn’t count on that, but neither would I count on every incumbent to win renomination. In House District 96, Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, faces three opponents – and she’s raised less money than any of the others. (Plus, some Democrats were unhappy about the tweet she sent out in which she posed with Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, and said the only reason the Republican firebrand couldn’t get any bills passed is that male legislators voted against them.) The record for House turnover is 28 in 2001, so we’re already well past that.
So what will happen when we have such extensive turnover? Here’s what will likely happen: We’re going to have a lot of freshmen who have run for office promising to change the world – and they’re all going to arrive in Richmond and find out that it’s a lot harder to change things than they told voters it would be. We may have a lot of frustrated freshmen. I have yet to meet a veteran legislator who said they truly figured things out their first year in Richmond.
We’re also likely to see more polarized politics, no matter which party wins control. Given the nature of our politics, and the one-party nature of many districts, the new Democrats are likely to be further to the left than the previous ones and the new Republicans are likely to be further to the right than the previous ones. They will come in full of fire and fury – with no relationships on the other side of the aisle, and perhaps not much inclination yet to forge those relationships. So imagine a roomful of strangers arguing about politics; that’s what much of Richmond may be like in 2024.
One exception: Some of these new senators may be new to the Senate but not to the General Assembly, because we have 14 delegates who are running for Senate seats. In our part of the state, that includes Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who is the Republican nominee in a strongly Republican district that runs from Roanoke County to Staunton and Waynesboro. He’s got an easy path to a Senate seat; others do not. Hudson first has to get past Deeds. And then there’s Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, who first has to get past former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler in a June 20 primary and then Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk, in a competitive district. Most of the new senators, though, will be brand new.
We also need to keep in mind just who is leaving. In the Senate, both party leaders are leaving – Richard Saslaw for the Democrats, Tommy Norment for the Republicans – so no matter which party wins, the Senate will be under new management. Those two new party leaders will have their hands full dealing with all those freshmen on their own side, not to mention the other side.
The most important Senate committee is always the budget-writing Finance Committee. At least, eight of the 16 members will be new – possibly more depending on nomination contests and the general election. The two co-chairs now are Democrats Janet Howell and George Barker, both of Fairfax County. Howell is retiring and Barker, as we’ve seen, has a challenging nomination contest. Even if Democrats retain control, it’s possible there will be a new chair. If Republicans take control, there definitely will be. Of the five Republicans on the panel now, four are leaving – only Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg County will be back. (I’m assuming he wins the November election; he has the benefit of a strongly Republican district). If Republicans win control, he’s presumably be in line to be Senate Finance chair. For better or for worse, we’ll have a lot of newbies working on the budget next year.
The House party leaders, unlike their Senate counterparts, will surely be back, although a lot of Republican committee chairs are retiring – including Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, who has led the Commerce and Labor Committee, and Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, who has helmed Courts of Justice. Of course, if Democrats win control, all the committee chairs will be new.
It’s fair to wonder what course a legislature with so many new members will set us on – apart from the partisan considerations. If Republicans won control, we might expect to see a flurry of new legislation that presumably a Republican governor would sign. If Democrats win control, we might still expect to see a flurry of new legislation, but a Republican governor would serve as a brake for at least two years. That’s why a Republican win (in both chambers) is likely to produce change – however you define change – while a Democratic win is likely to produce stalemate. Different parties likely have different views about which is more desirable.
The reason I have never been a fan of term limits – and worry about such big turnover in the General Assembly – is that I’m a fan of institutional memory. It’s easy to repeat the mistakes of the past if you weren’t around when those mistakes were made the first time around. Turnover will always happen but I’d rather see it happen more incrementally than all of a sudden. Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to see more robust economic growth in the state. I have to wonder, though, what effect all this turnover will have on the state’s business climate. Some businesses prefer Republicans, some prefer Democrats, but what they all really prefer is predictability – and we’re about to plunge into a very unpredictable future.