Before the election, I wrote a column that laid out three options: Democrats would win both houses of the General Assembly, Republicans would win both houses, or there would be a split.
One of those had to be right. If I were a baseball player, I’d be batting .333 and negotiating a fat contract right now, instead of pitching people to click on our “donate” button.
That election, of course, saw Democrats win the bare minimum they needed to win control of both the House and the Senate, which sets up what the cheeky French call “cohabitation” but we Americans call “divided government.” For the next two years, Democrats will hold majorities in the General Assembly, while Republicans will still hold the governorship.
Such divided government is not unusual in either Richmond or Washington. In fact, it’s actually rather common, although this particular configuration is not. The last time we had a Republican governor and a General Assembly fully controlled by the Democrats was in the 1990s when George Allen was governor. That was a different dynamic, though, in lots of ways. The two parties were both closer to the center then than they are now. Also, in those days a Democratic legislature was a fixture in Virginia politics, so Republican governors always knew they’d have to work with the opposite party to get anything done. Now we’re in an era of the legislature flipping back and forth, so Gov. Glenn Youngkin is naturally disappointed in election results that produced a Democratic legislature, while Democrats are going to claim that the election represented a rebuke of his administration and that they have the more recent mandate.
I don’t necessarily buy that: Youngkin was narrowly elected in an election that saw 59% turnout; Democrats won the legislature narrowly in an election that saw 39% turnout. If this were really a rebuke, Democrats would have won more seats. On the other hand, if voters wanted to signal a wholehearted embrace of Youngkin, they’d have elected more Republicans. Whichever interpretation you prefer, in politics just as in sports, a win is a win whether it’s a squeaker or a blow-out, and the reality is we now have the governorship and the General Assembly controlled by different parties. How is this going to work?
Here are three options.
Two years of partisan warfare
Under this scenario, Democrats roll into Richmond, newly emboldened, and are prepared to battle the Youngkin administration at every turn. The Democrats pass lots of bills that they know Youngkin will have no choice but to veto. Nothing really gets done but both sides profit politically: Both sides show their base they’re “fighting the good fight.” Democrats get to whip up enthusiasm among their partisans to show what could be if they elect a Democratic governor in 20225, while Republicans get to do the same — just in reverse.
Two years of uneasy cooperation
Democrats, mindful of their narrow win, and mindful of how they got tossed out the last time they had a trifecta, decide it’s politically wise to focus on what can actually be achieved. Youngkin, mindful that he needs a legacy that will survive his term in office, also looks for things that the parties might be able to agree on. Both sides dial down the rhetoric to a bare minimum and decide that they’ll focus on some small policy wins. Come the next election, Democrats get to point to things they’ve gotten done, and Youngkin gets to frame his governorship as a “can-do” Republican governor. The only ones left out of this equation: Republicans who fret that Democrats might be getting too much credit as both parties head into the 2025 elections.
Two years of something in between
This is the most likely scenario. There will always be some in both parties who will look for opportunities to embarrass the other side; that’s sort of the nature of politics. And neither side can be expected to put some of their core values aside. Democrats will push for a constitutional amendment to put a right to an abortion into the Virginia constitution and Republicans will be able to stop them for now; that’s also a multiyear process that requires an election in between; so the earliest an amendment could go to a referendum would be 2026. (That will also further highlight the importance of those 2025 House elections.) Youngkin will probably continue to push for tax cuts that Democrats won’t want.
However, Youngkin strikes me as a pragmatist and so do many of the new Democratic leaders. I don’t know where the Venn diagram comes together on the things they might agree on, but it no doubt comes together somewhere — and those are the things that will get done, regardless of whatever partisan fireworks are going off in the background.
What might some of those things be? Broadly speaking, the easiest ones are economic development and transportation, because those tend not to be ideological issues, more regional ones. Education is a flashpoint these days for partisan disputes, but there are still some aspects of education that both sides can agree on.
A more specific test may come on cannabis. The last time Democrats were in power, they legalized personal possession of small amounts of what us old-timers used to call marijuana, cannabis now being the preferred name. They intended to come back the next year to set up a retail market but Republicans won the House in 2021 and since then efforts to set up a retail market have gone nowhere. As I’ve pointed out before, this isn’t a two-sided issue, it’s more of a three-sided one. Democrats want a legalized retail market. Republicans are divided between those who agree (but disagree with Democrats on how to do it) and those who want nothing to do with this. So far, Youngkin has been in the latter camp — he hasn’t wanted to be known as the governor who signed a bill legalizing weed.
It’s possible the politics on that issue might be changing. As Cardinal’s Susan Cameron reported this summer, Southwest Virginia has seen lots of stores spring up where you can acquire cannabis one way or another. I visited a “wellness club” in Roanoke where, if I had joined, I could have “traded” legally purchased items for cannabis. I also visited a retail store in Roanoke County where I purchased a pair of pruning shears, and as a “gift” was given a joint. We sent this “gift” off to the lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, which found that it was full of unhealthy amounts of mold and yeast. Police raids have shut down many of these stores, but others still remain. I noticed recently that the “wellness club” in Roanoke was advertising “new flavors, new strains.” Youngkin, if he were inclined, could sign a legalized retail market bill and legitimately claim it’s a crackdown in the interest of public health — because right now we have no idea where this stuff is coming from or what’s in it.
I recently spoke to a business group in the New River Valley about the election results and was asked if there were any legislators who were likely to break party ranks and prove to be a deciding vote in a narrowly divided General Assembly. This seemed to be a group of mostly Republicans, so I suspect their hope was that there might be some renegade Democrat. I disappointed my listeners by telling them “no.” State Sens. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, were often mavericks among Senate Democrats. State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, sometimes performed the same role among Republicans. All three are now gone — Morrissey and Petersen lost their renomination bids in primaries in June, Hanger retired after being squeezed out by redistricting.
We have a record number of incoming legislators we simply don’t know — 18 freshmen in the 40-member Senate, 34 newbies in the 100-member House. Maybe there are some mavericks in there, but we won’t know for a while.
With my election predictions, there were only three possibilities, so I was bound to get one right. With my governing predictions, there are more possibilities than the three main ones I laid out above. We could get one year of cooperation and one year of partisan warfare, for instance, particularly since that second year will be another election year. If that’s the case, then the upcoming session is the one where anything that will get done might get done.