By Hastings Wyman –
This November, most of the political focus in the South will be on Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, in that order, where elections for governor will be taking place. But Virginia is also holding elections this year, albeit not for statewide offices. All the legislators will be up for election, 40 state Senators and 100 members of the House of Delegates. The current line-up is 21R-19D in the Senate and 67R-32D in the House. The main goal of the Democrats is to win control of the Senate, either by winning 21 seats, or winning 20, with Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) able to break any ties. The GOP, however, hopes to maintain, and perhaps even strengthen, its slim Senate majority.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says much is at stake this fall for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). “He will have a great deal of leverage if he has control of one of the two houses,” he says, adding that “everything is a matter of negotiation. He had much more influence with the General Assembly when he had a one-vote majority in the Senate.” He adds that although the Democrats are targeting enough seats to gain a Senate majority, “it’s too early to prognosticate” the results..
The 29th District is a good example of the competitive nature of this year’s legislative races in the state. Incumbent state Sen. Charles Colgan (D) is retiring. There is a three-way contest in the June 9 Democratic Primary to succeed Colgan. The Republican contender is Manassas City Councilman Ian Lovejoy. The district is very competitive; Colgan was reelected by 55% to 45% in 2011 over a GOPer who had no funding until October. This year, both parties will be going all out to win this one.
The House of Delegates is heavily Republican – 67R to 32D, with one vacancy. Democrats hope to enlarge their minority.
One of the biggest contests is on the GOP side in the June 9 primary between House Speaker William Howell (R) and his challenger on the right, former county supervisor Susan Stimpson. Stimpson is trying to duplicate the silent-but-deadly campaign of last year, when Tea Party-backed David Brat (R) came out of no where to unseat then-US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R). Like Cantor, Howell is a big name who has far out-raised his challenger; as of May 27, he had $528,000 on hand, to Stimpson’s $29,000. The big difference, however, is that Howell will not be blind-sided, and is campaigning hard to retain his seat. Stimpson, who is supported by tax-nemesis Grover Norquist, is attacking Howell for helping Gov. McAuliffe obtain tax increases and on the hot-button issue of expanding healthcare; she has also criticized Howell for supporting I-95 express lanes. Howell contends she is distorting his record, but defends express lanes as important to commuters. The most graphic attack came from a gun rights group, in a mailer that contends Howell supported rapists by burying some gun legislation in committee. Howell, however, gets a 100% rating from the NRA.
At this early stage, “the political environment seems fairly neutral. It doesn’t seem like the wind is at the back of either side,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “McAuliffe has decent approval ratings, but Obama has a more middling one.”
As for the outcome influencing the 2016 election, Sabato does not believe that the results will be a harbinger of things to come in 2016, because voter turnout in a presidential election will far out-number this fall’s state legislative turnout. Nevertheless, Democrats are hoping that their organizational efforts will strengthen their political muscle in 2016, especially if Hillary Clinton, an ally of McAuliffe, is the Democrats’ presidential nominee.
Skelley agrees. “I’m not sure that taking back the Senate will help [the Democrats] all that much for 2016. It’s possible it could put more pressure on the House of Delegates to compromise on some issues, such as Medicaid expansion.” He adds that even with a Democratic Senate, “the House of Delegates will act as a check on any changes that would benefit Democrats, such as changes in the election laws.”