One of my favorite movie scenes is in the classic “Citizen Kane.”
Newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane — a thinly disguised composite of the real-life William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitizer — is running for governor of New York. It’s election night and his newspaper staff has two possible front pages prepared.
One declares: “KANE WINS.”
The other: “FRAUD AT POLLS.”
“Citizen Kane” was ahead of its time in many ways, it seems. We’re not here to discuss that, though. Instead, we’re here to prepare for the different scenarios possible in this year’s General Assembly elections — and to give you some of the post-election analysis in advance.
Broadly speaking, there are three possible outcomes: Republicans win both houses, Democrats win both houses, or we wind up with a split like we do now. I’m not prepared to predict the likelihood of any of those outcomes, but I can, with much greater confidence, predict what will be said afterward about each one of them. In fact, I’ll go ahead and write each one in the past tense as if you were reading this on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 8.
Democrats who have been fretting about President Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings today find themselves dancing to “Happy Days Are Here Again” as they sort through the Virginia returns. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin went all out to win a Republican majority in both chambers of the General Assembly — and failed spectacularly. Republicans not only were unable to win back the Senate, they lost their slim majority in the House. It’s hard to see Youngkin being pushed or pulled into the presidential race now because his main talking point — that here’s a Republican who could win in a swing state — is now wiped out by a more recent one. Virginia voters on Tuesday effectively repudiated the Youngkin program. The governor will now have two unhappy years of having to deal with a legislature controlled by a newly emboldened opposition party.
What made the difference? One word: abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade energized Democratic voters in a way that Republicans could not counter. In swing districts across Virginia, Democrats ran on the Dobbs decision, and how a Republican legislature would enact restrictions on abortion. Youngkin thought he’d found a good way to counter Democrats, by presenting his 15-week ban as a “reasonable” restriction and depicting Democrats as extremists because some wouldn’t commit to any restrictions at all. That argument obviously didn’t work. State legislative elections typically see the lowest turnout of any election year; the electorate in those years tends to be older, whiter and more conservative. This time, though, lots of young voters showed up at the polls and it appeared they voted overwhelmingly Democratic. The key races were all in suburban areas and suburban voters recoiled from the prospect of Republicans having full control over state government. This follows other votes this year we’ve seen in conservative states such as Kansas and Kentucky where voters blocked attempts to further restrict abortion; Tuesday’s election results in Virginia, particularly in those suburban districts, is a clear warning to Republicans: Be careful what you wish for.
The challenge for Democrats nationally is how to take this winning state message and apply it to a federal election — but it’s certainly clear today that they will try.
One particular race of note: Democrat Susanna Gibson, who made the news when it was revealed that she and her husband had been performing sex online for tips, won in her suburban Richmond House race. Once, a revelation like that would have been enough to sink her candidacy. This time, voters apparently didn’t care — or cared more about other issues.
Even if Tuesday’s Republican victory doesn’t propel Gov. Glenn Youngkin into the presidential race, it certainly offers some clear examples of how Republicans can run — and win — in 2024. Thematically, this year’s legislative races came down to Democrats warning that Republicans would restrict abortion rights and Republicans warning that Democrats want to restrict parental rights. The parental rights argument won.
It’s still unclear how voters might feel if Republicans try to go beyond the ban on abortion after 15 weeks that they pledged to support, but it’s clear that most voters didn’t find the prospect of that ban to be an offensive one. Democrats hoped the Dobbs decision would energize young voters; it did not. State legislative elections typically have the lowest turnout and Democrats, for all their efforts, were unable to disrupt that pattern.
Youngkin did a masterful job of rallying Republicans — and encouraging them to vote early, which produced larger-than-expected Republican tallies in many localities. By contrast, Democrats had no such central unifying figure. President Joe Biden’s unpopularity was a dead weight for Democrats; the only mention of Biden I ever heard came from Republicans who branded their opponents as “Biden Democrats.” Inflation was also a factor that boosted Republicans and held back Democrats; for that, Republicans didn’t even need to blame Biden. Voters know who’s in the White House and the occupant of that address always gets the credit or the blame for the economy. This year, voters were in a blaming mood and they took it out on the president’s party.
The Virginia results will come as a shock to Democrats nationally. Here’s a state where they controlled every branch of government just two years ago; now they control none. They will try to explain these away as an aberration, at the same time that Republicans are pointing to them as a case study of how to swing elections.
Democrats may also find themselves wondering if they could have won with different candidates. In suburban Richmond, Susanna Gibson lost to Republican David Owens. It’s impossible to say whether she lost because her sex videos were revealed, or whether voters agreed with Owens on the issues, but either way the result is the same: She lost and he won, and that helped cement the Republican majority.
A legislative split
Some elections are wave elections. This was a Shakespearean election, or more precisely a Macbeth election: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For all the millions of dollars that flowed across Virginia, trying to influence the outcome, nothing really changed. Oh, maybe an incumbent lost here or there, but overall, the picture is the same: We have one chamber controlled by Republicans, another controlled by Democrats.
Both sides are disappointed, yet both sides are also trying to spin this as a victory. Republicans are saying they defied a redistricting map that tilted slightly Democratic, Democrats are saying they resisted Youngkin’s big push for full Republican control. There is truth to both of those explanations, but both parties are also wondering why they couldn’t have done better. The abortion issue energized some voters in some districts for Democrats, but wasn’t powerful enough to change some House seats that Democrats wanted to change. Meanwhile, the parental rights argument wasn’t strong enough to sway enough voters to the Republican side. Republicans had hoped — and Democrats had feared — that President Joe Biden’s unpopularity would depress Democratic turnout. Instead, voters seemed not to pay much attention to Biden whatsoever.
In the end, some results seemed to turn not on the big themes both parties pushed, but on local circumstances whose impact was confined to a particular district. As for that suburban Richmond House contest where one candidate had posted sex videos, we’re still waiting on the results …
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Addendum: Technically, there are two possible outcomes with that “split decision.” Right now we have a Republican House and a Democratic Senate but it’s possible to wind up with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate — although I haven’t heard anyone predict that particular outcome. I should also note that while Democrats need to win 21 seats to hold a majority in the 40-member Senate, Republicans only need to win 20. That’s because, in the event of a 20-20 tie, the lieutenant governor casts the deciding vote and that lieutenant governor is currently a Republican, Winsome Earle-Sears.
In the event of a 50-50 tie in the House, there is no one to break a tie; the parties would have to work out some kind of power-sharing agreement.
To find out which of these scenarios is most likely, check back on … the night of Nov. 7.