Steve Helber/AP Photos
Voters caste their ballots at a polling station in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. All seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and State senate were up for election.
Steve Helber/AP Photos
Democrats claimed majorities in both houses of Virginia's legislature in Tuesday's statewide elections, building on gains they made in the 2017 election and securing the first unified Democratic government in the commonwealth in 26 years.
Higher than usual turnout for the off-year statewide election saw Democrats take the House of Delegates and the Senate. Among the notable seats they flipped included the one held by Del. Tim Hugo (District 40), the last Republican state legislator from Fairfax County, as well as the Northern Virginia state senate seat once held by conservative Dick Black. Current Democratic Del. John Bell defeated Republican Geary Higgins — who was endorsed by President Trump — for the seat.
The election's results also mark yet another shift in Virginia away from Republicans in the divided era of President Trump, where suburban voters in jurisdictions around Washington have steadily melted away from the GOP, both in local and federal races.
The impact of controlling the governorship, the House and the Senate — the trifecta, as it's called — is certain to empower Gov. Ralph Northam and be felt in the upcoming legislative session. Democrats have pledged to move ahead on measures that have long been blocked by Republicans, including gun control, abortion rights, an increase in the minimum wage, and the ratification of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enshrine gender equality.
"We need to fully implement Medicaid expansion. I want to make sure all 400,000 people are fully enrolled," said Del. Danica Roem (District 13), who won a second term in the House of Delegates. "The minimum wage is going to go up, the question will be to what extent. I can promise you that. We will ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. I'm also going to continue ensuring that we get teacher pay above the national average. I can assure you we'll get universal background checks (on gun purchases.)"
The possibility of movement on those issues — notably gun control — flooded the state with money from outside groups, and animated many voters on Tuesday. May's mass shooting in Virginia Beach and a resulting special session of the General Assembly that ended with no legislative action on guns were on the minds of some Democrats who voted in Northern Virginia.
"It really is hurtful, honestly, to see these mass shootings," said Denee McKnight, who has lived in Virginia since the 1990s. "To see grown people with families, with children, stand up and fight for the right to have automatic weapons — for what? To do what? Nobody is trying to take your right to protect yourself from your family away. But you don't need automatic weapons to do that."
Sumona Das, who voted in Ashburn, also focused on gun regulation.
"It was one of the major issues," Das said. "I think it should be regulated and it should not be in the hands of people we don't want it to be. I have school-age kids, so it's an extremely important factor when I come in and vote."
On the other side, Terry Miller, who has lived in Loudoun County for 25 years and owns several guns, worried about what Democratic control would mean for his Second Amendment rights — a sentiment echoed by the NRA ahead of the election.
"First it'll be automatic rifles, and then it'll be something else and something else and pretty soon they'll have all the guns," he said.
Ahead of July's special session, Northam laid out what he wanted in terms of changes to Virginia's gun laws: universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and a one-handgun-per-month limit on purchases.
"The gun issue clearly worked for them," said former Virginia congressman Tom Davis of Democrats, noting that gun control groups were more invested in Virginia than the NRA.
And while local issues mattered, many analysts say that both the 2017 and 2019 election cycles have been fueled by the Trump presidency, energizing Democratic voters and putting many Republicans on the defensive. After decades as a solid Republican stronghold, since 2008 Virginia has trended blue, largely fueled by the growing Democratic majorities in Northern Virginia and their rejection of Trump.
"This is one of the most nationalized state legislative cycles Virginia has ever seen. Donald Trump was all over this election cycle," said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, which published polls last month showing an enthusiasm advantage for Democrats.
"There is a factor over all of this, and it's the Donald Trump factor," said Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of Virginia's Democratic Party.
"Right now the administration is a liability in the suburbs," said Davis. "These races tended to be pretty nationalized."
And that liability was on display even among some Republican voters like Lorin Sutton, who recently moved from Winchester to Loudoun County.
"I'm not registered Democrat, and I'm not a Democrat but I had to (vote for one) today. I've been a registered Republican my entire life. I grew up in Arizona where that's much more the lifestyle, but ever since President Trump came into power... the methods that he's using I can't condone," Sutton said.
Other Republican voters said they viewed this election as a way to support Trump.
"I don't want to see the United States turn into a socialist country," said Jerry Mannino, a voter in Prince William County. "I'm a capitalist. I believe in freedom to go ahead and progress at our own rate, not to be controlled by the government. I don't think government should have control to make everybody equal."
In terms of the impact on the 2020 presidential election, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia cautions that it may not mean much — largely because of the direction Virginia was already heading.
"I don't think the Republicans were counting on Virginia's electoral votes, I don't think they are that foolish," he said. "We're turned purple from red, we've gone through all the colors and we're pretty settled on light blue."