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Democrats flipped control of Virginia’s Senate and House and gained outright control of state government in a state that is often a battleground for the White House. (Nov. 6)
McLEAN, Va. – Democrats won control of Virginia’s General Assembly on Tuesday, returning the party to full power over the legislature and governorship for the first time since 1993.
Democrats, who had been slightly favored to win both chambers, flipped six seats and lost none of their own in the House and took a slim majority in the Senate.
“I’m here to officially declare today, Nov. 5, 2019, that Virginia is officially blue,” Gov. Ralph Northam said to supporters in Richmond.
The election wins now clear the way for Democrats to pass a wide array of liberal policies, including gun control measures, increases to the minimum wage and ratification the Equal Rights Amendment.
“It wouldn’t really be an exaggeration to say that we could have the most progressive regime we’ve had in Virginia’s government history,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which provides nonpartisan analysis on elections through University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason, said he expects Democrats to move aggressively on enacting their polices, but he warned against too much too soon if they want to continue to hold power.
“That could have broader implications given the national election. People will be watching to see what the Democrats do in power now that they have it,” he said.
Republicans already cautioned against Democrats’ new power. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said Democrats would pursue a “extreme agenda.”
“Virginians should expect public policies that look a lot more like the train wreck that is California than the Virginia of good fiscal management and commonsense conservative governance,” Gilbert said in a statement.
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However, Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at University of Richmond, said that while Democrats won, Virginia likely won’t see a radically progressive policy shift.
“Don’t expect socialism,” McGowen said. “Even though they’re Democrats, they’re probably more conservative than the average Democrat in the country.”
The Democratic wins also signal the party’s strength and recovery after blackface scandals and sexual assault allegations rocked the state’s executive offices earlier this year.
“We’ve moved forward from that,” Northam said on CNN Wednesday morning. “This was about a bigger picture yesterday.”
The party was in chaos and many feared they had lost major campaigners and fundraisers in an election year after Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both admitted to wearing blackface and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax faced sexual assault allegations from two women, said Rozell.
However, the Democrats’ image recovered, with the governor’s approval rating nearing 50%, according to a Washington Post-George Mason University poll before the election.
With Democrats now in control, those scandals may be “in the rear view mirror,” Coleman said.
The suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Richmond and around Norfolk and Virginia Beach provided Democrats with key districts to pick up. Aiding in the their victories were recently redrawn House district lines after federal judges ruled that the previous map was racially gerrymandered.
Shelly Simonds, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent David Yancey in one of those redrawn districts in Newport News, Virginia. The two candidates tied in the 2017 election, and Yancey’s name was pulled from a bowl to decide who would win.
Another key win for Democrats came just outside Washington, where Dan Helmer won over longtime incumbent Tim Hugo. The Republican was the last in his party holding power in the D.C. suburbs, and the loss further solidifies Virginia’s blue trend.
Turnout was high in the suburbs, which may signal trouble elsewhere for President Donald Trump, McGowen said. “It may be a signal to President Trump that people are energized by the stakes of the election,” he said.
Democrats will now “be able to do things that they have been frustrated that Republicans have been blocking,” including passing new gun laws, Coleman said.
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Guns were the most important voting issues this election, according to a pre-election poll from the Washington Post-George Mason.
In May, a shooting in Virginia Beach left 12 people dead in a municipal building and reignited debate around the state’s gun laws. Northam had called a special legislative session in July to consider a wide range of gun control measures, but Republicans adjourned it, rejecting all the proposals without a vote.
Democrats will have the chance to pass measures like universal background checks and some limits to handgun purchases. Northam told CNN on Wednesday that he would re-introduce these measure in January.
National groups advocating for gun control had flooded Virginia with campaign donations, aiding the Democrats’ victories. Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 presidential race also stumped in Virginia, and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned as well.
However, don’t expect Virginia to seriously be in play for the 2020 race, analysts said.
“In the Obama era, Virginia used to be one of the bellwether states,” Coleman said.
Now, “I can’t see a situation where in the electoral college next year where Virginia would be in a position to provide the decisive electoral votes,” he added.
“The swing doesn’t swing very far any more,” McGowen said of Virginia’s apparent former status as a “swing state.” North Carolina, now, may prove to be more of a true battleground state, and McGowen said Democrats could shift some of their Virginia resources south.
With the 2020 Census looming, too, Democrats can lead the way on redrawing the district maps again and create lines more favorable to the party. While some Democrats may have pushed for a “good government” approach of non-partisan lines, Rozell expects partisanship to continue with the map.
“The pattern has been that the party out of power talks a good game on redistricting but once they’re in power they go full in to protect their position,” Rozell said. “If (Democrats) do it right by a partisan standard, they can solidify their majority for a long time. The question on whether Virginia is a blue or purple state will be basically over.”
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
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