Republicans awoke Wednesday to a stark new political reality in Virginia after losing majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, a sweeping defeat that solidifies Democratic control over the state capital for the first time in a generation.
Depleted by President Donald Trump’s floundering approval rating in Virginia, the Republicans’ defeat was a new low for a party that has not won a statewide race since Bob McDonnell became governor in 2009.
“If you didn’t see this coming, you’ve been living under a rock,” said Dan Scandling, who was chief of staff to former congressman Frank Wolf, R-Virginia. “Virginia has been trending this way for years. Being so close to Washington — and add in the anti-Trump phenomenon — it was only a matter of time.”
With Democrats already controlling the governor’s mansion, the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, and a majority of its congressional seats, Republicans are bracing for policy changes in Richmond and the specter of Democrats redrawing legislative districts after the 2020 Census that could undermine GOP incumbents from the state house to Congress.
“The Republican Party is toast in Virginia for the next 10 years,” said Corey Stewart, the outgoing Prince William County chair of the Board of Supervisors who was the Virginia GOP’s nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2018. “Republicans will cease to be a serious political power.”
Late Tuesday, several races remained too close to call. But Democrats won at least two seats in the state Senate and at least five seats in the House to ensure majorities in both chambers.
The ranks of vanquished Republicans included state Del. Tim Hugo, the GOP’s last member of the Northern Virginia delegation, who lost to Democrat Dan Helmer.
At the polls, many voters expressed a desire to send a message to the White House.
“I’m not too thrilled with the direction the Republican Party is taking our country,” said David Goodwin, 41, a tech salesman who leans Democratic but often crosses party lines, after voting a straight Democratic ticket in Leesburg.
“What the last national election taught me was party doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot,” he said. “You’ve got to look at the person.”
Brandy Lloyd, 50, a tech worker, said that she, too, voted a Democratic ticket although she usually supports Republicans. “But seeing what’s happening in Washington, I think it’s time for a change,” she said.
With Trump’s approval rating in Virginia falling below 30 percent over the summer, Republicans were well aware that the President could be an albatross for GOP candidates. Two years ago, just after Trump was elected, a voter revolt propelled Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie even in conservative-leaning suburban districts.
This fall, the president made no campaign appearances in Virginia. Instead, Vice President Pence traveled to Virginia Beach, an appearance that Democrats themselves publicized in order to stir up anti-Trump fervor.
But singling out Trump as the reason for Republican failures in 2019 “is too easy,” said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University professor of public policy. Rather, he said, Virginia’s GOP over the past decade has gravitated toward the right on social issues and alienated moderate voters.
Gillespie, for example, embraced a hard-line anti-immigrant stance during his 2017 gubernatorial race after having preached the importance of the Republican Party adopting a more tolerant message to attract voters.
“Democrats have had an easy time characterizing the Republicans as out of the mainstream on issues,” Rozell said. “Republicans in Virginia need to rebrand, refocus and broaden their appeal.”
Even before results were announced Tuesday night, leaders of gun-control groups were taking a victory lap at the Democrats’ rally at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Richmond. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said a key turning point in the campaign was GOP lawmakers move to shut down a special legislative session in July on gun control, in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
“I think what we’re going to learn tonight is that was a huge political mistake,” he said. “I think Republicans really turned their backs on citizens of the commonwealth by not taking up a single gun safety measure.”
For decades, Virginia was reliably conservative, choosing Republican candidates in every presidential primary from 1968 to 2004. But demographic changes in large portions of the state, including a population explosion in Northern Virginia from the early 1990s through 2010, turned the commonwealth from red to purple.
“At this point, Virginia has become a blue state — how can you call it anything else,” Rozell said. “In a state that was long considered leaning red and two-party competitive at best, who could have predicted that the Republican Party would fall so dramatically and quickly?”
But how Democrats handle their newfound power could determine whether the party remains dominant in Virginia. If Democratic lawmakers push a progressive agenda, for example, the party risks alienating centrist voters.
“There’s the seed to their demise,” Stewart said. “They’re not going to be able to control the pressure to go as far left as possible. While Virginia may seem like it’s moving to the left, it’s still right down the center.”
But Ben Tribbett, a Democratic operative, said the party’s core of moderate lawmakers — headed by Northam and state Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who is to become Senate majority leader — retain enormous influence over policy.
“They’re both centrists,” he said. “You’re not going to see a coup from the far left. There aren’t enough votes for that.”