in the 2012 campaign for president, Democratic incumbent Barack Obama won Virginia because heavily-populated urban areas supported him - but every county and some cities west of the Blue Ridge voted for his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in most cases by large margins
Source: Social Explorer, Election Competitiveness: Vote % Difference Between Democratic and Republican Candidates
The US Constitution, shaped by Virginia politicians, did not anticipate the emergence of political parties. The Constitution was designed to resolve sectional disputes, and to balance power between the states with small and large populations. The Founding Fathers had a sour perspective on politics, viewing "electioneering" as a vehicle to obtain power for individuals and parties rather than as a mechanism for elected officials to identify civic priorities. A more modern saying is equally cynical:1
The Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties were the first to develop, and their divergent philosophies were clear in the heated election of 1800. Virginia politicians led the nation as president between 1800-24. In the 1820 election, James Monroe received all but one of the electoral votes. After 1820, the Federalist Party faded away as Andrew Jackson mobilized populist voters on the western frontier.
Jackson's Democratic-Republican party divided to become two national parties in the 1830's, the Whigs and the Democrats.
Both the Whigs and the Democrats split in the 1850's into regional factions that disagreed over the extension of slavery into the territories, especially Kansas and Nebraska. The dispute led to dissolution of the Whigs, the creation of the Republican Party, and the division of the Democratic Party. In 1860, the Northern faction of the Democratic Party nominated Stephen Douglas, but the southern faction walked out of the convention and nominated John Breckinridge in a convention held in Richmond, Virginia.
Virginia voted for John Bell, running on the Constitutional Union ticket, in 1860
Source: Library of Congress, "The national atlas of the United States of America," Election Results
Virginia voted for John Bell, nominated by the new Constitutional Union Party in hopes of finding a way to compromise and save the union. After Abraham Lincoln was elected, Virginia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederate State of America in 1861.
in 1860, Virginia narrowly voted for John Bell of the Constitutional Union party
Source: Library of Virginia, Certification of Electoral College, December 1860
The Union was preserved by military force and a four-year civil war, and between 1867-1870 Virginia was under military rule as Military District 1. During Reconstruction, political struggles in Virginia were between the Conservatives and the Republican parties. After the end of military rule and the withdrawal of the Federal Army following the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election in 1876, the Republican Party lost any opportunity to win a statewide election. Republicans were too closely associated with the Union Army that had fought across Virginia between 1861-65.
in 1876, Virginia voted for the Democratic candidate for president and became part of the Solid South opposing Republicans, reflecting antagonism towards the party of Abraham Lincoln
Source: Library of Virginia, Journal of the College of Electors of President and Vice President of the United States, 1876
The Conservatives aligned with the national Democratic Party, while opponents formed the Readjuster Party. The Readjuster Party, led by William Mahone, sought to pay less than 100% of the pre-war debt by partially repudiating some of the bonds and/or by modifying the payment dates in order to free up some state funding for social services.
The Conservatives/Democrats in Virginia after the Civil War had no desire to support the newly-freed slaves with taxpayer-funded public schools. They regained power in Virginia after claiming the Readjusters were advocates of social equality between whites and blacks, after which most white voters shifted to the Democratic Party in an alignment that lasted until after World War II.
The trigger for Democratic control was a race riot in Danville just before the 1883 elections for the General Assembly. The riot crystallized the fears of white voters that their control over social norms would be lost, and black voters would force a reduction of white privilege as well as force expenditure of public funds to serve black communities. Voters gave Democrats a majority in the state legislature that they would not lose for the next century.
Democrats consolidated power by electing former Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee as governor in 1885. The Democrats would win every election for governor until 1969.
Virginia remained part of the "Solid South," committed to the Democratic Party, until 1973. The Republicans were painted as liberals, willing to fund programs that benefited African-Americans. Democrats were the party of white privilege, implementing Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and restricted the legal rights of non-whites.
The 1902 state constitution disenfranchised almost all non-white voters. The challenge of defining "white" culminated with General Assembly passage of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act and the campaign of the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker, to categorize anyone with one drop of non-white blood as Negro. Governor and then Senator Harry Byrd established a political machine that dominated Virginia politics until the 1960's. Racism was core to his political control; the Byrd "organization" led the effort to implement a program of massive resistance to block implementation of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court.
After the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the national Democratic Party shifted policies and began to support civil rights and higher taxes to fund government programs such as Social Security. The Virginia Democratic Party, under Sen. Byrd's direction, stayed reliably conservative.
All officials elected in statewide elections were Democrats, and the General Assembly was dominated by one party from 1886-1969. There were only a handful of elected Republicans, and patronage for Republicans was limited to Federal appointments by Republican presidents. The state legislature followed Byrd's "pay as you go" approach. In order to minimize taxes and debt, the General Assembly funded new roads and schools from just annual tax revenues and refused to sell bonds.
By the 1950's, Byrd stopped endorsing the Democratic Party's presidential candidates and maintained a "golden silence" every four years. In state elections, the Democratic Party was in such control that nomination in that party's primary was "tantamount to election." Only in the Ninth Congressional District in southwestern Virginia (the "Fighting Ninth") did Republicans succeed in winning a significant number of races, and one political scientist complained that Virginia was just a "museum of democracy." Virginia lacked viable two-party contests that reflected the shifting priorities of the voters, because the Byrd Machine successfully restricted who could register and vote through devices such as poll taxes.
in the 2018 School Board race in Prince William, party affiliations were not listed next to names of the three candidates
Source: Prince William County, Sample Ballot (November 6, 2018)
In Virginia, the increasing population in urban areas was blocked from gaining political power by careful drawing of election districts. Rural voters allied with the Byrd Organization, especially in the Shenandoah Valley and Southside Virginia, dominated elections until 1962.
After the Supreme Court's Baker v. Carr decision, Virginia was forced to redistrict boundaries to comply with the "one person, one vote" standard. That gave more seats to urban and suburban voters in Virginia. They were more supportive of funding for public schools, and more willing to go into debt to finance public infrastructure such as roads.
In 1969, Sen. Byrd was dead and the Democratic Party in Virginia divided between conservatives and more-liberal voters. The Republican candidate, Linwood Holton, won the race for Governor. It was the first time a Republican won, after 21 consecutive elections in which the Democratic candidate was elected as Governor.
Virginia's first Republican governor, elected in 1969, was a "Mountain and Valley Republican" born in Wise County
At the state level, the Republican Party was viewed as more liberal on race relations, while the Democratic Party was viewed as the conservative alternative in 1969. That was in clear contrast to the alignment of the political parties at the national level. In 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to conservatives in southern states to switch their allegiance, using coded language such as law and order to draw conservatives away from the Democratic Party.
Nixon's election as president was based on a Southern Strategy. It branded the Republican Party as willing to defend traditional practices that discriminated against people of color, and labeled the Democratic Party as "too liberal" on a variety of social justice issues. President Nixon's overwhelming re-election in 1972 demonstrated the success of that strategy.
During Governor Holton's term, the parties realigned in Virginia to match the national pattern. Harry Byrd Jr., who had been appointed as a US Senator to replace his father in 1965, won the Democratic primary in 1966 by the narrow margin of only 8,200 votes of the 435,000 total votes.
Senator Byrd avoided the risk of defeat in the 1970 Democratic primary by choosing to run as an Independent. Not running as a Democrat also meant he was not obliged to sign the "loyalty oath" required by the Virginia Democratic Central Committee. Byrd said he could not commit in 1970 to support the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, since no one knew who would be that candidate. Byrd won in 1970 and again in 1976, and is the last person to win statewide office as an Independent.2
Political conservatives recruited former Governor Mills Godwin to run for governor in 1973 as a Republican. He had been a Democrat in 1966, but in 1972 the Nansemond County Democratic Committee blocked his attempt to go to the Democratic State Convention. He supported the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, in the 1972 presidential election.
Godwin considered running for governor in 1973 as an Independent, but the Republicans made clear that they would nominate their own candidate rather than tacitly support Godwin as an Independent. If Godwin ran as an Independent and created a three-way race, then liberal Democratic candidate Henry Howell was predicted to win.
Godwin decided to switch parties, reluctantly. At the Republican convention that nominated him, he started his speech with "As one of you..." and receive pre-planned, thunderous applause. Godwin was elected governor in 1973 in a close race, becoming the first person since "Extra Billy" Smith in 1864 to be elected to that office twice. Governor Mills Godwin completed two terms, the first in 1966-70 as a Democrat and the second in 1974-78 as a Republican.3
For General Assembly seats, young Republican candidates replaced older Democrats over the next 25 years. After the 1995 elections, the Democrats were forced to share power with the Republicans in the State Senate.
In the 1999 elections, the Republican Party finally achieved majority status in the General Assembly. That enabled them to control redistricting after the 2000 Census, gerrymandering boundaries to benefit their candidates. Power shifted in the closely-divided State Senate, but Republicans controlled the House of Delegates for 20 years. Between 2015-17, they had a 66-34 majority.
Democrats did not have control of both houses of the General Assembly between 1996-2020
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, End of Divided Government
The recovery of the Democratic Party in Virginia began in the 2001 election, when Mark Warner defeated the Republican candidate. Another Democrat, Tim Kaine, followed Governor Warner in 2005.
In 2005, the debate revolved around ads on religion, immigration, and the death penalty.
Kaine won the urban areas, including Northern Virginia inside the Beltway and 75% of the incorporated cities. Kaine won all the incorporated cities in the strongly-Republican Shenandoah Valley except for Waynesboro; Independent Russell Potts took 12% of the vote in Winchester, muddling the interpretation of the results there.
Kaine lost in the cities of Bristol, Colonial Heights, Emporia, Hopewell, Manassas, Manassas Park, Norton, Poquoson, Salem, Waynesboro. Those urban areas were scattered all across the state; there was not a clear geographic pattern for the city vote in 2005.
The big story that year was that Kaine won so many of the suburbs surrounding the urban centers. A simple summary of Virginia politics, then and now, is that most of the rural vote is still solidly Republican, most of the urban centers are solidly Democratic, and the swing votes are mostly in the suburbs.
Stephen Farnsworth at Mary Washington University capsulized the demographic change that has been reflected in this election in his summary that "Prince William is starting to look more like Fairfax and less like Stafford." Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia noted:4
Republican Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009, but the next two governors (Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam) were Democrats.
No Republican won a statewide race again until 2021. Democratic candidates won all races for President in 2008, 2012, and 2016. They also won all races since 2009 for US Senator, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General until 2021. The state appeared to shift from a reliably Republican ("red") state to reliably Democratic ("blue").
Between 2014-2019, however, the majority of members elected to both the House of Delegates and State Senate were Republicans. The boundary lines of electoral districts drawn in 2011 were designed to protect incumbents in the House of Delegates controlled by Republicans and in the State Senate, controlled then by Democrats. Special elections in 2014 resulted in Republicans replacing Democrats, and that party controlled the State Senate as well as the House of Delegates between 2014-2019.
In 2017, a "blue wave" replaced 15 Republicans in the House of Delegates and for the second time in a row elected three Democrats as Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. Voters were more energized over the General Assembly's failure to pass any legislation on gun control or expansion of Medicaid than socially-conservative opposition to LGBT rights and abortion. In 2018, incumbent Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, was re-elected with 57% of the vote.5
12 incumbents were defeated in the 2017 General Election, a clear contrast to most other elections in the last decade
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, Turnover in the House of Delegates
One of the switches in the 2017 blue wave was in the 13th District for the House of Delegates. Voters replaced the Republican incumbent by electing Virginia's first openly transgender official. The conservative Republican incumbent, Rep. Bob Marshall, had been in office since 1992. He regularly highlighted his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and tried to get a law passed that would mandate people use bathrooms based on the gender listed on their birth certificate. His defeat reflected not only the high quality of the Democratic candidate who won, Danica Roem, but also how far the suburbs had shifted in their political leanings.
suburban voters, such as the 13th District for the House of Delegates, are key to election success now
Source: Virginia General Assembly, Who's My Legislator
Republicans won enough races in 2017 to keep their narrow control of the State Senate, 21-19, in the 2018 General Assembly session. The Lieutenant Governor who could break a tie on most votes was a Democrat, so each Republican State Senator's vote was critical. In the House of Delegates, Republicans lost their 66-34 majority but still managed to retain a bare majority with 51 of the 100 seats.
A 50-50 tie in the House of Delegates was a possibility for several weeks, after one of the closest elections in Virginia's history. In the 94th District, the vote for both the Democratic and Republican candidates ended up in a tie. The State Board of Elections picked the winner of the race by placing names in two film canisters and picking one out of a bowl. The film canister with the Republican name was chosen, so that party kept control of the House of Delegates for two more years.
more voters in Virginia's urban/suburban areas supported the Democratic candidate in the 2017 governor's race vs. 2013
Source: Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), Change in Partisan Performance
Elections have consequences, even when partisan majorities do not shift. Though Republicans retained control of both houses of the General Assembly after the 2017 election, several of them switched their position on expansion of Medicaid as authorized in the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). Expansion within Virginia was a Democratic priority that had been blocked by Republicans, but in a special 2018 session the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved Medicaid expansion.
Former Representative Tom Davis, a Republican who had been elected seven times (1994-2006) to the US Congress from Northern Virginia and served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, highlighted the expanding number of suburban voters in Northern Virginia as the key to the failure of the Republican Party in statewide elections after 2009.
He suggested that Virginia had divided into two one-party states. Rural voters were supporting Republican candidates reliably, while suburban/urban voters were supporting Democratic candidates reliably. Demographic change had steadily reduced the number of rural voters, but Republican Party policies remained focused on their concerns. As Davis noted, vote-rich Northern Virginia resembled New Jersey while rural Virginia resembled Alabama, and the Republicans:6
When the Democratic Party in Virginia began to swing to the progressive left after major successes in the 2017 and 2018 races, Tom Davis also made clear where he expected future elections would be won or lost in Virginia by repeating the lesson learned from Tim Kaine's victory in 2005:7
In 2017, female candidates defeated male candidates in 11 of the 15 House of Delegates seats that flipped to the Democrats. In 2018, Democratic women defeated two male Republican candidates to flip their seats in the US House of Representatives (plus a third seat, where the Republican incumbent was female). The priorities of suburban women appeared to be the key to winning election.
In 2019, a Democratic state senator elected from Northern Virginia suggested the Republican Party could recover in the region by adapting to the priorities of the voters there:8
Tim Kaine had been the Democratic candidate for the US Senate in 2018. His victory in that race was the ninth statewide election in which no Republicans was elected to a statewide office. In every jurisdiction, the Democratic percentage of the vote in 2018 was higher than in 2017.
A professor at Mary Washington University, with long experience observing Virginia politics, suggested demographic changes would benefit Democratic candidates even more in the future. He advised the Republican Party to adapt to the concerns of the changing electorate in suburban and urban areas, rather than continue to rely upon traditional Republican voters in rural areas:9
in 2019, one of the few Republicans in the House of Delegates from a Northern Virginia district described himself in a fundraising effort as an "endangered species"
Source: Dave LaRock for Delegate
In the 2019 General Assembly races, Democrats were far more successful in recruiting candidates. There were 91 Democratic candidates for the 100 House of Delegates seats vs. 72 Republicans. In 2011, Democrats were able to recruit only 54 candidates, leaving 46 seats uncontested.
The Democratic Party was helped when a Federal judge forced a redistricting of 11 House of Delegates districts, ruling that the boundary lines had been drawn unconstitutionally to pack black voters into a limited number of districts. Ultimately 26 districts had their boundaries changed before the 2019 election, and Democratic voters were added to districts which had been "safe" for Republican candidates.
For the 40 State Senate seats in 2019, there were 35 Democratic candidates vs. 25 Republicans. In 2011, Democrats had been able to recruit only 28 candidates.10
recruiting candidates is an essential first step in winning majority control of the House of Delegates, but both political parties always leave some of the 100 seats uncontested
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, Legislative Candidates: Ebb and Flow
In the 2019 general election that year, Democrats flipped six more seats in the House of Delegates to take a 55-45 majority. That created a dramatic contrast to the 2015-17 House, in which Republicans had a 66-34 majority. In 2017, the Democrats had flipped 15 seats and lost a chance to force a 50-50 power sharing agreement only when the vote for the 94th District ended in a tie. The name of the Republican candidate was picked our of a bowl, and he served another two year term until being defeated in a 2019 re-contest.
In the State Senate, in 2019 Democrats flipped two seats and took control of the other half of the General Assembly with a 51-49 majority. In addition, the Lieutenant Governor was a Democrat, so he could break tie votes on most issues in the State Senate.
It was the first time since 1995 that Democrats had controlled both houses of the General Assembly. The key to gaining control of the State Senate in 2019 was winning two races in suburban districts that had previously supported Republican candidates.
After the 2019 election, Democrats were sitting in the offices of all five statewide offices (two US Senators plus Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General) and controlled both houses of the legislature. Democrats also occupied seven of the 11 US House of Representatives seats.
Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball headlined its report on the state election "Virginia: The New Democratic Dominion." On the night of November 5, 2019, Governor Ralph Northam exclaimed at the victory celebration in Richmond:11
The chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Corey Stewart, had chosen not to run for re-election in 2019. He had been the Republican candidate for the US Senate in 2018, but received only 41% of the vote statewide and only 33% in his county. His "firebrand" approach to immigration, abortion, and gun control issues was clearly out of synch with the electorate both statewide and locally.
In the 2019 general election, voters changed the 6-2 Republican majority of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to a 5-3 Democratic majority and elected the first Democrat to serve as the chair in 20 years. Corey Stewart evaluated the results in his typical blunt style:12
The Washington Post echoed his opinion, and harshly assigned blame for the Republican defeat:13
Former US Representative Robert Hurt, now dean of the Helms School of Government at Liberty University, was more positive than most pundits after the election regarding the status of the Republican Party in Virginia:14
Republican Del. Kirk Cox won re-election in 2019, despite the redistricting which added Democratic-supporting voters in Chesterfield County
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, Election Results 2019 - House of Delegates District 66
Republicans were not "wiped out" in 2019. Democrats won all the offices in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, but Republicans won eight seats in the suburbs of Richmond and Hampton Roads that Gov. Ralph Northam and Senator Tim Kaine had carried in 2017 and 2018. Only two seats flipped in the State Senate, though the change in 5% of the seats gave the Democratic Party control of that chamber.
In Senate District 7, the seat was open after Sen. Frank Wagner took a job with the state government. That Republican had been elected five times and served for 19 years, but the Democrats were optimistic that they could flip the seat. In the race to replace him, Republican Jen Kiggans won 50.36% of the vote in that suburban district. The Virginian-Pilot headlined an editorial about local election results "Virginia's blue wave washes out locally."
In suburban Chesterfield County, Republicans won three of the four countywide races and retained a 4-1 advantage on the Board of Supervisors. The Chesterfield Observer concluded:15
Del. Kirk Cox, Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates, had court-ordered redistricting add majority black portions of Chesterfield County to his district, making his electorate 32% more Democratic. Del. Cox won re-election, though the Democratic victories in other districts meant he would no longer be the Speaker with power to assign other delegates to committees. Del. Cox became the Republican representing the "bluest" district for his party, and his Chief of Staff commented after the 2019 election that there was not:16
in 2019, the Republican candidate won the suburban State Senate District 7
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, State Senate District 7
However, Cox chose not to try again in 2021. Instead of waiting to see the results of the redistricting of the boundaries in the Chesterfield County suburbs, he chose instead to run as a statewide candidate and ran for governor. (In the November 2021 election, the Republican nominee did win the race to replace Cox.)
Political observers noted that the one previously-announced candidate for the Republican nomination was a conservative firebrand unlikely to attract votes from outside the base that supported Donald Trump. Del. Cox made clear that he would take a pragmatic approach and seek support from independents and Democrats, saying as his Republican rival supported last-ditch efforts to block the election of Joe Biden as President:17
The chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia highlighted in 2021 that there were 97 Democrats seeking election to the 100 seats in the House of Delegates, surpassing the 2019 record of running Democrats in 92 districts. Contesting for seats in districts considered reliably Republican was part of a conscious strategy to build support in rural areas. Though Democrats expected to lose in roughly half the districts in 2021 and had little chance of winning in most districts west of the Blue Ridge or in Southside, contested races for House of Delegates seats every two years were expected to build support. In future elections, a Democrat might have a realistic potential to actually win election in some rural areas, outside of city and suburban districts.
The 17 Democrats running for statewide office in 2021 was an unusually high number. Five people sought nomination as governor, more than any other time in the last century. The closest was in 1949, when the Byrd organization was threatened and four people competed in the party's primary. The number of candidates in 2021 reflected the perceived value of the Democratic nomination, at a time when Republicans appeared unable to win statewide races. The competition also reflected a level playing field. Virginia no longer had an organization of traditional Democratic Party leadership which could quietly assemble a preferred ticket with geographic balance, and ensure the nomination of preferred candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.
One Democratic state legislator attributed his party's success to the unpopularity of President Trump in 2019:18
Others suggested that electorate had fundamentally changed. Once President Trump faded into history, there would still be little hope for a resurgence if Republican candidates continued to focus on guns, abortion, and other socially-divisive issues that were at odds with the priorities and concerns of voters who were increasingly suburban, college-educated, and non-white. Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, noted:19
George Mason University professor of public policy Mark Rozell assessed the Republican Party's opportunity to regain control in upcoming elections:20
A conservative blogger, James Bacon, shared that perspective:21
Another more-liberal blogger for the Bacon's Rebellion site also emphasized that the 2019 "massacre" reflected a fundamental disconnect between the Republican agenda and Virginia voters. He sought to deflate the demographic migration argument that "NoVa Yankees," new residents moving from out-of-state into Northern Virginia, were responsible for the defeat:22
The chief of staff for former Rep. Frank Wolf, one of the last Republicans elected to the US House of Representatives from Northern Virginia, said of the 2019 results:23
The Republican Party leadership was not quick to concur that it should alter traditional political priorities. When the Republicans in the House of Delegates chose a new leader after the 2019 election, they picked the more-conservative candidate. The 11 recommendations from the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition, in its post-election "Republicans in Suburbia: Where Do We Go From Here?" report, proposed just how the campaign machinery could be enhanced. It offered no suggestions for shifting emphasis on public policy issues to enhance the Republican Party's appeal to voters living in the suburbs.
The new Republican Minority Leader in the House of Delegates said at the start of the 2020 General Assembly:24
Shifts in control of the General Assembly result primarily from "open seats" being won by the other party. It is unusual in the modern era for an incumbent to be defeated. The 2017 election was a rare "wave" in which 15 House of Delegates seats flipped, and 12 Republican incumbents lost their races that year. None of those who ran in 2019 were able to defeat the now-incumbent Democratic delegates.25
the defeat of 12 Republican House of Delegates incumbents in 2017 made it a "blue wave" election for Democrats
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, Incumbent Defeats (November 12, 2019)
A common assumption prior to the 2019 election was that a high turnout, with a higher percentage of registered voters going to the polls, would benefit Democratic candidates. Older and predominately white male voters are most likely to cast a ballot year after year. College-educated women, millennials and Gen Z voters, and minority-race voters engage in higher-profile elections more often when there are contested seats for Federal offices or governor. In low-turnout races, the participation rates by the older and the predominately white demographic groups gives Republican candidates an advantage.
In 2011 and 2015, two "off off year" elections with no Federal or statewide races, turnout was just 29% of registered voters. In 2012 and 2016, with contested presidential races generating interest, over 70% of registered voters cast a ballot.
In 2019, almost 40% of registered voters participated in the election. That exceeded the previous record of 36% in 1999.
Elections to Virginia's State Senate occur in the "off off years," so low turnout has the greatest impact on who is elected to the four-year terms in that half of the General Assembly. In 2019, of the six races with the greatest percentage of turnout, Republicans won five of the seats.
In the House of Delegates, Republicans won 12 of the 18 highest-turnout races. The conventional wisdom that high-turnout races benefits Democrats may not be as valid as presumed.26
The Roanoke Times assessed the higher turnout and the "demography is destiny" argument three weeks after the 2019 election. The paper's editorial claimed that voters who were not born in America were not automatically inclined to be Democrats, but that nativist policies of the Republican Party were driving the naturalized citizens away:27
After the 2019 election, opponents of gun-related legislation succeeded in getting 97 of the 133 cities and counties in Virginia plus 18 towns to adopt some form of a resolution declaring the local jurisdiction would be a Second Amendment sanctuary or "constitutional" community. A Republican who had served in the House of Delegates commented:28
a gun rights rally in the City of Chesapeake after the 2019 General Assembly election drew an overflow crowd
Source: Virginia Citizens Defense League
The Second Amendment sanctuary movement reflected an extraordinary outpouring of civic engagement. Advocates for gun rights used fiery language, and defined Virginia as "ground zero" for Second Amendment rights. The Virginia Citizens Defense League planned a Lobby Day rally at the State Capitol on January 20, 2020 with "enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern midsized country."
Some extremists claimed incorrectly that Governor Northam had called out the National Guard to start seizing guns that had been legally registered within the state. The governor made clear that he was proposing "common sense" gun legislation, based on the eight bills he had submitted for a special session of the General Assembly in July, such as a one-handgun-per-a-month purchase limit that was the law in Virginia between 1993-2012. Republican leaders of the State Senate and House of Delegates adjourned that session after just 90 minutes, without considering any of the legislation.
Claims that the state government was planning to seize weapons owned by individuals created a channel for Republicans to regain majority status in Virginia. The National Rifle Association supported the partisan perspective that the General Assembly, which was controlled by Democrats after the 2019 elections, and the Democratic governor were not supporters of the Second Amendment and planned to confiscate registered guns. A spokesperson said just before the 2020 General Assembly stated:29
the National Rifle Association claimed Democratic Governor Northam planned to confiscate guns
Source: National Rifle Association, Institute for Legislative Action (December 13, 2019)
While the Second Amendment sanctuary movement showed how the issue energized some voters, at the same time a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center for Public Policy poll suggested that 53% of Virginians thought gun laws should be stricter, 30% thought the laws were about right, and just 17% thought the gun laws in Virginia should be less strict.30
If that particular poll reflected the preferences of voters, then the gun rights issue would not be a successful path for Republicans to win statewide elections.
The highly-controversial gun rights issue had been highlighted before the 2020 elections. Governor Northam had called a special session of the General Assembly for July, 2019, and proposed "common sense" measures to reduce the nearly 1,000 deaths from gun-related incidents each year. The special session occurred five weeks after 12 people were murdered in a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building, and five months prior to the elections for all 140 members of the legislature.
The Republicans in control of both the House of Delegates and the State Senate adjourned the special session after meeting for 90 minutes. All bills were referred to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study, and no other action was taken.
The 2020 legislature was dramatically different, after voters elected a Democratic majority in both houses in November 2019. The State Senate rejected the governor's proposal to ban the sale of assault weapons such as the AK-47, the different General Assembly after the 2019 elections passed much legislation that had failed in previous years.31
On April 10, 2020, he signed into law, or referred back to the legislature for minor amendments, the other "common sense" proposals he had made back in 2019 and which had been approved in 2020. The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action still claimed success, despite the change in political power after the 2019 elections and the General Assembly's endorsement of all items in the governor's gun-related agenda except the assault weapons ban:32
A graphic of the pattern prior to Gov. Northam's decisions on the legislation reveals that the partisan differences between governors and the legislature are reflected in the pattern of vetoes:33
Republican governors veto mostly bills sponsored by Democrats, and vice-versa
Source: VA Capitol Square tweet, Partisan Breakdown of Virginia Vetoes (April 11, 2020)
Mobilization around gun rights may have led to Republican success in the Staunton City Council elections in May, 2020. The city had been a "blue dot" surrounded by reliably-Republican Augusta County for years; a majority of voters had supported Democratic presidential candidates in the last three elections. However, the 6-1 Democratic-controlled city council became a 4-3 Republican majority, after four Republicans won three seats in the May 2020 vote.
Three of the Democratic incumbents were defeated in a race where local issues were a major factor, and as in all local elections in Virginia no party labels were next to candidate names on the ballots.
Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School back to Staunton High School had energized local conservatives, and the 6-1 Democratic majority had declined to hold a public hearing on a resolution to declare Staunton to be a Second Amendment sanctuary city. A decision to furlough fire fighters, approved just a week before the election, may not have helped the challengers win but may have helped the incumbents lose.
The election, held after a two-week postponement by the governor during the COVID-19 pandemic, had high turnout. Those who chose not to vote absentee went to polling places with masks and hand sanitizer. However, Mary Baldwin University students, normally heavily-Democratic, had been sent home in March. Some students may have failed to vote absentee, in an election where 17% of the total vote was absentee. The Democratic candidate who finished in fourth place in the three-seat race was only 27 votes behind the winning Republican.
In 2020, 27% of those registered to vote cast ballots in the election for Staunton City Council. In comparison, the 2016 election had only 13% voter turnout. One local commentator noted:34
At the national level, both political parties treated Virginia as a competitive state in presidential races only between 2008-2016. In the 2004 race, Virginia was considered to be reliably Republican; it had not chose a Democratic candidate for president since 1968. In 2008, Barack Obama flipped the state, after concluding his campaign at the fairgrounds in Prince William County. He won again in 2012, again finishing his campaign in suburban Prince William.
Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Donald Trump invested heavily in Virginia in 2012 and 2016, but lost. After the 2019 elections for the General Assembly flipped both houses to Democratic control, the state became perceived as reliably "blue." In the 2020 presidential election, neither party considered it a wise investment to fund extensive campaign efforts; Virginia was no longer a swing state in their calculations. A political scientist commented:35
support by urban and suburban voters for Democratic candidates has led to Virginia being declared a blue state
Source: Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), Partisan Change from 2016
Nonetheless, President Trump brought Air Force One to the Williamsburg-Newport News Airport in September, 2020. His campaign event in Newport News was focused not on Virginia voters, though his appearance would help the Republican candidate in a close race for the 2nd> District in Virginia for the US House of Representatives.
President Trump was targeting people living in northeastern North Carolina. The Virginia airport was more suitable for the presidential jet, but the media coverage in Newport News would carry his campaign message to the voters across the state line. In North Carolina, the polls gave Trump only a 1% lead at the time, while the Republican candidate for the US Senate was behind.36
Joe Biden won 54% of the vote in the 2020 presidential race, and Republicans failed in their efforts to flip back any of the three US House of Representatives seats lost to the Democrats in 2018. The trend of the suburbs to move into the Democratic column continued. Biden won seven jurisdictions that had voted for Trump in 2016 - Chesterfield, James City, Caroline, and Stafford counties, plus the cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Lynchburg.
The 2020 presidential election revealed a widening gap between rural and urban voters. A higher percentage of voters in the cities and Northern Virginia supported the Democratic candidate in 2020 compared to 2016. In rural areas, the shift was towards the Republican candidate. The 75% high turnout in 2020 indicated that the division was not a statistical anomaly.37
The Republican Paty staged a successful comeback in 2021. They won the statewide races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, and flipped seven House of Delegates seats to take control with a 52-48 majority. The chair of the Republican Party who orchestrated the comeback commented about the changes in political power between 2017-2021:38
The 10 jurisdictions with the largest populations gave Terry McAuliffe an advantage of 287,321 votes - and he still lost. Glenn Youngking won Youngkin 86 of the 95 counties, plus 14 of the 38 cities in Virgina.
The 2021 election swung political power in the House of Delegates away from Northern Virginia. The new Republican Speaker for the 2022 session came from the Shenandoah Valley, while the new Majority Leader was from Southwest Virginia:39
in 2021, Republicans swept the statewide races and captured the House of Delegates, shifting power there to delegates elected from rural Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia
In additional the presidential election every four years, there are only five offices filled by statewide votes - two US Senators, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. Rural districts are expected to elect Republican candidates for US House of Representatives, House of Delegates, and State Senate offices. The two parties will continue to compete in the suburbs, where voters will determine which party will win majority control of the General Assembly and the state's delegation to the US House of Representatives.
Southwestern Virginia, home of the "Fighting Ninth" congressional district, became a reliably Republican region. In 2020-2021, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to proposals by Democratic Party leaders to increase oversight of police activities, the elected sheriffs in Buchanan, Tazewell, and Smyth counties switched from the Democratic to the Republican parties. That left only two Democratic sheriffs in the region, in Dickinson and Russell counties.
Lee County, in the southwestern corner of the state, gave President Trump 84% of the vote in 2020. Democrats did not even bother to nominate an opponent to Rep. Morgan Griffith in the 9th District race for the US House of Representatives.
In 2020, President Biden won the statewide election - but had a majority in only 35% of Virginia's jurisdictions. He captured 46 of the states 133 cities/counties. Because the number of voters in the 46 jurisdictions exceeded the number in the other 47, Biden won Virginia's 13 electoral votes. However, the geographic imbalance created a problem in the 2021 redistricting process. The concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas meant that many of the 140 General Assembly districts would be primarily rural. Republicans had a chance to win a majority of State Senate and House of Delegates districts, even while losing statewide elections.40
in the 9th District, Democrats did not nominate a candidate in 2020 and the Republican incumbent ran unopposed for his House of Representatives seat
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, 2020 November General
The assumption that elections are decided by "swing" voters, willing to support Democrats in some elections and Republicans at other times, was questioned by Professor Larry Sabato in 2021. He noted that in presidential elections between 1952 and 1992, 20% of voters had been willing to vote for a candidate of either party. Between 2008-2020, that dropped to just 10% as the electorate became more polarized. Candidates paying attention to his analysis might conclude their priority was to appeal to their base, energizing them to get out the vote, rather than appearing as a moderate who might peel off voters from the other party.
If demographics reflect destiny, in 2022 Sabato ranked Virginia as one of the top 10 states likely to support Democratic candidates. He used three demographic indicators - percentage of residents 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree, percentage of white residents, and level of urbanization - to identify the most-Republican and most-Democratic states. Based on those three factors, Sabato calculated that the partisan lean of Virginia was similar to Colorado, Rhode Island, and Illinois.41
Sabato also identified how by 2022 the pattern of modern voting had created "blowout counties," where the candidate of one party won 80% or more of the vote:42
in the 1880 election, the Republican candidate (James A. Garfield) got less than 40% of the votes in Virginia, and they were concentrated in Southside and on the Northern Neck where the percentage of black voters was highest
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Plate 11: Popular Vote: 1880
the concentration of the "colored population" in 1880 explains the percentage of votes for the Republican Party, which had ended slavery
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Plate 24: Population (Colored Population)
in the 1884 election, the Republican candidate (James A. Garfield) got 49% of the votes in Virginia, and won several counties west of the Blue Ridge
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Popular Vote: 1884
in the 1888 election, the Republican candidate (Benjamin Harrison) lost to Grover Cleveland
Source: Library of Congress, "Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States," Popular Vote: 1888