With Virginia’s statewide election coming to a close Tuesday and the ever-tightening governor’s race between former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin being considered a national bellwether coming into the 2022 midterms, control of the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates also remains a ripe opportunity for Republicans to thwart the Old Dominion’s leftward shift after two years of complete Democrat control of government.
Only a few months ago, a Democrat sweep appeared inevitable for the three statewide races, with the well-connected McAuliffe polling double digits ahead of the unknown Youngkin. It also appeared likely the Democrats would maintain their House majority, which currently sits at 55-45. Democrats wrested complete control of Richmond in 2019, when they flipped multiple Republican seats to turn a razor-thin 51-49 GOP majority.
Now, with President Joe Biden’s unpopularity growing in the state and public education becoming a dark horse issue for Democrats, control of the lower chamber is considered anyone’s game.
While House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn insists that her “majority is safe,” but concedes that the governor’s race is “closer than anybody would like,” House GOP caucus spokesman Garren Shipley said, “What we’re about to see is a referendum on, ‘Is Virginia as far left as the Democrats acted?’” according to the Associated Press (AP).
Indeed, in a piece from Fredericksburg-based Free Lance-Star, the editorial team believes the “pendulum is swinging back to the center,” pointing out a couple key areas that might shift both the governor’s mansion and the lower chamber to Republican control:
Biden’s plummeting poll numbers, along with manifest incompetency demonstrated by his administration in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, is a drag on Democrats running local and statewide races. That’s part of the reason why McAuliffe’s tone-deaf comment sparked an intense backlash among Virginia voters that could cost him the election. [Emphasis added].
When politicians appease their political bases by listening more to activists than ordinary citizens, they often misread the public mood and make ill-advised statements that can backfire spectacularly. And after a year of having to deal with virtual schooling, parents in Virginia were in no mood to be told they didn’t have a say in their children’s education. [Emphasis added].
Even former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), the country’s first black governor since Reconstruction and first ever elected black governor of any U.S. state, said of Virginians that they are “independent-thinking people. … And you see what the polls are showing as it relates to independents: Youngkin is leading with independents as they crossover,” according to the Washington Examiner.
With down ballot implications, Wilder also addressed a major issue the McAuliffe campaign could face by taking a significant portion of Virginia’s black vote for granted, particularly in must-have areas like Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads, saying when asked about why black voters might be reluctant to support McAuliffe, “The better question would be: ‘What reasons do they have to turn out?’”
Wilder has not endorsed a candidate for governor this cycle, and the Hampton Roads Black Caucus endorsed Youngkin this year after supporting McAuliffe in 2013 when he won the governor’s mansion.
Political activity across the Commonwealth also indicates the fight for control of the House is at a fevered pitch.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday of an “army” of Republican poll watchers involved in locations across the state, including in deep blue Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
According to the Post, Fairfax County General Registrar Scott Konopasek reasoned that the high Republican involvement is due to a “narrative” surrounding election integrity, or lack thereof, that has amounted to a “sense among some staff members that the observers don’t trust them.”
But Fairfax County Republican Committee chairman Steve Knotts told the Post he did not believe voter fraud was an issue in Virginia, but that the heavy involvement is a “‘hands-on’ way for those with questions to get them answered.” Knotts confirmed to the Post 500 to 600 persons signed up to be poll watchers and said that those numbers point to broader enthusiasm for Youngkin.
This cycle’s races have also seen massive campaign expenditures. “I have never seen in the decades I’ve been watching Virginia politics so many House of Delegates candidates who has raised over a million dollars for an $18,000 per year job,” CBS 6 political analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth said. “It is just stunning to see the amount of money, which again tells us how the parties view the stakes in this race.”
Indeed, according to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), Democrats have outraised Republicans by more than double overall, and nine of the top ten individual fundraisers are Democrats. In fact, only one of the top 18 fundraisers — all of whom have over $1 million — is a Republican.
Despite the massive amount of money raised by Democrats, all but one of the top nine are ranked by VPAP as “competitive” races, and many are rated as “toss-ups” by state legislature prognosticator CNalysis. The only fundraiser not competing in a contested race is the speaker, Filler-Corn.
CNalysis recently moved the lower chamber’s projected balance of power from “tilt democratic” to “toss-up,” considering five House districts held by Democrat incumbents to be on a razor’s edge. VPAP considers 23 races to be “compeititive,” and Ballotpedia has picked 25 “battleground” districts.
RACES TO WATCH:
House District 10: Gooditis v. Clemente
The District 10 race between incumbent Democrat Del. Wendy Gooditis and Republican challenger Nick Clemente will shape up to be one of the most expensive of the cycle. Gooditis is the top fundraiser in the state, sitting at over $2.8 million, while Clemente is the only Republican to raise more than $1 million, with just over $1.5 million.
In 2019, Gooditis’s margin of victory was 4.7 points, while in 2020, Biden won the district by 16.2 points. Now, however, VPAP has rated this race “competitive” and shows Clemente with a 0.5 point advantage over Gooditis.
District 10 includes the political hotbed county of Loudoun, which has in the past been solidly Republican but has seen a leftward shift in recent elections. Loudoun is the site of intense debate over public schooling in Virginia and the U.S., with Critical Race Theory and transgender policies as the driving force behind public fervor — issues that Youngkin has made a mainstay during his campaign, launching a “Parents Matter in Education” message to rebuke McAuliffe’s debate night assertion that parents should not be telling schools what they should teach.
According to the Washington Post, Gooditis “is scrambling to generate enthusiasm and defend herself from attack ads on her voting record.” The publication went on to say that common ground with Republicans she cultivated to win two terms in the district has “totally eroded,” under, according to Gooditis, “false right-wing messaging.”
“The elections can’t be a referendum [on Democratic leadership] if people don’t know or don’t acknowledge the facts,” Gooditis said. “You can’t have a referendum on misinformation.”
Loudoun has also had a massive influx of Republican poll watchers. Loudoun County General Registrar Judy Brown said, “This year, we have had poll watchers every day, all day long, watching the process of what’s going on,” according to the Post.
Brown confirmed also that Republican observers often outnumber Democrats “2 to 1 at each location.”
“They observe the voter check-in and the ballot drop boxes,” the Post continued. “They have asked to observe election officers opening voting equipment. They watch as election officers report the vote tallies at the end of the night and ensure slates are blank when the polls open in the morning.”
Youngkin plans to finish up his campaign in Loudoun, likely as a nod to the education issues that many believe boosted him ahead of McAuliffe in recent weeks.
House District 12: Hurst v. Ballard
The District 12 race between incumbent Democrat Del. Chris Hurst and Republican challenger Jason Ballard is one of only two districts that is both rural and held by a Democrat. Hurst, seeking his third term, is the only Democrat representing a district in Southwest.
Hurst, a former television journalist, has far outraised Ballard, an attorney, Army veteran, and member of the Pearisburg town council. According to VPAP, Hurst has raised over $1.5 million, while Ballard has raised just over $770,000.
In 2019, Hurst’s margin of victory was 7.2 points, while in 2020, Biden won by 5.6 points. Despite being outraised, and dealing with a Democrat “built-in constituency” of about 30,000 from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VPAP gives Ballard a 1.9 point advantage.
House District 28: Cole v. Durant
The District 28 race between incumbent Democrat Del. Joshua G. Cole and Republican challenger Tara Durant is another Northern Virginia district teetering on the edge of flipping red. This seat was once held by longtime Republican Speaker of the House Bill Howell but was flipped blue in 2019 by Cole — after having lost his 2017 bid for the seat by fewer than 100 votes.
Cole, a bisexual Baptist minister, has far outraised Durant, a Catholic elementary school teacher, with just over $1.74 million. Durant has raised just over $944,000.
Cole’s margin of victory in 2019 was four points, while Biden won the district by 10.5 points — the district had been held by a Republican for 38 years beforehand. Despite this, VPAP gives Durant a 7.4 point favor going into Election Day.
But Cole — who apparently has stayed away from mentioning Biden — is worried about Democrat enthusiasm in his district that includes Fredericksburg, saying at an event, “I know this has been one of the longest two years of your life.”
According to the Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg-based University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth said the 28th District is “one of the most competitive races in Virginia and one of a handful that could determine whether Republicans can overturn the Democrats’ 55-45 majority.”
House District 66: Sponsler v. Cherry
The District 66 race is one to be watched closely. It is the bluest seat held by a Republican, and former Speaker Del. Kirk Cox, who ran in Virginia’s gubernatorial convention against would-be candidate Youngkin, is not seeking reelection after holding the seat for over 30 years.
Republican candidate Mike Cherry, like Cox, is an educator who is facing off against Democrat former National Park Service ranger Katie Sponsler.
According to VPM, Democrats in the 66th should be seeing advantages from a recent redistricting that ” introduced a swath of Democratic voters.”
Data from VPAP corroborates this expectation, as told by VPM, “District 66 had the greatest political swing of all redrawn districts, moving 32 points to the left. That shift showed in the 2019 general election results, when Cox won by only five points, his closest margin ever.”
Sponsler has outpaced Cherry in fundraising, with over $925,000. Cherry has raised just over $731,000. In 2019, Cox reclaimed his seat with a margin of victory of 4.7 points, while Biden won the district in 2020 by 10.3 points. Despite this, VPAP still gives Cherry a 2.3 point advantage over Sponsler.
While Cherry is focusing his campaign on parents’ role in education, there appears to be a Democrat enthusiasm gap in the 66th as well.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sponsler said of the lack of enthusiasm, “Is there the same energy as when Trump was in office and we had this crisis management mindset by people directly harmed by some of his policies? No, there is not that kind of feeling.”
Sponsler then denied that there was a lack of enthusiasm, saying, “It’s not a lack of enthusiasm. It’s, ‘OK, we can breathe a little bit.’ That’s good. I’ve been to war, and being on high alert all the time is not healthy.”
Democrats see this district as one of their biggest pickup opportunities.
House District 73: Willett v. Kastelberg
District 73 between incumbent Democrat Del. Rodney Willett and Republican challenger Mary Kastelberg is a rematch from 2019, where Willett won the Henrico suburb of Richmond by about 1,300 votes, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Willett has far outraised Kastelberg with over $1.7 million, while Kastelberg has raised just over $815,000.
In 2019, Willett’s margin of victory was 4.5 points, and Biden won the district by 20.5 points in 2020. Despite this, VPAP only gives Willett a 0.2 point advantage over Kastelberg and lists it as the most competitive race based on recent voting patterns.
Kastelberg, however, says that the Republican excitement and engagement levels this year, as compared to 2019, are “so much higher,” according to CBS 6.
House District 75: Tyler v. Wachsmann
District 75 is another rural seat held by a Democrat, incumbent Del. Roslyn Tyler, who is being challenged by Republican Otto Wachsmann. Tyler has held the Southside district since 2006 and is in a rematch with Wachsmann, who lost in 2019 by only 506 votes.
In another instance of the Democrat far outpacing Republican fundraising numbers, Tyler has raised over $1.5 million, while Wachsmann has almost $740,000.
In 2019, Tyler’s margin of victory was only 1.1 points, while Biden won the district by 7.3 points in 2020. VPAP gives the 15-year incumbent only a 0.8 point advantage, but CNalysis rates this race at “Tile R.”
House District 83: Guy v. Anderson
As aforementioned, Hampton Roads is a major grab in Virginia politics, and District 83 is exemplary of potential Democrat erosion in the area.
Democrat incumbent Del. Nancy Guy, who won her seat in the massive 2019 sweep, won by fewer than 30 votes. Legal activist Tim Anderson is challenging her as the Republican.
Guy has had the third most lucrative fundraising effort of any House candidate in 2021, trouncing Anderson’s effort at over $2 million. Anderson has just over $727,000.
Guy’s 2019 margin of victory in 2019 was only 0.2 points, and Biden won the district by 15.1 points in 2020. While VPAP gives her a 0.6 point advantage this time, CNalysis rates this race as a “toss-up,” and the Hampton Roads Black Caucus’s endorsement of Youngkin could play a major role down ballot.
Trends Heading Into Election Day:
Despite the fact that Virginia has been trending blue for the past several election cycles, culminating in a massive sweep of the Virginia House of Delegates in 2019 and a ten-point victory for Biden in 2020, many factors indicate the House is once again up for grabs.
Democrats have a massive fundraising advantage over Republicans, as well as the benefit of incumbency going into Tuesday. However, money does not appear to be as determinative as it has been in the past. With Biden’s approval rating in the Commonwealth plummeting and contentious education issues serving as the undercurrent for Republican enthusiasm, the control of the House may shift hands.