Don’t put that “Youngkin for President 2024” bumper sticker on your car just yet.
Virginia voters on Tuesday delivered what will be widely interpreted as a rebuke to Gov. Glenn Youngkin — and Republican governance in general.
Two years after winning the governorship (and the House of Delegates) in a state that’s been trending Democratic, Youngkin went all-out to win full control of the General Assembly. Instead, voters did just the opposite, retaining a Democratic Senate and flipping the House.
As I write this about midnight, Democrats are on track to win at least 21 seats in the Senate to 18 for Republicans, with one still in doubt. I just watched the tallies in Senate District 24 flip to give Republican Danny Diggs the lead over state Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, but by a margin that could well change back by the time you read this in the morning.
In the House of Delegates, Democrats are on track to win 51 seats to 48 for Republicans, with one — a very interesting one — still in doubt. One of those Republican wins is not quite secure; Del. Kim Taylor, R-Petersburg, has a 173-vote lead, which could be vulnerable to late-arriving mail ballots.
Whatever the exact numbers wind up being, Democrats have won back full control of the legislature. This comes against a backdrop of a Democratic victory in the governor’s race in dark red Kentucky, as well as a victory for abortion rights in conservative-trending Ohio. We political analysts often tend to draw too many sweeping conclusions, so I’m certainly not prepared to say that this portends a Democratic victory in 2024. However:
1. Democrats don’t appear to be in bad shape.
Earlier this week Democrats were rocked by polls that showed former President Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden in most of the key swing states. Biden is undoubtedly unpopular, but that didn’t stop Democrats from winning Tuesday. Republicans can explain away the Virginia results by saying that Virginia is a state that’s been moving left and they held back an even bigger Democratic tide. That’s certainly a plausible argument, but it doesn’t explain how Democrat Andy Beshear won reelection in Kentucky, or how well the Democratic candidate for governor in Mississippi did (he lost, but came close), or the wide margin in Ohio to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. These results all belie the argument that Biden is leading Democrats to an electoral disaster.
2. Democrats didn’t win by that much.
It’s also possible that Democrats will draw exactly the wrong conclusion from these results — that they don’t need to worry so much about Biden next year. Just because these Democratic candidates were popular this year doesn’t mean Biden will be next year.
This will not console Virginia Republicans but its relevant nonetheless: Democrats didn’t win by much. Only a few seats changed in the House, even though the ones that did made all the difference. And even though they retained the Senate, Democrats appear to have lost a seat.
3. Abortion was a winning issue for Democrats.
Republicans complained that Democrats had just one issue: abortion. Democrats basically said that’s all they needed. Coupled with the Ohio vote, it’s hard not to read the Virginia results as an indication that abortion rights are a winning issue for Democrats, particularly among suburban women. In Prince William County, Republican John Stirrup, who had advocated for what he called “a 100% ban” on abortion, lost in what had been considered a competitive district. So did state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico County, who had been more open to a longer window for legal abortions than most Republicans.
However, it’s instructive to point out that not all Republicans lost. Del. Tara Durant, R-Fredericksburg, who in the closing weeks of the campaign had signaled a willingness to vote for stronger restrictions than the 15 weeks that Republicans had coalesced around, won her competitive district. Still, it’s clear that the Dobbs decision that returned abortion law to the states has put Republicans on the defensive in many — but not all — places.
The bottom line for Virginia: With Democrats in control of even one chamber, there would have been no further abortion restrictions in the state. With Democrats in control of both, there definitely won’t be.
How does this play into the 2024 presidential campaign? We don’t know yet, but you can bet that Biden will look for ways to use it to his advantage.
4. The parental rights movement won some places but lost in others.
In Pulaski County, four of the five Republican-backed candidates won. However, in Montgomery County, three conservatives lost — although two came very close. In Spotsylvania County, another hotspot for parental-rights disputes, voters ousted the board’s conservative majority. It will take a while before we can do a full accounting, but it seems clear these results were not a sweeping victory for the parental rights movement. In Loudoun County, which has been ground zero for a lot of school board fights, two incumbents backed by Democrats lost but overall the partisan make-up remained the same. (Updated to clarify the partisan make-up in Loudoun).
Meanwhile, Hanover County became one of the few localities to vote against an elected school board; the “yes” vote was largely pushed by those unhappy with the conservative school board, so a “no” vote there is essentially a vote of endorsement for that school board.
5. Some results may be in doubt until the provisional ballots and mail ballots are counted.
Virginia now has same-day voter registration; those ballots are counted as “provisional” until the paperwork can be handled. Virginia also accepts late-arriving mail ballots through Monday, as long as they were postmarked by Tuesday. That means at least two races may drag out a while. In House District 41, which covers parts of Montgomery and Roanoke counties, Republican Chris Obenshain has a lead of 943 votes. There are 955 provisional ballots in Montgomery County, but we don’t know how many of those are in HD 41 as opposed to the House district next door. However, it’s fair to assume that almost all are in HD 41; that’s where Virginia Tech is and the Franklin campaign made a big push for student voting. We don’t know how many provisional ballots are in Roanoke County, but three-quarters of the district is in Montgomery County. Franklin would need to win virtually all of those provisional ballots to make up the difference. However, there’s still the matter of mail ballots.
Franklin’s campaign manager, Eleanor Roy, says: “We’re withholding any statements about the outcome of this race until all the ballots are counted. Unofficial results show that there are more than 2,000 provisional, uncured mail ballots, and unreturned mail ballots in the two counties that HD-41 covers.” I’m reasonably confident that Obenshain will win here, but I can’t be 100% certain until Monday, just in case there are a lot of mail ballots stuck in the postal system.
I suspect we’ll see the same question in Senate District 24 on the Peninsula where Republican Danny Diggs appears to have defeated state Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg. As of this writing, Diggs has a lead of 1,104 votes — that could change by the time you read this. We also know there were long lines of College of William & Mary students voting today; there could be a lot of provisional ballots here.
Late-arriving ballots could also figure in House District 82, where Republican Taylor clings to a 173-vote lead.
The outcomes of these races won’t alter who controls their respective chambers but could move a number up or down.
6. Youngkin’s final two years in office could be unhappy ones.
The Democratic majorities will be narrow, but that probably won’t matter to Democrats. They will feel emboldened. Youngkin may want to call the Department of General Services and order an extra supply of pens; he might need them for all the bills he will need to veto.
7. Virginia will get its first Black speaker of the House.
House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, is now in line to become speaker. With Scott wielding the gavel in the House and Republican Lt. Winsome Earle-Sears at the dais in the state Senate, that means both chambers will be presided over by Black politicians — another first for Virginia.
8. We’ll have even more turnover in Richmond.
Going into the election, we already knew we’d have a record amount of turnover, thanks to a wave of retirements and primary defeats or legislators leaving to pursue other offices. On Tuesday, four more incumbents lost: Republican Dunnavant and Democrat Mason in the state Senate, while Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County, lost his independent bid for reelection, and Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, lost hers. That means nearly half the Senate — 18 of 40 senators — will be new come January, while 35 of 100 House members will be first-timers.
There are probably other lessons to draw from this election but those will have to wait for another day.