All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot, but much of the battle is focused on suburban districts in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
Republicans are defending thin majorities of 20-19 in the state Senate and 51-48 in the House of Delegates, with one vacancy in each chamber. If Democrats can take control, they could consolidate power for the first time in 26 years and work with Gov. Ralph Northam to enact legislation long blocked by Republicans.
Those include gun control, protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, a higherminimum wage and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. As the only former Confederate state that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and with its urban and suburban areas becoming increasingly diverse, Virginia is seen by Democrats as an important place to plant the flag against Trump’s Republican Party.
What’s more, whoever controls the General Assembly will oversee redistrictingafter next year’s Census — influencing politicsfor a decade to come.
Voters will also decide a host of local races, electing successors to outgoing board of supervisors chairs Sharon Bulova (D-Fairfax) and Corey Stewart (R-Prince William), among others; choosing supervisors, prosecutors, schools board members and sheriffs across the state; and endorsing or rejecting millions in bond issues for schools, transportation and public safety projects.
In the state legislative races, expectations are so high that coming up short of a majority in either chamber would raise questions about the Democratic Party’s fitness to take on Trump in 2020.
Early Tuesday at one of Fairfax County’s reddest precincts, Gary Tvdrik carefully pinned a small American flag to the lapel of his gray coat, something he does every Election Day. A few miles away, John Grimsley rolled out of bed earlier than he usually does, fingered his wood cross necklace and decided to skip breakfast.
Both men — both white, Republican residents of Virginia’s 40th House District — couldn’t wait to march into the Clifton Community Center and cast their votes for Del. Tim Hugo, the last Republican lawmaker left in the Virginia suburbs closest to Washington. Both men said they had the same mission. Both said it was urgent.
“Top issue in this race?” said Tvdrik, who is in his 50s and works in construction management. “My top issue is voting out the Do-Nothing Dems. They’re unhinged, they’re lying, they’re cheating, it’s unbelievable.”
Tvrdik started to head into the voting station, before turning back to throw over his shoulder: “Oh — and Pelosi drives me nuts. Nuts!”
Grimsley, 78, retired moving services worker who also served in the Air Force, said his Christian faith makes him, by default, a Republican. He said he can’t stomach what he called liberals’ dangerous ideas about abortion, or school boards policies that allow students to choose their gender. He said he wasn’t sure where Hugo stood on those issues, but is trusting “generally” that Hugo will behave like a good conservative in office. Hugo is facing a tough race against Democrat Dan Helmer.
“Partly, it’s that I don’t like the guy he’s running against,” Grimsley said. “I’ve got 12 signs in my yard: one for every Republican I’m voting for today.”
Lifelong Republican Travis White and lifelong Democrat David Shonka, might not agree on much, from a political standpoint, except for their dislike of President Trump.
White, an 81-year-old Army veteran, said he is “very much against” what he calls the “Trump attitude.” It’s a pattern of behavior, in White’s view, defined by broken promises and blatant lies: “He’s going to lie, every time,” White said.
Shonka, a 78-year-old attorney, expressed equal disdain. He said Trump’s behavior alone was a sufficient reason to vote a “straight Democratic ticket” Tuesday morning.
“It really begins at the top, then it flows into the Senate, then it flows into the House, and then — yes — to issues at a more local level,” Shonka said. “The Republicans have lost the right to govern.”
“No, I’m going to vote kind of mixed,” White said.
Miles away at Langley High School, residents showed up to vote in a bluer precinct.
Anita LaSalle, 77, said she and her husband “tend to be liberal,” but are worried about overdevelopment in Fairfax County. They said they’re concerned about the seemingly ever-increasing amount of traffic on Route 123 and that some parents in the neighborhood can’t let their children wait for the school bus because sidewalks haven’t been built.
LaSalle, a retired federal employee and professor, said she was also astounded by the poor planning of Tysons.
“They built a city with no roads,” she said after casting her vote. “It’s unmanageable.”
But LaSalle said that she was generally happy with local leaders and decided to cast her vote for Democrats up and down the ballot, including Jeff McKay for chairman of the Fairfax County Board. She said she used to split her vote between Republicans and Democrats, but in recent years started voting for mostly Democrats as she said she felt the Republican Party grew more conservative at the national and local levels.
“Their views are just antiquated,” she said.
McLean resident Richard Stark, 71, who is retired, said he voted straight Democratic because he thinks the Republican Party has “abandoned the principles for which it stood when I was growing up.”
Stark, who described himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, said he thinks changes in the national Republican Party have trickled down to the local level.
Glory Fox Dierker, 73, said she voted for Democrats up and down the ballot. Dierker, who described herself as “a lifelong hippie,” said she voted for Jeff McKay for chairman of the Fairfax County board and was unconcerned about allegations he got a sweetheart deal on his family’s house.
“I don’t think Republicans have any place talking about quid-pro-quo’s,” she said.
GOP candidates warned during campaigning that progressive Democrats are out of step with traditional Virginia values and will ruin the state’s business-friendly climate. Many suburban Republican candidates have attempted a difficult balancing act, posing almost like centrist Democrats for much of the summer — including blue campaign signs and literature that emphasized gun safety and health care without mentioning party affiliation — but lashing out against “socialists” and abortionists in the final weeks.
Tuesday’s elections will cap a political year that has obliterated quaint notions of a “Virginia Way” of bipartisan civility.
Democrats entered 2019 with tremendous momentum after making big gains in contests for both the House of Delegates and Congress. After a federal court ruled that several of the state’s House districts had been racially gerrymandered, judges approved a new electoral map that redrew 26 districts — boosting Democrats’ chances by shifting six Republicans into blue-leaning territory.
In late January, though, Democratic legislators and Northam made clumsy comments defending a bill that would have loosened restrictions on late-term abortions. Conservatives across the country erupted with charges of infanticide — something Northam, a pediatric neurologist, called “disgusting.”
Days later, a racist photo surfaced from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, depicting one person in blackface and another in Klan robes. Northam initially took responsibility for the photo and most in his own party called on him to resign.
But he quickly disavowed the photo, although he admitted darkening his face for a dance contest later that same year, and refused to step down.
Within days, the state’s two other top Democrats were also mired in scandal: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused by two women of separate sexual assaults in the early 2000s, both of which he denies; and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he, too, had darkened his face for a party in college in 1980.
Republicans aimed to depict Democrats as chaotic, scandal-ridden baby killers, and themselves as pragmatic centrists.
On May 31, tragedy disrupted state politics when a gunman killed 12 in Virginia Beach. Amid a public outcry for action, Democrats rallied around Northam, who summoned the General Assembly to a special legislative session in July to consider gun restrictions.
Republicans who control the legislature accused Democrats of cynical politics, and adjourned the session after 90 minutes without debating a single bill. Instead they referred all legislation to a state crime commission.
That was a risky move for Republicans — a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found that gun policy is the top issue for a majority of Virginia voters. While those voters split evenly among Democrats and Republicans, even bigger majorities said they favor some form of gun control legislation.
Polls also consistently showed that most Virginians are happy with the job Northam is doing, defusing the scandal issue for Republicans. The governor’s fundraising has continued to lag, but he returned to the campaign trail — albeit without the usual gubernatorial fly-around in the home stretch. Former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) picked up some of the slack, raising money and making campaign appearances.
After several other states enacted harsh abortion restrictions, that topic lost some of its potency in Virginia, where suburban voters are leery of encroaching on a woman’s right to choose.
Republicans in some districts have tried to revive the late-term abortion issue, hoping to energize their base. The Democratic-driven impeachment effort is also revving up the GOP, some Republicans said.
Turnout, after all, is the single most crucial factor on Tuesday. This is an “off-off year,” without statewide or federal races on the ballot to stir up voter interest. Turnout in such years in Virginia is typically very low — usually under 30 percent. Democrats are hoping that anti-Trump fervor will get their numbers up, as it has done ever since 2016, and have cranked up celebrity endorsements for good measure, including visits from actors Alec Baldwin and Kerry Washington.
In Northern Virginia, Democrats see their best pickup opportunity in the state Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), a social conservative who had been able to hang on despite a changing district. Del. John Bell (D-Loudoun) has raised $2.6 million for that open seat, compared with $1.4 million by Republican Geary Higgins. Democrats also have targeted Hugo.
Republicans, meanwhile, focused on unseating several Prince William delegates swept into office two years ago on an anti-Trump wave, including the state’s first two Latina legislators, Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman, and Danica Roem, Virginia’s first transgender elected official. But fundraising in those races has heavily favored Democrats.
One of the most competitive House races is a rematch — Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-Clarke) vs. former Republican delegate Randy Minchew. She unseated him in 2017, when Minchew’s own sister-in-law voted against him to demonstrate her disdain for Trump.
In the Richmond suburbs, two freshmen Republican state senators are trying to fend off Democratic challengers in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 that have tilted ever-bluer since. Sen. Glen Sturtevant (R-Richmond) faces Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, while Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) is trying to fend off Del. Debra Rodman (D-Henrico).
The Dunnavant-Rodman contest is on track to be the state’s most expensive, with Dunnavant raising $2.5 million and Rodman $2.8 million.
In a rural-suburban district that’s remained red under Trump, Democratic challenger Amanda Pohl hopes to capitalize on a string of election-year controversies surrounding freshman Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who wore a gun on her hip on the Senate floor, cussed out a Capitol police officer over a parking space and was ousted from her local GOP committee. But both parties say Chase’s poll numbers rose after all the attention.
The most prominent House race in the region pits House Speaker M. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) against Sheila Bynum-Coleman (D). The speaker, the state’s most powerful Republican, must compete in a district redrawn under court order to remedy racial gerrymandering. The map swung from heavily favoring Republicans to tilting slightly blue. The symbolic value of the race has helped Bynum-Coleman nearly keep pace with Cox’s fundraising, $1.4 million to his $1.8 million.
Other hard-fought races in the region pit Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) against Republican GayDonna Vandergriff (R); Democrat Rodney Willett vs. Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg; and Del. Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield) vs. Democrat Larry Barnett. Two years ago, Barnett lost to Robinson by just 128 votes.
In Hampton Roads, the most-watched race is a rerun: Del. David Yancey (R-Newport News) faces Democrat Shelly Simonds (D) two years after their 2017 contest resulted in a tie, which was decided by a random drawing on live national television.
Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, is trying to fend off Democrat Clinton Jenkins in a redrawn district that heavily favors Democrats.
Several Virginia Beach races could be pivotal in determining the balance of power and will test the potency of the gun control issue. Freshman Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Va. Beach) is in a tight race in a heavily military district against Republican challenger Shannon Kane (R); Del. Glenn Davis (R-Va. Beach) faces Democrat Karen Mallard; and Del. Chris Stolle (R-Va. Beach) is running against Democrat Nancy Guy.
That area’s two Senate seats are also competitive. Del. Cheryl Turpin (D-Va. Beach) faces Republican Jen Kiggins (R) for an open seat vacated by retired Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Va. Beach), and Sen. William DeSteph (R-Va. Beach) is trying to turn back a well-funded challenge by Democrat Missy Cotter Smasal.
Hannah Natanson, Rachel Chason and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.