Special Legislative Update: 2023 Election Recap
2023 Election Recap
On Tuesday, November 7, Virginians made final decisions on their representatives in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, and in some cases, their local representatives, constitutional officers, and the fate of a few controversial ballot referenda.
At stake were majorities in the House of Delegates, where Republicans held a 52-48 advantage, and the Senate, where Democrats held a 22-18 majority. The partisan outcome of these contests was slated to decide the fate of the more ideological portions of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s policy platform.. The more controversial social issues now have no platform to advance for the remainder of the Governor’s term in office.
The final outcome saw Democrats narrowly holding the Senate and taking the House majority, with one race in the House still requiring the tabulation of remaining mail-in and provisional ballots before it can be called. Democrats’ narrow path to victory ran through the sub and ex-urbs of Richmond, Tidewater, and Northern Virginia, where both parties poured historic amounts of money into what came down to only 13 competitive races of the 140 on the ballot.
In the Senate, Democrats narrowly lost incumbent Monty Mason’s Williamsburg area seat – the most competitive in the Commonwealth – and picked up two seats to reach their 21-seat majority: current Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg defeated two-term incumbent Senator Siobhan Dunavant by 10 points in Senate District 16, based in suburban Henrico County, and former CIA officer and prosecutor Russett Perry defeated Republican businessman Juan Pablo Segura by 5 points in Senate District 31, comprising portions of Loudoun and Fauquier Counties.
Republicans held ground in Senate District 27 based in Fredericksburg, where Spotsylvania Supervisor Monica Gary’s Independent candidacy likely played spoiler for Democratic candidate Joel Griffin, sending first-term Delegate Tara Durant to the Senate. In the southside of Hampton Roads, Republican Delegate Emily Brewer defeated Democratic Delegate Clint Jenkins handily in a race which – on paper – should have been hyper-competitive.
In the House, Democrats crossed the 51-seat threshold through a trifecta of races in Prince William, Fredericksburg, and Virginia Beach, where attorney Josh Thomas, former Delegate Josh Cole, and IT entrepreneur and veteran Michael Feggans won tight races respectively. Thomas and Cole prevailed in open seats while Feggans was the only challenger to defeat an existing House incumbent. Republicans stemmed the bleeding with important victories in Western Henrico, Prince William, and Chesapeake.
Because Virginia is one of only a handful of states with elections the year before the Presidential Race, prognosticators and political consultants often look to it as a bellwether of national trends. Before Election Day, there was a lot of chatter on the airwaves about what this election means for President Joe Biden’s re-election chances. To some degree, drawing clear conclusions from Virginia’s results will be difficult – a combination of local complicating factors, gaps in candidate quality at the individual race level, a wave of retirements – caused by redistricting – eroding incumbency advantage, and seismic spending levels mean that trends across the state will be difficult to parse. However, a few fundamentals are clear.
Despite failing to retake the State Senate, and losing their House majority, Virginia Republicans’ electoral fate faired relatively well compared to recent national political trends. On the same night that saw deep-red Kentucky re-elect Democratic Governor Andy Beshear by a larger margin than in 2019 and Ohio enshrine a right to abortion in its constitution, Virginia Republicans cut into the Democrats’ Senate majority and won seven House districts carried by Congressional Democratic candidates in 2022.
However, this overperformance, when compared to national trends, likely has more to do with demographics and districts than it does with strong politicking. The data points towards Republicans underperforming historical trends, while a few fumbles by Democrats kept them from a more pronounced overperformance.
Virginia’s electorate historically skews notoriously conservative in down-ballot elections – from 2000 to 2020, Democrats held a majority in one chamber of the state house for four years and six months in total, despite increasingly strong statewide performance by federal Democratic candidates. That trend, while ebbing, has continued to buoy conservative candidates at the state level. Baked into this down-ballot proclivity for conservative candidates is the fact that the General Assembly is elected in off-year elections with much lower turnout, a factor that favors Republican candidates. How much lower? Two million fewer Virginians voted in the 2019 off-year election than did in the 2020 presidential election, and that was considered record turnout! Though votes are still being tallied, this year the gap does not appear to be as wide, at least in the few competitive seats on the map (more on that below). In the four competitive Senate races, three show upwards of 90% of their 2022 federal election turnout.
Drawn by special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court after decennial redistricting, Virginia’s legislative districts were divided into two camps: a supermajority of noncompetitive districts where the outcome was essentially locked in after party nominations in the spring, and a tiny minority (9%) that were hyper-competitive. The district maps themselves inherently provided Democrats more “safe seats” in both chambers but in 2021, our closest comparative election, Governor Youngkin won all four competitive Senate seats and all seven of the most competitive House seats, favoring a slightly conservative outcome in an off-year election on paper.
With those ready-made advantages, and in elections with relatively equal (if exorbitant) spending, Democrats’ message – which both sides will admit came down to abortion rights – broke through enough in the few key suburban districts to carry them to victory. However, Democrats certainly left points on the board in a few contested races across both chambers, which will likely be recouped in races over the next three cycles. These races include House District 82 in Petersburg/Dinwiddie (which may be heading to a recount but currently shows Republican Kim Taylor up less than 250 votes), House District 41 in Blacksburg/Roanoke County (where Republican Chris Obenshain is up by 900 votes with provisional and mail-in ballots from Democratic Blacksburg still to be tabulated), and Senate District 27 in Fredericksburg/Stafford (where Republican Tara Durant leads by ~1,600 votes, but former Democrat and current Stafford County Supervisor Monica Gary took 3,100 votes).
While the legislature is now under one-party control, Virginia remains under a system of divided government, which in theory will lead to the prioritization of compromise on kitchen table issues, and a general shift towards the center should occur. As we have seen in Congress, narrow majorities can slow the speed of legislating and gum up political machines – something that can often be a positive for industries already facing tomes of regulations and legislative requirements.
In addition to the change in the political dynamic of the General Assembly, the 2024 session will usher in a significant change-over in membership. Including the four defeated incumbents in the general, eighteen of the 40 members of the Senate and 34 of the 100 members of the House will be new to their position. There will be new leadership in both chambers, with current House Minority Leader Don Scott from Portsmouth expected to be elected Speaker of the House and new Senate Majority and Minority Leaders to be chosen, as those spots were vacated by their current occupants’ retirements. Committee assignments and important chairmanship spots will be announced in the run-up to the start of the session.
Full election results can be found on the Virginia Public Access Project website here. The VBA looks forward to working with new and returning members to maintain our pro-banking and pro-banker climate over the next two years. With all the change occurring, it is critically important that we have a strong showing at VBA Banker Day on January 11, 2024, when bankers meet with their state representatives as they begin the 2024 General Assembly session. We will see you in January for what is sure to be another busy year in the Commonwealth.