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Virginia Temperature Check: 10/12

Today we’re updating our legislative forecast in Virginia for the first time since February. The ratings changes reflect the assumption that the political environment is at least more Democratic than it was last year. Our recent special elections analysis goes into the subject in more detail.

In short, we’re expecting Democrats to flip Virginia’s House of Delegates while retaining control of the State Senate — denying Governor Glenn Youngkin a trifecta. Most of our ratings changes reflect a broad theme: down-ballot lag remains a valuable asset for established Republican incumbents in well-educated, suburban districts, especially in off-year election cycles, but the ongoing realignment, accelerated by the Dobbs effect, could help Democrats chip away at historical precedent.

Following our changes, Democrats lead Republicans 49-48 in the HoD and 20-16 in the Senate, but we ultimately think it’s more likely that Democrats retake the HoD than it is for Republicans to hold it. The GOP need 51 seats to retain a majority in that chamber.

If the election were today, we’d also pick Democrats to hold the Senate, which has seemed less winnable for the GOP than the lower chamber this cycle. There, Republicans need to win 20 seats, with Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears casting the tiebreaking vote.

All seven Tossups between the two chambers will be picked in our final update prior to the election.

House of Delegates

Of our four changes in Virginia’s House of Delegates, two benefit the Democrats. HD-94, a reliably Democratic seat based in northern Norfolk, moves to Safe Democratic. Democratic nominee Phil Hernandez has dominated fundraising, with little pro-GOP outside investment coming to the district.

The other seat, HD-30, moves to Leans Republican. This well-educated, affluent district is based in suburban Loudoun County and is exactly the type of seat where Republicans continue to dominate in state and local elections. Joe Biden and Tim Kaine are actually the only statewide Democrats who have won HD-30 in the last decade.

While the seat remains fundamentally Republican in down-ballot elections, it continues to trend Democratic. Assuming the political environment in Virginia does end up being more favorable to Democrats than it was last year, it’s important to rate this seat with consideration for the possibility of a Democratic upset. 

Importantly, Democrat Rob Banse has mounted a serious challenge to ex-Loudoun County supervisor Geary Higgins. He has outraised him almost 2:1 and has nearly double the cash on hand. Democrats have also spent roughly three times as much as Republicans on political ads in the district.

Two of our ratings changes in the lower chamber benefit Republicans, and both are due in large part to the candidates themselves. In HD-57, which contains the affluent Richmond suburb of Short Pump, Democratic nominee Susanna Gibson has lost momentum following revelations that she and her husband made pornographic videos for tips. A subsequent GOP internal poll showed her down by 11 points to Republican challenger David Owen.

The same survey showed Virginia’s generic ballot at R+4, which is unsurprising for a Republican internal poll. While that may not be an accurate estimate of the actual generic ballot, it’s still notably that Gibson is underrunning the Democrats’ generic ballot share by 7 points. This simply confirms the obvious: most voters in HD-57 now know who Gibson is and their opinion of her is more likely to be unfavorable than not.

In light of these developments, we can’t comfortably say Democrats still have an even shot there. Leans Republican indicates that Owens is favored but doesn’t preclude the realistic possibility of a Gibson victory. After all, HD-57 may still be redder in down-ballot elections, but it is bluer than HD-30 and even voted Democratic for Congress last fall. Gibson has also raised a lot more money than Owen despite evenly divided spending on political advertising.

The GOP’s chances are also improving in HD-86, a Hampton Roads swing district represented by freshman Republican A.C. Cordoza — who won by just 64 votes in 2021. Cordoza’s district got six points redder in redistricting based on 2020 partisanship, reducing Democratic interest in targeting his seat. Cordoza currently has significantly outraised his opponent Jarris Taylor and seems on track for an easy victory next month in this Likely Republican race. 

Senate

We also have three minor changes to our Senate ratings, two benefiting Republicans and one benefiting the Democrats. Just like the key HoD races, we’re holding off on picking our Senate Tossups just yet — though we do have a general feel for which party has a slight advantage in most of them.

One district that is leaving the Tossup category is SD-17, an open seat in the Hampton Roads/Southside Virginia region. This seat is 41% Black and remains a Democratic seat on paper, but it has gotten redder during the Trump era; Biden won the SD-17 by just 7 points, with Youngkin carrying it by 5 the following year. Turnout here is comparatively low, even by off-year election standards. For example, Democrats only won the 2022 House vote in this district by a point despite its presidential lean.

Here, Emily Brewer is a slight favorite against fellow lawmaker Clint Jenkins. Brewer has raised significantly more than her challenger and the GOP has spent twice as much as Democrats on advertising in the district.   

Finally, two districts move off the board. In SD-20, a Hampton Roads seat primarily based in Virginia Beach, Republican incumbent Bill DeSteph seems set for a comfortable victory in a favorable seat after his double-bunked Democratic colleague Lynwood Lewis declined to seek re-election.

And in SD-30, Delegate Danica Roem has a comfortable financial advantage over Republican nominee Bill Woolf, though the GOP leads in expenditures on outside advertising.

Ultimately, these changes show that the battle for legislative control in Virginia is still hotly contested, with Democrats narrowly favored to win both chambers in the end. Republicans would need to sweep the Tossups to secure the trifecta they seek as Glenn Youngkin enters the second half of his term as governor.

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