Once upon a time, politics in Virginia were dreary and rather boring. No longer.
From the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War to the 1969 gubernatorial election, Democrats — the old school Democrats, to be more precise — controlled state and local politics. For much of that time, it was the segregationist Byrd Organization, run by Harry F. Byrd Sr., that called the shots, decided who would be running for which office and laid out the policies of state government. From his perch as governor in the 1920s and then U.S. senator until his death in 1964, Byrd ruled not with pronouncements but rather silent consent.
The transformation of the Democratic Party begun in the 1960s into the progressive party it is today split the state party and opened the door to Republican Linwood Holton’s election as governor in 1969, the first Republican since Reconstruction elected to the office. The 1970s saw the old segregationist Democrats such as Mills Godwin switch allegiances to the state Republican Party, setting up a battle for party control in the late 1970s between the old Byrd Democrats and the more moderate traditional Republicans from Southwest Virginia. It was a battle the Byrd-Democrats-turned-Republicans would win in the early 1980s.
The 1980s were a transition time for Richmond, as Democrats managed to hold onto the executive branch but saw their numbers in the General Assembly begin to weaken. The election of Republican George Allen as governor in 1993 merely accelerated the transformation of the capital into a Republican city, and by the end of the decade Republicans had a stranglehold on the all-powerful House of Delegates that would last to this very day.
But suddenly, Virginia politics, especially in the General Assembly, has become competitive. Very competitive. And the money flowing into races for the state Senate and House of Delegates in advance of Election Day underscore just how competitive state politics at the local level has become in Virginia.
Twenty-five or 30 years ago, people’s jaws would have plunged to the floor had you told them candidates in a race for the House or Senate would raise more than a million dollars for their campaigns. Those were days when $100,000 or $200,000 were real money.
Those days are long gone.
In this cycle of elections, in which all 140 seats in the Assembly (40 in the Senate and 100 in the House) are up for grabs. The stakes for both parties couldn’t be higher, either. Republicans are trying to stave off a resurgent Democratic Party, which has won the executive branch for four of the last five gubernatorial contests and which almost took control of the House of Delegates in 2017, erasing a 2-1 GOP advantage.
State Republicans are holding on by the barest of margins in the Assembly. They have a 20-19 advantage in the Senate and a 51-48 margin in the House, with one vacant seat in each chamber. In the House, 11 districts were redrawn for this election after a federal court determined they were an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Two of the most powerful delegates are in tight races in two of those new districts: Speaker of the House Kirk Cox and Del. Chris Jones, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
As proof of Virginia’s newly found position on the national political stage, money from across the country is flowing into races across the state, from both Republican and Democratic affiliated organizations.
A record number of candidates — both challengers and incumbents — have raised $1 million or more for their races … in a matter of just three weeks in October.
The marquee money race in October featured Sen. Glen Sturtevant, a Richmond Republican, pulling in $1.2 million to stave off a challenge from Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, who pulled in $1.14 million. In vote-rich — and money-rich — Northern Virginia, Democrat John Bell raised $1.2 million in his quest to capture an open Senate seat, while his Republican opponent, Geary Higgins, raised $809,000.
It’s not only Senate races that are pulling in the dollars. Del. Tim Hugo, the last Republican in Northern Virginia’s legislative delegation, is in the fight of his political life against challenger Dan Helmer, who’s raised $841,000 to Hugo’s $540,000.
Outside organizations are also opening their checkbooks for the Assembly races. Gun reform advocacy organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety, PAC founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have contributed millions to the state legislative races in hopes of passing major gun reform laws in the new Assembly. In response, the NRA has made unprecedented contributions to save the legislature for Republicans, a step the group’s never had to take before.
The result? An election that’s so close it’s impossible to call. Voter enthusiasm is high across the board, and election officials have seen a surge in absentee ballot requests that far outpaces the numbers from 2015, the last time the entire Assembly was up for election. It’s going to be a nail biter Tuesday night for political watchers, who will be attempting to read the national tea leaves for the next election that begins in earnest Wednesday: the 2020 presidential election. Hold onto your seats, Virginia.