Democrats completed Virginia’s partisan shift from red to purple to true blue on Tuesday night, winning majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and consolidating power across the commonwealth for the first time in 25 years.
When the new General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control the governorship, the state Senate, the House of Delegates, both seats in the U.S. Senate and seven of the 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Going into the election, Republicans held a 20-19 advantage in the state Senate and a 51-48 edge in the House of Delegates. Republicans in the General Assembly had typically served as a stopping point for any progressive legislation advanced by Governor Ralph Northam’s administration, such as getting rid of right-to-work laws, raising the minimum wage, ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and passing gun safety provisions.
Ironically, Corey Stewart, who was the Virginia GOP’s right-wing neo-Confederate challenger to Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018, summed up Tuesday’s Democratic victories best. “The Republican Party is toast in Virginia for the next 10 years,” he said to the Washington Post. “Republicans will cease to be a serious political power.”
Indeed. Depleted by President Donald Trump’s floundering approval ratings in Virginia, the Republicans’ defeat was a new low for a party that has not won a statewide race since Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009.
And GOP candidates will face additional headwinds from the state house to the U.S. Congress — because now, they’ll have to run on an electoral map that is actually fair. As the majority party in the state legislature, Democrats will dictate the terms of Virginia’s redistricting process in 2021 after the U.S. Census in 2020. Unified Republican control of the state legislature and governorship after the 2010 census allowed the party to engage in partisan gerrymandering of both the congressional and state legislative districts.
However, the new General Assembly is likely to pass a constitutional amendment promoted by OneVirginia2021, a grassroots, bipartisan coalition that has been pushing Richmond to reform the commonwealth’s protocol for redistricting. The amendment would create an independent redistricting commission, comprised of four state senators and four delegates of equal partisan affiliation, as well as eight citizens. That commission would draw the lines that govern representation in the state Senate, House of Delegates and the U.S. House of Representatives.
If the amendment’s language passes in the new General Assembly, as is expected, it would go to ballot as a referendum in 2020 and take effect for the 2021 redistricting cycle. If the referendum succeeds, the amendment will be a giant leap forward for equitable representation in Virginia, protecting free, fair elections in our state for generations. And it will be, in some part, because so many in the commonwealth showed up to the polls on Tuesday — even in an off-year state election.
In addition, on a shorter time horizon, Tuesday’s election results will open the door to some broad-consensus progressive policies that were stifled in the Republican General Assembly. Tougher gun regulations will almost certainly swiftly become law. In the aftermath of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12 people in May, Northam sought to pass a package of reforms to close background check loopholes for private sales and transfers and forbid the sale of assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and silencers, among other things. The Republican-controlled General Assembly abruptly ended debate after just 90 minutes at a special legislative session in July, before a single bill had been considered.
Two bills aimed at protecting LGBTQ Virginians from discrimination are also likely to pass very quickly. Democrats will also have the opportunity to expand abortion rights and pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which aims to enshrine gender equity in the U.S. Constitution — and if it is ratified in the commonwealth, Virginia will be the last state needed to actually amend the Constitution.
It took years of organizing and multiple election cycles that resulted in incremental progress for Virginia to reach a point at which a blue sweep was possible. As the country gears up for the general election next year, Tuesday’s elections in the once-ruby red Old Dominion are a good reminder that no state is unwinnable forever. Democrats have the resources to take their case to the public and win, but they have to organize relentlessly and fight for every inch of political space they can get. Virginia is proof that if you treat every state like a battleground, then it can become one.