Weather forecasters have it easy. They can get up-to-the minute radar reports as storms move across the landscape. For political forecasters, we get last week’s primary results — and then have to make do until November with the occasional public poll, campaign finance reports and, ultimately, our hunches.
Here are some of mine:
1. Democrats won’t directly pay a price for moving left but could pay an indirect one.
Democrats ousted four incumbent state senators on primary night. In each case the winner was someone perceived to be to their left: Louise Lucas over Lionel Spruill in Hampton Roads, Lashrecse Aird over Joe Morrissey in the Richmond area, Saddam Salim over Chap Petersen and Stella Pekarsky over George Barker, both in Northern Virginia.
We saw a similar theme in some races that didn’t involve incumbents — Jennifer Carroll Foy’s victory over Hala Ayala in Prince William County, for instance. Republicans make much of this leftward shift in their post-election comments. The reason I don’t think Democrats will pay a direct price is that all the leftward moves I just cited took place in strongly blue districts where Democrats will be favored no matter who they nominate. In a district that Republicans hope might be competitive, Democrats turned away a more liberal challenger (Elizabeth Guzman) and stuck with Jeremy McPike of Prince William County. Even that district, though, is one that went Democratic with 55% of the vote in what was otherwise a Republican year of 2021.
Ironically, if Democrats do pay a price for moving left, it will be in the districts where they didn’t — Republicans in competitive districts will surely warn what a more liberal Democratic majority might do. We just don’t know yet what voters will make of that.
2. Republicans helped themselves by shedding some of their most controversial candidates.
While Democrats were moving left in many (but not all) races, Republicans resisted the urge to move further right. As I discussed in a previous column, Republicans rejected the most Trumpist or generally anti-establishment candidates in many primaries. You can’t call the Republicans who won moderates, but they are more mainstream conservatives by today’s right-shifted standards.
In some districts that won’t matter. For instance, the district in the Richmond suburbs where Glen Sturtevant defeated Amanda Chase is one that will likely go Republican no matter what — it voted almost 57% Republican in 2021. However, in a very competitive state Senate district around Fredericksburg (just under 54% Republican in 2021), Republicans picked Del. Tara Durant, the more conventional of the two options they had. That probably helped their chances there. By ridding themselves of Chase and Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, Republicans made it harder for Democrats to use them as bogeymen (or bogeywomen) in other races.
3. None of this gives us any real insight into how November’s elections will go.
The most interesting primaries on either side were generally not in districts that will be competitive this fall. Instead, these primaries helped shape the tenor of the General Assembly no matter which party winds up in control — Democrats in the Senate will be further to the left regardless of whether they are in the majority or the minority, Republicans should be more united with Chase and March gone. The big question, though, is which party winds up in control. That’s obviously kind of a big question that will set the tone for the final two years of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s term. If voters give him a Republican legislature, he should be able to get through pretty much whatever he wants to do. He might even get another round of presidential chatter in the lead-up to Donald Trump’s criminal trials. If voters give him a Democratic legislature, or even a split decision like we have now, his life could be pretty frustrating. If Democrats win majorities in both chambers, they will gleefully see to that.
We know the general outlines of the fall campaign: Democrats will warn that Republicans want to restrict abortion, Republicans will complain that Democrats have stood in the way of tax cuts, Democrats will counter that they’d have rather spent that money on education and health services, Republicans will hit back with something about parental rights in schools – you know how it goes. But we don’t know anything about what outside forces might shape the campaign: The stock market could go kerflooey. President Joe Biden’s approval rating could go up or down. And we’ve all long since given up predicting what Trump might say or do.
4. The next General Assembly could be pretty chaotic no matter which party prevails.
That’s because of the unprecedented turnover we’re seeing — a combination of retirements and primary defeats, some of them brought on by the state’s first redistricting maps that weren’t drawn by the majority party. In the 40-member Senate, we already know we’ll have 16 new members who weren’t there in this year’s session — a 40% turnover before we even get to the general election, which might see a few more incumbents at risk. In the 100-member House, we’ll have at least 32 new members.
Besides new members, we’ll have a lot of returning members jockeying for new positions. In the Senate, both party leaders are retiring — Richard Saslaw for the Democrats, Tommy Norment for the Republicans — so both parties will be under new leaders speaking for them. The Senate Finance Committee will be under new management — Democratic co-chair Janet Howell is retiring and the other Democratic co-chair, George Barker, was one of those incumbents who lost. Of the 16 Finance Committee members who started the year, only six will be back. The most senior member for Democrats will be Louise Lucas of Portsmouth; for Republicans, Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg County. Who will those 10 new Senate Finance members be? I don’t know but we’re going to see some senators move up rapidly on the seniority ladder.
Not all the new senators are likely to be complete newbies. For instance, Sturtevant has been there before and some are current members of the House, such as Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk (who are running against each other), and Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who is running in a district that voted 68% Republican two years ago. Those candidates would all get to apply their seniority to the Senate, so if Sturtevant and Head win, they’d be the head of this extra-large freshman class. Put another way, in his first term in the Senate, Head would be almost halfway to the top already. In the House, he currently ranks No. 32. If no other incumbents lose in November, he may rank No. 27 in the Senate.
Now we move on to two observations that are more fact-based than my hunches (although I like to think some facts lay behind those):
5. The legislature will probably have more women.
The session this year began with nine women in the 40-member state Senate. Four of them won’t be back: Jennifer McClellan (D) moved to Congress, Janet Howell (D) and Jill Vogel (R) are retiring, and Amanda Chase (R) was defeated. Of the other five, one — Siobhan Dunnavant (R) — represents a swing district in the Richmond suburbs so there’s no guarantee she’ll be back. If she were to lose, that would be five women gone. However, five women won primaries Tuesday in districts where they will be heavily favored this fall: Lashrecse Aird (D), Christie New Craig (R), Jennifer Carroll Foy (D), Stella Pekarsky (D) and Angelia Williams Graves (D). That would bring the number of women back to nine. Or up to 10, if Dunnavant wins reelection.
Meanwhile, Republicans nominated women in two other swing districts: Tara Durant of Fredericksburg and Emily Brewer of Suffolk. For their part, Democrats nominated Russett Perry in what might be the state’s most competitive state Senate district in Loudoun and Fauquier counties — it was almost a 50-50 split two years ago. Democrats also nominated Trish White-Boyd of Roanoke in what they hope will be a swing district.
The odds seem good that the number of women will go up, although maybe not dramatically so. The National Conference of State Legislatures says the Virginia General Assembly has a below-average number of women. The national average is 33%; Virginia began the year with 30%. By contrast, 60% of Nevada’s state legislators are women.
6. The legislature will also be more ethnically diverse.
In defeating Chap Petersen, Fairfax Democrats elevated Saddam Salim. Assuming he wins (and he should; that district voted almost 68% Democratic two years ago), Virginia will have its first legislator of Bangladeshi heritage. The Senate will certainly have more Black members. There are currently five Black senators. One — Lionell Spruill — lost his primary, so that would reduce the number almost certain to return to four. However, three Black candidates, all women, won nominations in districts where they will be heavily favored — Lashrecse Aird, Jennifer Carroll Foy and Angelia Williams Graves — so they alone would take the number to seven even before we get to November’s elections. Democrats have nominated Black candidates in two swing districts: Del. Clint Jenkins in Southside, where he will be up against Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and White-Boyd in the Roanoke Valley, where she faces state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
In the House, the year began with 17 Black members. After retirements and delegates running for the Senate, that leaves 13 districts likely to return a Black delegate. However, at least eight new Black candidates are running in districts where they are favored to win and at least five other Black candidates are running in competitive districts.
To find out whether the weather forecast is right, all you need to do is look out the window. To find out how the political forecast has turned out, we’ll all need to wait until November.