On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Virginians went to the polls to elect 140 members of the General Assembly, in the process completing a rapid period of political change in the Old Dominion.
All 100 seats in the House of Delegates and all 40 seats in the state Senate were up for grabs, and Republicans were fighting to maintain control of the legislature they’ve held a lock on for more than two decades. But history and demographics were not in the GOP’s favor.
For the first time in a generation, Democrats will hold both elected branches of state government. Four of the last five governors have been Democrats, and the last time a Republican was elected to the office was 2009 when Bob McDonnell swept into office. Since then, Democrats have won all three statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — in the 2013 and 2017 elections.
The GOP has held a lock on the powerful House of Delegates since 2000. Led by former Del. Vance Wilkins of Amherst, Republicans captured control of the House in the 1999 elections, and Wilkins would go on to become the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction. Though he left the Assembly in disgrace two years later following a sexual harassment scandal, his party continued to consolidate its control over the lower chamber, at one point holding a veto-proof 67-to-43 seat majority.
But at the same time as Republicans were consolidating their control of the House, they should have been looking at the state Senate for signs of the demographic changes under way in the commonwealth. Senate seats are larger and, thus, more difficult to draw to one party’s advantage or disadvantage — that’s where the lessons for Assembly Republicans lay.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Republicans and Democrats held each other to narrow margins of control in the Senate. The chamber would go from being evenly split, with the lieutenant governor’s tie-breaking vote holding sway, to a narrow Democratic majority to a narrow Republican majority. This seesawing control was representative of where the commonwealth was on the ground politically.
But over the years, Democrats began to pull ahead ever so slightly. They took down Republican U.S. Sen. George Allen in 2006, turned the state blue for Barack Obama in 2008 (the first time a Democrat had won Virginia in a presidential election since 1964) and did so again in 2012. Since 2009, no Republican candidate at either the state or federal level has won a statewide race in the commonwealth. In the 2017 gubernatorial election, the party nominated Ed Gillespie, a moderate, middle-of-the-road candidate and former adviser to President George W. Bush, who nevertheless lost to Democrat Ralph Northam in a landslide — and that was after nominating conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli in 2013, who went down in defeat to political neophyte Terry McAuliffe.
That same year, Democrats pulled off the seemingly impossible in House of Delegates elections, wiping out the GOP’s 2-to-1 advantage and coming within a tie breaking, name-pulled-from-a-fishbowl moment of taking the House. A year later, in the congressional midterms, the party flipped three seats in the House of Representatives to go from a 7-4 GOP advantage to a 7-4 Democratic advantage.
The redrawing earlier this year of 11 House districts that a federal judge found were an illegal racial gerrymander certainly increased the Democrats’ chances at the polls, but these changes have been years in the making.
Some folks might believe these changes of the past couple of years have materialized because President Trump is deeply unpopular with a majority of the state’s voters. While it’s true the president isn’t a beloved figure in the commonwealth, that’s only a small fragment of the larger story.
The population in Northern Virginia, the Richmond region and Tidewater/Hampton Roads has been growing by leaps and bounds, while the population in rural Virginia has been holding steady, at best, but mostly declining. These new Virginians tend to be more socially liberal, highly educated, less religious and more receptive to liberal and progressive politicians and policies.
This is a social and political trend that will only gather steam going into the future. According to the U.S. Census of 2010, the commonwealth’s population stood at 8 million; estimates for the current population are in the range of 8.5 million. Those half-a-million new Virginians, added to the 13 percent population surge from the 2000 census to the 2010 census, are worlds’ different from Virginians of the past. And they’re the ones building the new Old Dominion of the 21st century.