By Jacki Swearingen ‘73, Edited by Ryan O’Connell ‘73, Jim Harbison ‘73, and Marilyn Go ‘73
As anxieties grow for the 2024 Presidential elections, Virginia voters are preparing for a state legislature election next month observers have deemed a “bellwether.” The outcome not only will determine who controls Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate, but also the fate of the state’s policies on abortion, gun control and climate change. In addition, winning Republican majorities in both chambers could jump-start the presidential campaign of Governor Glen Youngkin as a possible GOP alternative to Donald Trump.
This November all 140 seats in Virginia’s legislature will be up for grabs. The Republicans have a four-seat majority in the House of Delegates as well as the governorship. Democrats, who won the Senate in 2019, hold a two-seat majority that has allowed them to stop Republican efforts to weaken abortion rights and impose restrictions on some voters. This past August the Democrats’ majority in the Senate also enabled them to halt Youngkin’s proposal that would reduce taxes on corporations and high income individuals.
If the Democrats lose the Virginia Senate this fall, Republicans will have a “trifecta” that will allow them to limit or even ban abortion rights and to overturn the gun control measures like background checks that Democrats established in 2020. In contrast, winning both the upper chamber and the House of Delegates would give Democrats new leverage in budget negotiations with the state’s Republican governor.
If Republicans retake the Senate and hold onto the House of Delegates, Youngkin and GOP legislators would have the ability to enact previously unsuccessful legislation to oppose Medicaid expansion, to allow religious organizations to deny services to LGBTQ citizens, and to eliminate strict emissions controls. Republicans need to win only one additional seat to tie the Senate, an outcome that would permit the Republican lieutenant governor to cast a tie breaker vote.
The struggle for the Virginia legislature is likely to come down to a handful of toss up districts, most of them in the suburbs surrounding Washington D.C. as well as in Richmond and Hampton Roads. Five races in the Senate and nine in the House of Delegates could affect the fate of key issues like abortion on a national as well as state level.
Ten senators and 17 delegates have retired, due largely to a radical reshaping of the electoral districts that was launched by a bipartisan election commission in 2021 to counter partisan gerrymandering. When the maps put forth by that panel failed to win the legislature’s approval, a requirement, the redistricting map was sent to the state Supreme Court for review. The judges appointed an independent special master, who drew up new districts that pitted several incumbents against each other.
Just as in recent contests in Wisconsin and Kansas, Democrats are focusing on what the loss of both Virginia chambers would mean for abortion rights. Virginia currently permits abortion through about 26 weeks, the longest period in any southern state since the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Gov. Youngkin has said that legislating a prohibition on abortion at 15 weeks, with exceptions only for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, is a priority for him. Democrats fear that if they lose the Senate, he and Republican legislators will impose a more severe ban that resembles those of Texas and Florida. In fact, Youngkin was caught on tape during his 2021 campaign telling a supporter that he favored a stricter ban but needed to moderate his comments to win independent voters.
Democrats also point to Youngkin’s actions to curb voting rights as an indication that the Republicans would impose even more restrictions if they won both chambers of the legislature. In April the governor reversed Virginia’s policy of automatically restoring voting rights to former felons after they completed their sentences. Former felons can now only have that right restored by the governor’s authorization. And in May, Youngkin’s chief election officer removed Virginia from a multi-state data system designed to keep voter rolls up to date, making it harder for election officials to reach out to eligible voters and encourage them to register.
Educational issues loom large in next month’s election as well. In July Youngkin put in place a K-12 transgender policy that requires, among other measures, that students be addressed with the pronoun for the sex assigned to them at birth. Republican legislators have tried previously to ban transgender athletes and to prohibit the teaching of “inherently divisive subjects.” They have also pushed to allow families to use public funds to pay for private education.
Fueled by rising prejudice nationwide against LGBTQ people and parental dissatisfaction over pandemic mandates like school closings, school board meetings in northern Virginia counties like Loudon and Fairfax have grown contentious in recent years. Parents on the right also railed against history curricula that included slavery and the civil rights movement being taught in public schools, erroneously labeling books or lessons with those subjects “critical race theory.” With school board seats across the state on the ballot this November, these fights are likely to shape legislative contests as well.
County contests for sheriffs, commonwealth’s attorneys, and superintendents touch on local issues like development, crime, and the rise of massive data centers that increase the use of fossil fuels and often leave local residents burdened with the financial and environmental costs. With Virginia’s five percent increase in crime during 2022, Republican candidates are calling to repeal Democratic changes in policing, like controls on racial profiling.
Recognizing the connection between these local contests and larger ones, both parties have worked to recruit candidates who can emerge as state and national leaders. Right-wing factions of the GOP have focused particularly on filling slots on school boards, a tactic that brings ideological struggles down to the grassroots level. Democratic activists have complained they lag behind in this latest fight because they were slow to catch on, just as they were in 2010 when Republicans began to concentrate on taking control of state legislatures.
With growing concerns that this upcoming election could determine the direction of Virginia’s policies and politics for years to come, both sides have stepped up fundraising efforts to make this potentially the most expensive midterm contest in the state’s history. Democratic candidates for both the House of Delegates and the Senate lead their Republican candidates in donations by a combined $15 million to $10.6 million for the period between July 1 and August 31. Republican hopes have been shored up by large sums coming from Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, which took in $3.8 million during that period, with $1 million coming from Florida billionaire Thomas Peterffy.
The massive and small contributions to both parties will fund the canvassing and ad buys designed to drive the voter turnout key to victory in this election. Early voting began on September 22 and will run through 5:00 PM on November 4. Like his Democratic rivals, Youngkin is urging GOP voters to cast their ballots in advance at an early voting location.
Registered voters in Virginia can also request a mail-in ballot before 5:00 pm on October 27. They can check their registration, locate their polling place and request an absentee ballot.
All voters need a valid driver’s license or other ID in order to vote in this critical election.
It is not too late to help register voters and facilitate voting for all citizens, regardless of political affiliation. Residents of Virginia as well as other states and the District of Columbia can volunteer for or contribute to one of the following non-partisan organizations:
The League of Women Voters protects and expands voting rights through advocacy and education.
Virginia Legislative Elections Guide provides a nonpartisan guide to key votes.
Virginia Civic Engagement Table supports non-profit organizations that assist at polling sites and provide voter protection hotlines.
WorkElections recruits poll workers.
VoteRiders offers Voter ID assistance.
BigTentUSA gets out the vote through phone banking, post card writing, registration drives.
BlackVotersMatter increases the voter engagement of Black citizens. Black Voters Matter is this year’s Justice Aid 2023 Grantee Partner.
Rideshare2Vote increases voter turnout through providing transportation.
See also other organizations listed in the Voting Activism Opportunities posted on the ClassAct HR '73 website.