(The Center Square) — It is a fact that Democrats swept the Virginia General Assembly. But how much to celebrate? That’s where pundits differ.
To Martin Cohen, professor of political science at James Madison University, Democrats exceeded expectations on Tuesday.
“My view is that no change in control of the two houses would have been seen as a success for Dems and a disappointment for Republicans in light of the mood of the country,” Cohen told The Center Square. “Of course, the Democrats exceeded that outcome.”
While Professor of Political Science at George Washington University Chris Warshaw thinks Democrats can certainly be happy with their win, he doesn’t see it the same way Cohen does — in fact, Democrats merely “eeked out a win” from his perspective.
“This is a state that, at a statewide level, Biden won by a pretty large margin,” Warshaw told The Center Square. “The Democratic state legislative candidates underperformed Biden by somewhere between five and eight points in terms of two-party margin…. So, if you look at it through that lens, it’s not quite as promising for Democrats.”
Democrats kept the Senate but lost a seat on Tuesday. They entered the election with a 22-18 majority but left with a 21-19 edge.
They flipped the lower chamber from a 52-48 Republican-led House of Delegates to a 51-48 Democrat majority, with one race still undecided but leaning Republican.
Several districts were unpredictable heading into Tuesday. The nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project labeled them “competitive” because their voters had shown support for both Republican and Democratic candidates in the past. Republicans did win the majority of those districts in the Senate (three of the four) and at least half in the House – (potentially four if the undecided race goes their way) – but they were unable to push into any Democratic-leaning districts, of which there were slightly more, to begin with.
Measuring Democrats’ performance in 2023 by Biden’s in 2020 might be the wrong litmus test, however, and may yield an underappreciation of what Democrats accomplished this year, according to Cohen.
“I would say that a lot has happened since Biden’s win in 2020, including the Republicans sweeping all three statewide offices in 2021. The momentum seemed to be in [Republicans’] favor going into Tuesday.
Youngkin was on the offensive and had great expectations which weren’t met,” Cohen said. “The phrase ‘a win is a win’ comes to mind here.”
Nonetheless, both Cohen and Warshaw agree that Virginia truly is a purple state with an electorate that’s split nearly 50-50 – with “maybe a slight lean” toward the Democratic side. Warshaw credits the commonwealth’s 2021 redistricting for accurately capturing the dichotomy.
“Virginia has an unusually fair state legislative map – certainly relative to previous years, even relative to the rest of the country,” Warshaw said. “It’s a positive development, I think, that there’s a very fair translation of the votes to seats in Virginia in a way that there really wasn’t before the recent reforms.”
“This is a state that’s a little bit to the left of the national average, but it’s certainly a state that either party can win depending on how the national tides look,” Warshaw later added.
But if Republicans look to achieve gains in the commonwealth in the near future, they will have to change their tactics some, according to University of Mary Washington Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Stephen Farnsworth.
“The bottom line of Tuesday’s results in Virginia is that Republicans still need to come up with a way to talk about abortion that can limit the political fallout the party faces over the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Democrats talked about abortion more than anything during the campaign, and that topic was a winner for them, particularly in the suburbs where elections are won and lost in Virginia,” Farnsworth told The Center Square.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin will now have an uphill battle for his remaining two years as governor, as the Democratic majority in the House and Senate will severely stymie anything he hopes to accomplish legislatively.
“Youngkin will face gridlock for the next two years. He may now want to offer cooperation with Democratic lawmakers,” Farnsworth said, “But the time to have done that was two years ago.”
The outcome may have also quelled enthusiasm for a future presidential run for Youngkin as a candidate that can win the support of both parties.