“Virginia election results: Democrats sweep legislative elections.”
— Associated Press
“Virginia Democrats projected to sweep General Assembly, dealing blow to GOP”
— The Washington Post
“Virginia Democrats sweep legislative elections, delivering a blow to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s’plan for a GOP trifecta.”
— CBS News
I have never seen the word “sweep” used so much, to describe so little change, since the time I dropped the mostly empty Tupperware container of cat food on the floor. (Why do I need to get the broom? The cats will eat it up. I found my view was in the minority so I got the broom.) But enough with cats, and onto politics.
At the risk of sounding like a Republican apologist, which I most assuredly am not, I must caution against overreacting to Tuesday’s election results.
To be sure, this was a very bad night for Republicans. Gov. Glenn Youngkin pushed hard to hold the House of Delegates and flip the state Senate. He got neither. A wave of newly emboldened Democrats will roll into Richmond in January and they will make Youngkin’s life very difficult for the next two years. He won’t get touted as a presidential candidate. He won’t get the abortion restrictions he wanted. He won’t get the tax cuts he wanted, either. He won’t get much of anything out of a Democratic legislature. Democrats may not get much, either — Youngkin may want to practice his veto penmanship — but they won’t have to worry about any of the things they warned voters that a Republican-controlled legislature would do.
But was this really a “sweep”?
In one sense it certainly was: Democrats won both chambers, and that’s undoubtedly a big deal. But to me the word “sweep” implies a great electoral wave that washes away all that dares stand against it. That did not happen. There was no blue wave. Instead, what we saw was a much more incremental rise in the waters. (Actually, it’s possible there was a blue wave but it was met by a corresponding red wave that washed out most of it; we’ll need more numbers to determine that.)
For now, let’s look at the numbers we have.
At the beginning of the year, Democrats controlled the Senate 22-18. At the moment, it looks like the new Senate will be 21-19 in Democrats’ favor. Senate District 24 on the Peninsula still has a question mark beside it. Republican Danny Diggs currently leads state Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, by 1,022 votes — but it’s possible that provisional ballots and mail ballots could change that (I’m told there could be 2,000 votes still outstanding, many from students at the College of William & Mary who registered on Election Day). If Diggs holds on, that means Democrats will have actually lost a seat in the Senate. If Mason pulls out a win, then Democrats will still have stayed even in the Senate. For all the excitement, what we got in the Senate was more or less the status quo.
In the House, the year began with 52 Republicans, 48 Democrats. It looks like we’ll wind up with 51 Democrats, 49 Republicans — a swing of three seats. (Apparent Republican wins in the New River Valley with Chris Obenshain and the Petersburg area with Del. Kim Taylor are also potentially vulnerable to provisional ballots and late-arriving mail votes.) Whether that Democratic pick-up stays at three, or surges up to five, that’s still the smallest change in the House in eight years. In 2015, Democrats picked up one seat. In 2017, Democrats picked up 15 seats (that was a big anti-Donald Trump year). In 2019, Democrats picked up six seats. In 2021, Republicans picked up seven seats.
Granted, picking up those three seats this year enables Democrats to claim a majority — and even a small majority is politically significant in terms of power in Richmond — but we did not see some upheaval in the fundamental politics of the electorate the way we did in 2017 and 2019.
In the seven most competitive House districts that the Virginia Public Access Project identified earlier this year, Democrats won three races and the biggest Democratic vote share was 53.9% — Michael Feggans over Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach. The others were 52.6% (Joshua Cole in the Fredericksburg area) and 51.49% (Josh Thomas in Prince William County). This shows the importance of a small number of votes — those three Democrat wins came by 2,156 votes in the Feggans race, 1,585 votes in the Cole race, 835 votes in the Thomas race. I’d be more inclined to call a “sweep” if Democrats had won by bigger margins and/or won more of these competitive races.
Instead, what I see is a slight pro-Democratic mood that, in the context of a closely divided legislature, has translated into Democrats gaining control of the entire General Assembly.
Beneath the surface of Tuesday’s vote, we see other cross-currents at play. In Loudoun County, which has been the epicenter of school battles over parental rights, the partisan makeup of the school board remained the same, which seems a rejection of Youngkin’s agenda. On the other hand, the county’s Democratic commonwealth’s attorney, who has also figured in some of those disputes, lost. That seems a mixed message.
In Spotsylvania County, voters upended the previous conservative majority on the school board, but also voted for Republican Tara Durant in a competitive state Senate race. They were apparently conservative but not so conservative that they wanted a School Board member who had once said he’d like to see some books burned.
However, in Montgomery County, which — thanks to Virginia Tech — is the most closely divided county west of the Blue Ridge, Democrats had a big night. They picked up a seat on the board of supervisors and their candidates won countywide races for clerk of court and commissioner of the revenue.
My point: Let’s be cautious about drawing broad inferences from these results. Some things are clear: Abortion was a winning issue for Democrats in the swing districts they won — all suburban ones, it should be noted — but it also wasn’t apparently big enough for them to win three or maybe four other competitive districts. The races that made the difference could have easily tipped the other way. This reminds me of what the Duke of Wellington said about the Battle of Waterloo. That battle was certainly decisive, but he also remarked that it was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.”
Both parties often read more into their victories than they should and wind up overreaching. That’s the danger for Democrats here. They certainly won and while they may feel a mandate to block attempts to restrict abortion, this doesn’t seem to represent a wholesale embrace of everything Democrats want to do.
One obvious question — particularly for national analysts — is what these 2023 results mean for 2024. Here is where I would urge Democrats to be cautious.
David Rexrode, chairman of Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, says that Republicans won 13 districts that Joe Biden carried in 2020. Some have disputed that number, saying it’s a lower number, but for our purposes, the point is that Republicans carried some Biden districts, the precise number doesn’t really matter. What’s that mean? Both parties could read the wrong inferences from that statistic. Did Democrats underperform — and Republicans overperform — because Democrats didn’t win those 13 districts (or however many there were)? I don’t think so. I think first we need to remember why many people voted for Biden in 2020: They voted for him because he wasn’t Trump. They weren’t voting for him because they supported the whole Democratic agenda; they voted for him because he wasn’t a narcissistic demagogue with autocratic tendencies. I’d fully expect some of those Biden-voting districts to stay Republican. We also need to remember that turnout in the legislative cycle is much lower than in a presidential year, so we’re talking about two different electorates. Still, Democrats would be wrong to look at these results and think “Well, Joe’s got this in the bag next year.” He’ll probably win Virginia — as long as Trump is the nominee — but the polls earlier this week suggest that Virginia’s not the state he should be worried about.
Political analysts Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman, writing in Sabato’s Crystal Ball, made almost the same observation on Wednesday: “Last night’s results have given Democrats a shot in the arm and have confounded the recent narrative about Democrats being in deep trouble next year. But it’s also true that these races in many respects differ from the election coming up next year. It may be the case that President Biden is in fact uniquely vulnerable, and that even former President Trump — himself dragged down by plenty of vulnerabilities that likely are not getting the kind of attention now that they will if he is renominated — could beat Biden.”
They also offer this possibility: “Maybe the Democrats do just have an advantage now in smaller turnout, off-year elections as their base has absorbed many higher-turnout, college-educated voters while shedding lower-turnout voters who don’t have a four-year degree. Maybe the presidential year turnout will bring out more Trump voters and give the Republicans a clearer shot. About all we feel comfortable saying is that we should continue to expect the presidential race to be close and competitive — a boring statement, we know, but probably true.”
So, to circle back to Virginia: Yes, Democrats scored a sweep but it certainly wasn’t a clean sweep — much like my incomplete housekeeping when the cat food spilled.