Today’s analysis offers preliminary ratings for the key House of Delegates and Senate races in Virginia. Last week, we gave our initial thoughts on fall legislative elections in New Jersey – where neither the Senate nor the Assembly is at risk of flipping to the Republicans. Keep an eye out for our 2023 gubernatorial ratings release on Thursday and early evaluations of the 2024 cycle in March.
Virginia – A Blue State With Purple Vestiges
Virginia, known colloquially as the Old Dominion, started political life like most of its southern neighbors: as a reliably-Democratic state. With the exception of the state’s Appalachian southwest – which had some pro-Union sympathies and saw actual multi-party competition early on – the racially-stratified Democratic politics of the defeated Confederacy pervaded Virginia at the federal level until the 1950’s.
The most notable exception to the state’s political norms occurred during the 1928 Presidential Election, when Virginia, long a crucible for various Protestant denominations, voted for Republican Herbert Hoover against the Catholic Al Smith – who posted the worst Democratic performance in the South post-Reconstruction due partly to such prejudice.
Virginia’s burgeoning change in national political preferences began to manifest itself after President Roosevelt’s death. Republican Thomas Dewey came within 7 points of winning the Old Dominion in 1948. Four years later, Dwight Eisenhower kicked off the near-perfect GOP winning streak in Virginia presidential elections that lasted between 1952 and 2004.
The only time Democrats carried the state presidentially during that period was in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson annihilated controversial conservative Barry Goldwater nationwide. Virginia, like much of the South, voted to the right of the nation – a backlash against Johnson’s efforts to protect Black Americans’ civil rights.
Goldwater did best in Southside Virginia, where the segregationist platforms of Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968) resonated the most.
Spearheaded by the machine politics of Harry Byrd Sr., a former governor and senator, conservative Democrats also dominated state-level elections during this period. Byrd’s guiding hand kept Virginia electing Democratic governors and senators almost two decades after it had started voting Republican for president.
In national politics, Byrd was known for his “golden silence.” As long as conservative Democrats won state-level office, he would often eschew endorsing Democratic nominees for president – to many voters, his non-endorsement was essentially “permission” to vote Republican.
Cracks in the façade started to appear in 1966, when conservative Democratic Senator Absalom Willis Robertson (Pat Robertson’s father) lost renomination to liberal Congressman William Spong by just 600 votes.
Spong won by mobilizing Fairfax County, Richmond, Hampton Roads, and the Southwest – rapid postwar population growth in many of those areas undermined Byrd’s traditional coalition of whites in Southside and the Shenandoah Valley.
Byrd Sr. died in that same year, placing his son Harry Byrd Jr. in charge of his aging brand. The machine’s collapse happened in 1969, when progressive Linwood Holton became the first post-Reconstruction Republican governor of Virginia. A native son of the Appalachian southwest (home to the strongest anti-Byrd sentiment) Holton firmly supported racial equality in office.
The younger Byrd, losing faith in the modern Democratic party, became an independent. Virginia would break historical precedent by electing Republicans to the Senate in both 1972 and 1982. Thenceforth, the GOP dominated Virginia at the presidential level and stamped out a competitive edge in off-year gubernatorial elections.
The New Virginia
Virginia of the 1990s and 2000s is a story of changing times and gradually-evolving political coalitions. Growing business interests and an expanding bureaucracy stimulated pre-existing development in NOVA (Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties) during this period, bringing thousands of new families to the suburbs of Washington.
These financially-stable, college-educated voters, many of whom worked for the federal government in some capacity, tended to support traditional Republicans like Bob McDonnell and Tom Davis – fiscal conservatives who behaved like social moderates.
NOVA began to shift consistently toward the Democrats at the federal level after the 2000 presidential election. John Kerry narrowly flipped Fairfax County in 2004 and Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win Virginia since LBJ in 1964.
NOVA’s leftward trends accelerated during the Trump era, culminating in Joe Biden’s 10-point statewide victory in 2020. While Virginia may now be a comfortably-Democratic state at the presidential level, off-year turnout dynamics and down-ballot lag keep Republicans in contention in state-level elections.
Businessman Glenn Youngkin proved that in 2021, when he defeated Terry McAuliffe in a high-turnout gubernatorial race taking place amid a watershed political environment for the GOP. In addition to winning all three statewide offices, Republicans flipped the House of Delegates.
Elasticity may have historically benefited Virginia’s suburban Republicans, much like in New Jersey, but its influence continues to wane in the face of ongoing pro-Democratic trends. In other words, Virginia is still amenable to Republicans in off-years, but it’s becoming a difficult carry statewide in even the most favorable of environments.
Today, much like in the Garden State, suburban Republicans in NOVA and Southside are able to hold their own in the legislature thanks to down-ballot lag. That’s why 2021 gubernatorial results – shifted in either direction to test for different potential environments – tend to be more reflective of reality in key districts than 2020 presidential returns colored by Trump’s unpopularity. In other words, the off-year environment, whether good or bad for Democrats, will almost always be redder than Virginia’s generic presidential partisanship.
Both Virginia and New Jersey prolonged the use of their old legislative maps* for the 2021 elections but have since finished the redistricting process. Because many of Virginia’s district numbers changed, today’s write-up will refer to specific members and their respective geographic bases to avoid confusion. VPAP offers detailed analyses of every redrawn seat.
*Virginia did redistrict its House of Delegates map after the 2019 elections*
2019 saw Democrats flip Virginia’s 40-seat Senate, marking the second control change since Republicans had initially taken the competitive chamber in 1998. The Democrats’ 21-19 majority stemmed in large part from a suburban rejection of Republicanism exacerbated by the Trump presidency.
Mirroring the political patterns that defined the 2017 and 2019 House of Delegates elections, the two seats Democrats flipped to secure a Senate majority (SD-10, SD-13) both voted comfortably for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Democrats expanded their majority in January 2023 after retired NFL football player-turned-city councillor Aaron Rouse flipped Democratic-leaning SD-07 after Republican Jen Kiggans swore into Congress. Democrats had come up short in her district by just 511 votes in 2019.
By achieving a 22-18 advantage, Democrats lessened the influence of controversial Richmond-area Democrat Joe Morrissey – a conservative who may have been willing to help Governor Youngkin enact new abortion restrictions.
This year’s Senate campaign is already being defined by some important retirements. Caucus leaders Dick Saslaw (D) and Tommy Norment (R) are both heading for the exit, bringing a combined 70 years’ of legislative experience with them.
Our preliminary Senate ratings show Democrats leading the race for control of the chamber with 20 seats. Republicans have the advantage in 16 districts while 4 are rated pure tossups. Let’s discuss the 7 seats currently on the board (not rated safe). Keep in mind that our ratings are preliminary and will change as pre-election uncertainty diminishes and candidates are decided.
Both Republicans and Democrats are favored to flip seats into their columns from the outset. The most vulnerable GOP Senator under the new lines is definitely (R) Siobhan Dunnavant from the 16th district – a Biden +17, McAuliffe +6 seat taking in the Richmond suburbs of Short Pump, Glenn Allen, and Tuckahoe.
Dunnavant won by 2 points in 2019, but heavily-Republican portions of western Hanover County that made the difference in her close reelection then are no longer in the district. Democratic Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg is already in the race, so a possible Dunnavant retirement would probably take this seat off the board. Leans Democratic (flip)
Redistricting also played a consequential role in the 20th district, where Senators Lynwood Lewis (D) and Bill DeSteph (R) got double-bunked. Unlike Lewis’s old seat, the new 20th replaces most of heavily-Democratic Norfolk with Republican-leaning turf in northern Virginia Beach. While those precincts are Democratic-trending, we consider DeSteph a favorite in his Trump +2, Youngkin +15 district. Likely Republican (Democratic Loss)
Districts 24 and 31 – both Biden-Youngkin seats – start at Tossup. The 24th, a Biden +6, Youngkin +8 district currently held by Newport News Democrat Monty Mason, is the better Republican target of the two on paper. Mason’s likely Republican opponent is Sheriff Danny Diggs, whose connections to York and Poquoson counties (added to the 24th in redistricting) could end up being the GOP’s silver bullet. Tossup
The 31st, represented by retiring Republican incumbent Jill Vogel, is an excellent example of a suburban swing seat where down-ballot lag keeps the GOP in contention. Democratic Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (VA-10) carried it by 6 points last year in a federal race. Keep in mind that Virginia’s 2020-2022 congressional vote shifted rightward slightly more than the national average according to our SHAVE research.
Encompassing the outer half of Loudoun County along with Leesburg, the open 31st went from Biden +13 to Youngkin +0.7 – a large delta that gives the GOP a fighting chance to win here even if Democrats should be ostensibly favored in a more neutral environment. Republicans have a top recruit in wealthy entrepreneur Juan Pablo Segura. Tossup
We’re also placing districts 17 and 27 in the Tossup column to start. Both Biden-Youngkin seats have similar partisanships, though down-ballot lag is more pronounced in the latter. The 17th connects Southside and Hampton Roads, taking in a mixture of rural white and black communities on the Coastal Plain.
This district partially overlaps with the 4th congressional district where Democrat Jennifer McClellan recently posted a marked overperformance in a low-turnout special election. Looking at the county returns shows a rough correlation between higher Black CVAP (2020) population and smaller percentage decline in turnout. That contextualizes McClellan’s historic win in Dinwiddie, driven by lacking rural white interest.
If black turnout stagnates in the fall, a problem in previous elections, and rural white participation rebounds, the GOP would be favored to flip this seat. Until we can contextualize the political environment and turnout dynamics, the Republican-trending 17th starts at the middle of the board. Tossup
The 27th is a different animal despite some apparent similarities. It is a leftward-trending Stafford/Fredericksburg-based seat that is only 19% black (compared to 41% in the 17th). Delegate (R) Tara Durant is an early favorite for the Republican nomination. Whether Democratic politico Ben Litchfield sees his candidacy complicated by Stafford County Supervisor Monica Gary or not, the 27th is one of the GOP’s best Senate targets. Tossup
The redrawn 4th, a visibly redder seat, replaces Blacksburg with more Republican-leaning suburbs surrounding the City of Roanoke. Democratic Senator John Edwards is also retiring, giving his Republican colleague David Sutterlein an excellent shot at winning what would have been an uphill double-bunking battle for Democrats either way. Likely Republican (Democratic Loss)
One of the best examples of a blue Senate seat that is still somewhat competitive in down-ballot contests is the 30th, a Biden +27, McAuliffe +5 district taking in the Prince William County suburbs west of Manassas City. 30% of this district counts as Hispanic/Latino, which explains why leftward trends in the southeastern corner of the seat have slowed without stopping altogether.
Delegate Danica Roem, who became the first openly-transgender person to win election to, and serve in, a state legislative chamber, is the frontrunner in the open Senate race. Republican candidate Ian Lovejoy dropped out of the race. We’re being cautious until the GOP determines its slate. Likely Democratic
House of Delegates
Unlike the Senate, the House of Delegates remained firmly in Republican hands for two decades after first winning control in 1997. In what was widely seen as a rejection of President Trump, Democrats netted 15 seats in the 2017 elections – trimming the GOP majority from 66–34 to just 51–49. The party ran a diverse slate of candidates, especially women, defeating moderate Republicans in Clinton districts like Tag Greason and Jim LeMunyon.
In fact, Democrats came excruciatingly close to tying the House of Delegates chamber that fall. Republican David Yancey won reelection to his Newport News-based seat after a random drawing; he had tied Democrat Shelly Simonds the previous November. Energized Democrats later managed to comfortably beat Yancey, and flip the House of Delegates, in 2019.
But the Democrats’ 55–45 majority did not last long. In 2021, on the back of Glenn Youngkin’s victory amid a heavily-Republican environment, the GOP netted 7 seats to take a 52–48 majority. Pick-ups in districts with large black populations (HD-63, HD-75) made for particularly-interesting surprises.
This year, the House of Delegates unsurprisingly starts as a Tossup. Today’s write-up briefly touches on the competitive races most important to deciding control, including the four at the center of the board.
Just like in the Senate, it’s important to remember that crossover voting stimulated by down-ballot lag makes many seats in the House of Delegates redder than they appear – especially when formidable incumbents are present. Democrats are currently favored in 49 seats compared to the Republicans’ 47. Four are considered tossups.
Let’s start with the tossups: HD-21, 57, 82, and 97. Two are represented by Republican incumbents: HD-82 (Petersburg) and HD-97 (Virginia Beach). Both Kim Taylor (82) and Karen Greenhalgh (97) narrowly defeated sitting Democratic delegates in 2021 while running nearly at parity with Youngkin.
The 82nd, which – at 45.8% – is actually plurality black, has turnout dynamics, racial polarization, and persistent rightward trends in common with the 17th Senate district (which lies further south on the Coastal Plain). Democrats draw most of their votes from Petersburg, while Republicans milk support out of Dinwiddie and Prince George counties. Nonprofit director Victor McKenzie has raised the most on the Democratic side so far. Tossup
The 97th, a Democratic-trending Virginia Beach district with a 14-point Biden/Youngkin delta, is arguably the more vulnerable of the two Republican seats. Air Force veteran Michael Feggans has already outraised Greenhalgh and cleared the primary field, an important development ten months out from the general election. Tossup
Further south in the 57th district, which overlaps with much of the same suburban Henrico County territory as Dunnavant’s SD-16, businessman David Owen appears to be the Republican frontrunner. Democrats Bob Shipee, a reproductive rights activist, and Susanna Gibson, a nurse, are in the midst of a hotly-contested primary. Unlike the Senate district, the 57th includes heavily-Republican precincts in Goochland County that could make the difference in a close race. Tossup
Our final Tossup district, Prince William County-based HD-21, embodies the Republicans’ down-ballot advantages better than perhaps any other legislative seat. The 21st would have voted Biden +27, Youngkin +2 – a whopping 28 point shift in favor of the GOP. Put another way, the district’s safe federal partisanship misrepresents its status as a competitive seat that we should expect to only slightly lean Democratic in a blue year. So far, Republicans Josh Quill and John Stirrup are seeking the nomination to take on Democratic Marine veteran Joshua Thomas, who has already raised a lot of money.
The 22nd district, the redder of the two Prince William County seats, poses an even better Republican opportunity this fall. Former Manassas City Councillor and 2019 House of Delegates candidate Ian Lovejoy is running on the Republican side after leaving the 30th district Senate race against Danica Roem. The Democratic field remains undetermined. Leans Rep
Districts 86 and 89 both start at Leans Republican, but we could see the GOP taking a clearer advantage in both seats later this cycle. The 86th, held by freshman delegate A.C. Cordoza, is probably the more likely of the two to end up at Likely Republican.
Cordoza slightly underperformed Youngkin in 2021, even after redistributing the Libertarian vote using Split Ticket methods, but redistricting removed heavily-Democratic portions of Hampton from his seat – replacing them with precincts in York County that make his district redder overall. It is also unclear whom Democrats will run, a hole that works to Cordoza’s advantage early on.
The other seat worth mentioning is HD-65, a marginal Biden-Youngkin seat encompassing southern Stafford County and the City of Fredericksburg. While this race could easily become a Tossup, we’re giving ex-Democratic delegate Joshua Cole a slight edge in his comeback bid.
Cole lost against Republican Tara Durant in the old HD-28, which included only part of Fredericksburg, but outran McAuliffe in both the City and the district as a whole. His likely opponent Republican opponent in the redrawn seat, which now includes all of Fredericksburg, is Lee Peters. It’s ultimately unclear how seriously the GOP will contest this district. Leans Democratic
Thank you to J. Miles Coleman for anecdotes about the Byrd machine. Further thanks to Sam Shirazi and Chaz Nuttycombe for feedback on both chambers’ race ratings.
Safe races (including “safe flips”) will be included in map and table form on the Split Ticket ratings page, which will be released on the website later this week.
Note on formatting for double-bunkings: loss shall be used when referring to double-bunking contests. For instance, SD-04 would be a Democratic loss rather than a Republican flip.
Open seat pickups are denoted as open pickups.