Virginia Democrats are hoping to gain full control of the commonwealth’s Statehouse during next Tuesday’s election, in what could be an indicator of the party’s strength heading into 2024.
Democrats in and out of the state have poured money into the off-year elections, focusing particularly on the issue of abortion access. Republicans, on the other hand, have zeroed in on crime and the economy as key issues.
Democrats lost their trifecta in Richmond two years ago when Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was elected and the GOP won back control of the House of Delegates. However, Democrats say they feel optimistic now following a better-than-expected performance in the midterm elections last year.
The party’s strategists and operatives also point to special election wins inside and outside of Virginia this year. In January, Virginia Democrats won the special election for the state’s 7th District. Several Democratic wins followed that win in special elections in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Ohio.
“The best indicator of future elections are elections that have already taken place,” said Abhi Rahman, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which is a group dedicated to electing Democrats in state-level races.
“Virginia is a huge part of that. It kind of shows you where the Democratic message is versus where the Republican message is,” he said.
Democrats have touted their candidates this cycle, including former prosecutor Russet Perry in the state’s 31st Senate District, Air Force veteran Michael Feggans in House District 97 and Marine Corps veteran Josh Thomas in House District 21.
“In the competitive races, the Democrats have put up good candidates, some excellent candidates actually,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political analyst.
Candidates with prosecutorial and military experience could be an answer to Republican criticism of Democrats over issues like rising crime.
The most competitive races of the cycle are located in Virginia’s population centers in the north, as well as the Richmond and Virginia Beach regions. Republicans currently control the House of Delegates, 50 to 46. Meanwhile, Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, 22 to 18. There are four open seats up for grabs in the Senate and five in the House.
Democrats have made abortion access their top issue going into Tuesday’s election. In 2021, Democrats led by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe failed to sway a majority of voters on the issue. But two years later, Democrats point to the urgency surrounding the issue in a post-Roe v. Wade country.
Youngkin, who has been a constant presence on the campaign trail, has voiced his support for a 15-week ban on most abortions with exceptions. Democrats, in turn, have tied down-ballot Republicans to the proposed restrictions.
“Without a doubt, that is front and center,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of Virginia’s Democratic Party. “But I also know that Virginians don’t want to bring the MAGA chaos that we have seen in Congress and most recently with the election of the new Speaker of the House.”
Several Virginia Democrats have taken to labeling their Republican opponents as “MAGA extremists,” pointing to issues such as abortion, education and gun control.
“Fundamental freedoms are on the line, and if Republicans win, they will take away your fundamental freedoms,” Rahman said. “The only thing stopping Glenn Youngkin from doing to Virginia what [Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)] did to Florida is a Democratic Senate right now, and if he gets that trifecta, he’s going to be extreme. He’s going to show his true MAGA extremist colors.”
Republicans, meanwhile, argue that they are focusing on kitchen table issues resonating in local communities, while Democrats seek to nationalize the state elections.
“They don’t want to talk about local issues,” said Will Ritter, the CEO of Poolhouse, an agency that does media for Youngkin’s PAC. “We’re very much focused on local issues that are important to people where the Democrats have got ads with [Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.)] and try to take advantage of the Speaker issue.”
The strategy of labeling Republicans as “MAGA extremists” is reminiscent of McAuliffe’s strategy to continuously tie Youngkin to [former President Trump] in 2021, despite Youngkin never publicly campaigning with the former president during the cycle.
“I’m reminded of the Youngkin-McAuliffe race, and they decided that Trump was the big issue and they were just going to hammer, hammer, hammer on that single issue, and we ended up picking up seats in the House in that cycle because of their miscalculation,” Ritter said.
In 2022, Democrats across the country saw success in painting their Republican opponents as extreme. But the difference in Virginia in 2023 is that Trump has not been much of a presence on the campaign trail. Instead, Youngkin has inserted himself into races throughout the commonwealth to boost Republicans.
“Youngkin himself poured in not only money, but he’s poured his entire soul into this race,” Holsworth said. “It tells you how high the stakes are here.”
Republicans point to Youngkin’s relatively high approval ratings in the state as a reason to be optimistic. A Roanoke College poll released in August showed the governor with a 51 percent approval rating. His fundraising prowess has been a welcome boost as well. Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia raised more than $7 million in the third quarter of the year.
And despite Democratic efforts to tie down-ballot Republicans to Youngkin’s abortion stance, Republican candidates are publicly embracing his proposed 15-week ban on the procedure with exceptions. In Senate District 16, incumbent Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R) has touted her experience working as an OB-GYN. Dunnavant responded to her opponent, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D), by painting him as an extremist on abortion in an ad that features people saying a 15-week ban on the procedure is reasonable.
“We’re not hiding our heads in the sand,” Ritter said. “Compared to the extremists on the Democrat side … they can’t come up with any limit that they would find reasonable,” he continued, referring to limits on abortion.
Democrats are urging voters not to trust the Republicans’ message on abortion.
“They can try to put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. A ban is a ban,” Rahman said. “Just because they’re saying it’s a 15-week ban doesn’t mean that’s what they’re actually going to do.”
Republicans did acknowledge that it is a “tough” political environment post-Roe v. Wade.
“This is going to be a test of how damaged the Republican brand is on this issue,” Holsworth said. “Can they sort of shift to the 15-week ban or does everyone say, ‘Listen, it’s a ban, and you can’t believe them anyway’? And that’s what the Democrats are doing in a number of these races.”
Democrats are also rolling out all the stops when it comes to campaigning. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) is slated to stump for the Democrats in the state Saturday, and former President Obama has recorded robocalls in key Virginia battleground districts.
And while Youngkin has proven to be a financial superpower for Republicans, Democrats have been able to hold their own financially. Democratic Virginia Senate candidates in the state raised more than $12 million between Oct. 1 and 26, while Republicans raised more than $10 million in the same period. On the state House side, Democrats brought in $14.2 million while Republicans raised $8.4 million.
The fundraising and spending alone is an indicator of how high the stakes are for Republicans and Democrats. Both parties say they view the elections as a curtain-raiser going into 2024.
“This is not only the last race of 2023, it’s the first race of 2024,” Swecker said. “We laid the roadmap for what the landscape is going to look like across the country next year. So not only what kind of commonwealth do you want, but what kind of country do you want?”