Control of the Virginia General Assembly is riding on the outcome of Tuesday’s election.

Each chamber has a thinone-vote GOP majority. If the Democrats win two additional seats in the House of Delegates, and just one in the state Senate (because the lieutenant governor is already a Democrat and can break ties), the Democrats will gain control for the first time since the 1990’s.

With a Democrat in the executive mansion, all kinds of progressive measures would be wide open for passage. Millions are being spent on legislative races this year, and both sides are geared up. But unlike a national election, there are two things that makes predicting the outcome especially difficult.



The first problem is the way the districts for both chambers are drawn. They are, by nature, small. Each House district has about 80,000 persons and each Senate District about 200,000.

Unfortunately, thanks to gerrymandering, which prompted some weird boundary line drawing, if you took a poll in some districts, you’d end up calling bits and pieces of several counties, parts of a city, and in some cases, even half of a precinct.

So, it’s tough if you’re doing a poll and trying to get a reliable sampling.

The other reason this election is so hard to predict: Virginia holds its elections for statewide offices and the General Assembly in the off years. In other words, they’re not in sync with the nationwide even-year election cycles.

With only a mild interruption after the Civil War, this has been a Virginia thing since 1851. The result is low voter turnout. In 2017, with a governor’s race at the top of the ticket, the turnout was 47.6 percent. Not exactly robust. This year, it’s probably going to be more like 30 percent or less. So making a forecast when so few people are likely to vote is doubly challenging.

Still, we can speculate. With a one-vote margin for the GOP in both Houses,The calculus is pretty simple. At the very least, Republicans have to hold every seat to keep their majority while the Democrats have to do the same and pick up a couple along the way. This means it all comes down to just a handful of races.

One of the most contentious races is in our own backyard: the 28th House District. Both candidates seem to be invoking national themes, and Democrat Josh Cole is hoping to ride the same wave of anti-Trump sentiment that almost got him elected in 2017.

Paul Milde, his Republican opponent, is trying to manage the difficult task of reaching out to independents while firing up his motivated conservative base.

Another tight race this year is House Speaker Kirk Cox’s seat. Thanks to a court decision, Bethune v. Virginia Board of Elections, which said race had been a motivator for redrawing a number of House seats, his district, which covers Henrico and Chesterfield counties, was redrawn and is now considered competitive. However, Cox’s name recognition is high, even in portions of his new district where he has never been on the ballot, and that may see him over the top.

Oh, and don’t forget Nick Freitas, the incumbent Republican in the 30th House District, who messed up his filing paperwork and is now running as a write-in. Write-ins have won House seats before, and given the heavy red glint of his district, this may be another time.

A potential casualty for the GOP is their last member in the left-leaning Northern Virginia crescent, Del. Tim Hugo of Fairfax. He held onto his seat in 2017 by only 100 votes, but 2019 might not be as kind to him.

Another rerun is the 94th District contest between incumbent Republican David Yancey and his 2017 opponent, Shelly Simonds. That race was tied and decided by a drawing, but Simonds seems to be slightly favored this time around.

When all the votes were counted in 2017, five seats stayed in GOP hands by razor-thin majorities. Each of these is now a potential Democratic pickup.

That said, House Republicans have worked hard to find good candidates, but they’re still playing defense.

The state Senate is another story. Districts seem nicely drawn to protect incumbents, with the GOP having a slight edge. How convenient. Don’t expect any sweeps here. It will come down to a seat here and a seat there. The seat being vacated by longtime Republican Dick Black in Loudoun is part of the rapidly changing NoVA exurbs, which now perform reliably for the Democrats. It could be a Democratic pickup, though that’s not guaranteed. The same is true for Sen. Glen Sturtevant’s district, which includes Richmond.

In the end, it’s all about a group of select races. But it’s a tough environment for anyone trying to make predictions.

David S. Kerr, who lives in Stafford County, is an instructor in the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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