VCC Magazine Fall 2018

V irginia C apitol C onnections , F all 2018 17 Every year an Election year By Richard Meagher If you look at the ballot on Election Day this fall, you may not see any Virginia state offices. But the election could still have significant consequences for the Virginia General Assembly. It might be hard for many Virginians even to keep track of which election is coming up next. The fact that Virginia holds state elections in odd years is often described as little more than a historical curiosity. But our electoral peculiarities, combined with the ongoing nationalization of local elections, mean that Virginians never seem to get a true break from political contests, for better and for worse. Instead, each electoral cycle seems to just flow into the next one. So, just to be clear: the fall 2018 elections mostly concernVirginia’s Congressional delegation, including the choice for one of our United States Senators. The state legislative seats in the House of Delegates and State Senate won’t be on the ballot until 2019. Still, there are two important effects the election may have on Virginia state politics. The first of these effects will be obvious from some ballots: two sitting state legislators are running for national office. Both have a shot at winning. And in a closely divided state legislature, any departure might be meaningful. Republican Delegate Ben Cline is favored to replace retiring Bob Goodlatte for the 5th Congressional District; a victory for Cline in November likely will lead to a special election for his current Virginia House seat. State Senator Jennifer Wexton has a harder job ahead of her in unseating current Representative Barbara Comstock in the 10th Congressional District. But Comstock’s seat is famously vulnerable, representing a part of northern Virginia that is becoming reliably Democratic. Even before Wexton was nominated to oppose her, Comstock was seen by national election watchers as one of the most obvious Republicans in Congress for Democrats to target. If either of these sitting state legislators move to D.C., the usual dominoes will fall back in Virginia. Who will try to replace Cline? More importantly, which delegates will step up to contest Wexton’s Senate seat, and then who replaces them ? Any excitement for these special elections may be tempered by the fact that both Cline andWexton represent relatively “safe” districts from a partisan perspective. Wexton’s district went Democratic by almost 57% in her last election; Cline won his House district last year with a 72% majority. So it is not obvious that any special election will affect the balance of power in the General Assembly. Still, that balance rests on a razor’s edge, with the Republican Party holding a bare one-seat majority in both state houses. And both parties will keep that bare majority in mind when trying to manage the particular candidates that might replace either of the newly electedWashington representatives. On a side note, the retirement of longtime representative Goodlatte continues the “greening” of Virginia’s Congressional delegation, which I wrote about in this magazine two years ago (“General Assembly Experience May Not Help Rookie Congressmen,” Fall 2016). A decade ago, our 11 seats in the House of Representatives were anchored by long-serving stalwarts like Goodlatte, Jim Moran, and FrankWolf. Today, a relative newbie like Dave Brat would return to Congress next year in 5th place in terms of seniority; and even Brat might be replaced if Abigail Spanberger defeats him this fall. Yet the 2018 national election could be just as consequential for the General Assembly in a more subtle way: in terms of the message it sends, particularly to Republican state legislators. The 2017 Virginia state election already sent shockwaves through the GA by sharply reducing the Republican majority. And lo and behold, suddenly the Republicans brokered a deal with Democrats to expand Medicaid coverage in the state—a longtime item on the Democratic wishlist that had gotten nowhere in previous legislative sessions. Of course, other factors played a role in that thaw. Part of the story is new state leadership, in both parties. Negotiations over Medicaid were helped by the absence of the bull-in-china-shop legislative style of former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who had a famously tense relationship with state GOP leaders. McAuliffe has been replaced by former legislator Ralph Northam who, despite his clear ideological differences, has emphasized his generally good relationships with former colleagues across the aisle. An even more significant change may have occurred on the GOP side, with new House Speaker Kirk Cox providing a breath of fresh air to the Republican leadership. His now-retired predecessor, Bill Howell, was a very successful partisan leader for many years. But there is a general sense around the capital that Cox is more open to new ideas. On both sides, the state may be experiencing the general decalcification that comes after a longtime leader steps down. Still, these new leaders were operating in an environment clearly shaped by the message sent to the Republican Party last fall. In 2017, voters across the state sent a new wave of Democratic legislators to the House of Delegates. The Democratic caucus, and the legislative body in general, is now more diverse and more ideologically left. Perhaps most importantly, the 2017 election reflected the general merging of local and national politics in the minds of Virginia voters. Democrats in the state may have been fired up by opposition to the Trump Administration, but they took it out on gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie and his colleagues down the ballot. Republicans—those that remained—had to listen. And Republicans will need to keep listening this fall, even though none of their offices are contested until the following year. Their biggest concern: what if the Democratic wave continues?What if candidates like Wexton, Spanberger, and the 2nd District’s Elaine Luria sweep to victory, giving the Democrats a majority of the state’s Congressional delegation for the first time in almost two decades? What if incumbent Senator Tim Kaine cruises to a double-digit victory over the controversial Republican nominee, Corey Stewart? These outcomes are all far from assured. But if anything like this scenario does play out, Republicans in the General Assembly will need to reckon with it in the same way they dealt with last fall’s results. In general, state Senate seats are safer than their counterparts in the House of Delegates, with the larger Senate districts less subject to political mood. Again, though, the razor-thin majority in both houses will increase the pressure on both parties to thoroughly contest each race. Even if Virginians demonstrate anger with the national GOP in a Democratic wave this fall, local Republicans will likely feel the pressure to act more “reasonably” here in Richmond—and rethink what the people want from their lawmakers. Any Democratic priority could be on the table, from the aforementioned Medicaid expansion to decriminalization of marijuana to even some form of gun control law. Medicaid expansion seemed impossible as recently as last year; there may be even bigger changes to come. Rich Meagher is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of Social Entrepreneurship at Randolph-Macon College. He received his Ph.D., Political Science, City University of New York, M.A., Philosophy, City University of New York, and his B.A., Muhlenberg College. • past editions online • subscribe • advertise WWW. VCCQM . ORG V