TUESDAY’S legislative elections gave Democrats control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time since 1993—back when George Allen was governor and Bill Clinton was in the White House. It was the culmination of many years of demographic and political changes that led to a gradual loss of Republican dominance in the commonwealth long predating the Trump era.
With five Democratic pick-ups in the House of Delegates to date—including Joshua Cole’s victory in the 28th District seat formerly held by Republican Speaker Bill Howell—and two state Senate seats, this year’s results didn’t come close to 2017’s “blue wave”—a 15-seat gain by Democrats that reduced the Republican majority in the House from 66–34 to 51–49.
But it was enough to flip total control of the statehouse to the Democrats, who now have the opportunity to shape public policy—and new legislative and congressional districts following the 2020 Census.
Democrats prevailed largely because they had a coherent message on issues that struck a chord with suburban voters, particularly gun violence and health care. With this sea change in the statehouse, Virginians can expect a sharp turn to the left in Richmond.
Locally, voters expressed general satisfaction with their current leadership by reelecting all five of the Republican Senate incumbents representing the Fredericksburg region, although some by smaller margins that before. Same in the House, where all local incumbents of both parties handily won their races.
The 28th District seat was essentially open after incumbent Del. Bob Thomas lost the GOP primary to former Stafford Supervisor Paul Milde. Although Democrat Joshua Cole, who lost to Thomas in 2017 by just 82 votes, upped his winning margin to 1,036 votes this time around, his victory was hardly unexpected after his strong showing two years ago.
The real surprise on Tuesday was the survival of soon-to-be former Speaker Kirk Cox, R–Colonial Heights, whose district was one of 25 ordered redistricted by the courts in a gerrymandering lawsuit Cox himself fought all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. His subsequent victory over his Democratic rival was in a newly drawn district that was much more favorable to Democrats than before. In fact, the redrawn 66th House District had the largest swing to the left (32 percent) of any district in Virginia, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
But Cox, a retired public school teacher, baseball coach and unabashed conservative was well-known after representing his district in Richmond for nearly 30 years. His reelection proved that basic retail politics—getting to know your constituents, being responsive to their needs—can sometimes trump larger ideological and political forces.
Cox, who will not seek a party leadership position in the new General Assembly, said in a statement following Tuesday’s election that he was “deeply proud of what the House of Delegates has accomplished during the last two decades. We balanced the budget, protected our AAA bond-rating through a major recession, passed four teacher pay raises in six years, froze college tuition, made major reforms to our transportation system, secured our state’s pension system for the future, and guided Virginia to the nation’s top state for business.” But he also warned the new Democratic majority that “those results did not happen by accident, and they are not guaranteed to continue.”
Indeed, avoiding the temptation to ditch successful policies that have led to prosperity in Virginia, and embracing polices that have led to decline in other states, will be the main challenge facing the new Democratic majority.