At the unofficial kickoff of Virginia’s General Assembly campaign season, Democrats feel they have a strong chance to flip the state Senate, but the House of Delegates appears to be more of a tossup.
If Republicans hold their thin majorities in the state legislature when voters go to the polls in two months, it will extend a stretch of divided government that dates back to 2014. If Democrats take both chambers, they’ll have full control of state government for the first time since 1993.
That would give Democrats the power to pass their legislative priorities — such as stricter gun control laws and anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people — that have been blocked for years under Republican rule, just as Medicaid expansion was before Democratic victories pushed moderate Republicans to pass it last year.
In the early stages of the campaign, Republicans are emphasizing kitchen-table themes and their support for low taxes, college tuition freezes and teacher pay raises.
All 140 General Assembly seats are up for election on Nov. 5. Control of the legislature will likely be decided by about two dozen races in the suburban battlegrounds of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, the same areas where Republicans lost substantial ground in the 2017 House races and 2018 congressional midterms after the election of President Donald Trump.
But in a lower-turnout legislative election year with no statewide races, Republicans may have a better chance of avoiding further losses.
Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, said both parties appear energized heading into the fall.
“Although I give Democrats an edge on intensity," Kidd said. "Just because Donald Trump is an intensity engine for Democratically-inclined voters."
Senate Republicans — who maintained their 21-19 majority in the 2015 elections, before Trump won the White House — have a narrower path to victory this year. The Northern Virginia district left vacant by retiring Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, has voted Democratic in every statewide election since 2016, as has the Richmond-area district held by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield.
“We only need to flip two seats to take control in the Senate and build on the momentum we’ve had over the last few years. At the very least, we have an opportunity,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
With a handful of other hotly contested races for GOP-held seats and few clear opportunities to go on offense, Senate Republicans will essentially have to pull off a perfect defensive sweep to retain power.
Asked whether Senate Republicans are worried about their odds, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said, “I could imagine my Democratic colleagues want everyone to believe that.”
“We’re talking about the same battleground seats as four years ago. At that time, Democrats said they were going to win with massive majorities,” McDougle said, referring to the seats held by Sturtevant and Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and those left vacant by Black and former Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.
Sturtevant is facing community college administrator Ghazala Hashmi, who would become the first Muslim-American woman to serve in the Senate. Nearby, Dunnavant is facing Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico.
In Northern Virginia, Black’s vacant seat is being contested by Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, and Loudoun County supervisor Geary Higgins, a Republican. In Hampton Roads, Wagner’s old seat is pitting Del. Cheryl Turpin, D-Virginia Beach, and Jen Kiggans, a former Navy pilot and nurse practitioner.
“We have two accomplished incumbents and two tremendous candidates running for open seats,” he said.
Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said Republicans will find strength in what he perceives as Democrats’ weakness. “The biggest difference between now and 2015 is that in 2015, there was a governor that was actively raising money, leading the charge,” Ryer said, referring to Northam’s stunted fundraising following the blackface scandal that dogged him earlier this year. “This breaks a precedent that goes back over 30 years.”
On Northam, Locke said: “The governor isn’t the only person who is fundraising. We’re all fundraising, and our fundraising has not been hamstrung.”
With 12 to 15 House districts potentially in play, more seats could flip in the lower chamber.
House Democrats will be looking to expand their map and defend the 15 seats they flipped in the 2017 wave. That task got a little easier earlier this year when a federal court redrew portions of the House map after finding 11 districts had been racially gerrymandered. To address the constitutional faults, a court-appointed expert drew new district lines that added enough African American voters to several GOP-held districts to potentially tilt them in Democrats’ favor.
"Our polls look really, really good,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. "And we’ve got great candidates focused on the issues."
One of the top targets for House Democrats is Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, one of just a few Northern Virginia Republicans left in the legislature. After winning in 2017 by just over 100 votes, Hugo is being challenged by Democrat Dan Helmer, an Army veteran who last year sought the Democratic nomination for a U.S. House of Representatives seat now held by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th.
Democrats also see several prime pickup opportunities in Hampton Roads, such as the redrawn, Hampton-anchored district left vacant by the retirement of Del. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson, and the seat held by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News. Yancey — who won reelection in 2017 via a random tiebreaker that also gave Republicans their 51st House seat — is facing a rematch with Democrat Shelly Simonds, a former member of the Newport News School Board. In the district left open by Helsel’s departure, Democrat Martha Mugler, a member of the Hampton School Board, is running against Republican lawyer Colleen Holcomb.
House Republicans, who secured their 51st seat in 2017 by winning a random tiebreaker for a Newport News-based district, believe their larger playing field gives them more flexibility to defend their majority. Even if they lose some highly unfavorable districts, they think they have a chance to stay at 51 by winning seats back elsewhere.
Matt Moran, chief of staff to House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said the House GOP has “the best slate of candidates that we’ve recruited in a decade.”
“We are very confident that the odds are in our favor,” Moran said.
Two of the House seats Democrats flipped in 2017 are coming open again after two first-term lawmakers — Rodman and Turpin — decided to run for the Senate. Former Del. Rocky Holcomb, a Republican who lost to Turpin two years ago, is running for his old seat against Democrat Alex Askew, a legislative aide.
In the Henrico-based House district Rodman is leaving, Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg, an investment manager, is running against Democrat Rodney Willett, a technology consultant.
Republicans also see an opportunity in the suburban Richmond district represented by Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, who is being sued by a former legislative aide who claims Adams made her perform unpaid work for the delegate’s health care consulting business. Adams has denied the claims. She’s facing a challenge from Republican Garrison Coward, a former aide to Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st.
House Republicans are also playing defense at the top.
The districts represented by Cox and House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, both tilted toward Democrats under the redrawn map, forcing the two GOP leaders to campaign with a new level of vigor.
Their Democratic opponents — Chesterfield business owner Sheila Bynum-Coleman and Clint Jenkins of Suffolk, who manages a real estate company — are already attracting attention and dollars from national groups eyeing the opportunity to flip the statehouse.
Kidd said both Cox and Jones are emphasizing their ties to their respective communities - Cox as a former teacher and coach and Jones as a pharmacist - over their political records.
"If they win, I think that's going to be what saves them," Kidd said.