Virginia Gets Ready for High-Stakes Election as Early Voting Opens Friday
Virginia Gets Ready for High-Stakes Election as Early Voting Opens Friday

By Terri Wu

A lot is at stake in Virginia’s election this November: all 140 seats in the state House and Senate are up for grabs. With redistricting and over a dozen retirements, including Senate leaders from both parties, this year’s election is more competitive and uncertain than in previous years.

All possible outcomes are within reach.

Republicans could keep the House and win the Senate, paving the path for Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to achieve his conservative agenda over the next two years. The success would inform Republican strategies for the national races in 2024 and give Mr. Youngkin’s presidential ambition, whether for 2024 or 2028, a significant boost.

Democrats could keep the Senate and flip the House, returning Virginia to its progressive trajectory under the two previous Democratic governors. The status quo is also possible: a divided government with a narrow majority by each party in the legislative chambers.

Winning both House and Senate majorities will not be easy for the Republicans.

While Mr. Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory in 2021 ended a four-year Democratic government trifecta, Republican congressional candidates won only one of the three competitive races in the midterms. All competitive districts in this year’s races turned bluer last year versus 2021, according to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), a Richmond-based watchdog.

Meanwhile, “500,000 plus Virginians” who voted for him in 2021 didn’t vote in 2022, Mr. Youngkin told the audience on Sept. 12 at a “Parents Matter” event in Loudoun County, where a local parental rights fight catapulted onto the national stage. Two years ago, the issue helped propel Mr. Youngkin to victory.

The Loudoun County Senate district is a toss-up, according to CNalysis, a nonpartisan website that forecasts state legislative elections. Virginia has 6 million registered voters, according to the state’s Department of Elections.

“Elections have consequences,” the governor told the audience. He urged them to vote and vote early—Virginia’s in-person early voting starts on Sept. 23.

“Friends, this is a moment for us to recognize that we’ve made a big step as a commonwealth; we have so much more to do,” he said in closing, after reminding the audience what could be achieved with a Republican trifecta, such as mandatory parental permission of minor children’s gender transition procedures, a bill defeated by the Democrat-led state Senate in the latest legislative session.

The governor has adjusted his approach to campaigning on this issue since the midterms. Instead of speeches at stump rallies, Mr. Youngkin has opted for listening to parents’ input in a series of town hall meetings.

Republicans have also tweaked their messaging on abortion, a leading issue for Democrats that some say cost the GOP big gains that had been predicted last November. GOP candidates in competitive districts have toned down their pro-life language on their campaign websites. Now, they have a unified message around Mr. Youngkin’s position: an abortion ban past 15-week pregnancy, except for rape, incest, and saving the life of the mother.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (L) with Juan Pablo Segura, the Republican candidate for Virginia’s 31st Senate District seat, at a “Parents Matter” townhall in Leesburg, Va., on Sept. 12, 2023. (Terri Wu/The Epoch Times)

Ground Game Is Key

All individual Democratic candidates raised a total of $15 million in July and August, and Republicans raised $10.6 million, according to Sept. 15 campaign finance reports consolidated by VPAP. Both parties are also pouring money into the Virginia races. Mr. Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC raised $3.8 million during the period. Earlier this month, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) confirmed that it was investing $1.2 million in Virginia races at President Joe Biden’s direction.

But neither side has to worry about money, as everything comes down to how each party executes its ground game, said former Virginia Republican Gov. George Allen.

“In these races, door-to-door personal contact can win races, and that’s actually more important than all the money that’s being spent. It’s meeting the voters and connecting with them,” Mr. Allen told The Epoch Times.

Mr. Youngkin has a “Secure Your Vote Virginia” bus tour driving Republican voter turnouts statewide, and Democrats launched in June the Majority Project, declared as “the earliest voter turnout operation in Virginia history,” to take over the state House.

Mr. Allen said he is optimistic that Republicans can keep the House. The crucial fights are for the Senate seats, he added. If Republicans could achieve 20–20 in the Senate, he would consider it a victory. Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears could then cast the tie-breaking vote.

With 16 secure Senate districts, the Republicans would have to win four out of the six competitive races to achieve 20–20 in the Senate, said Richmond-based veteran political analyst Bob Holsworth, adding that two out of the six competitive races are “in districts with a clear Democratic lean.”

“The two open questions are whether Youngkin’s financial and organizational resources can make a difference and whether the GOP’s promise that they would only pursue a 15-week abortion ban can tamp down the support for Democratic candidates evident in other states in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision,” he told The Epoch Times.

In Dobbs, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which set a constitutional right to abortion, reverting the matter back for states to decide. Virginia is one of the few Republican-led states that haven’t increased abortion restrictions after the Dobbs decision.

Voters might not be as energetic on the issues of parental rights as in 2021, said former Republican Virginia state Sen. Richard Black, but the education issues would “still strongly influence” the election. He added that the close timing of the election in November and schools opening in September would help the parental rights issue.

Meanwhile, Mr. Black believes the abortion issue is losing momentum. “There’s no doubt that, over time, the issue fades as people realize that the changes [post-Dobbs] are not as dramatic as they were predicted to be,” he said.

Candidate Quality Matters

Republicans have an edge over Democrats, according to Mr. Allen, because they have been able to nominate quality candidates who are more appealing to Independent voters.

“The Republicans, for the most part, nominated common sense conservatives who can appeal to independent voters who are crucial to many of these races,” he said, adding that Democrats, on the other hand, are shifting more left in their primary choices.

An example is state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). In the June primary, 33-year-old finance professional Saddam Azlan Salim, who campaigned on gun control, abortion, and transgender issues, unseated the 16-year veteran senator.

Mr. Petersen is known as a maverick and as not being afraid of working across the aisle. His vote was instrumental when Virginia passed a law in spring 2022 to lift the mask mandate in schools.

Another example is the retiring state Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who has represented the district since 1980. In the primary four years ago, he barely defeated a challenger endorsed by the Democratic Socialists and other liberal organizations, winning by 400 votes.

Dave Marsden, who served since 2010 and was redistricted to Mr. Saslaw’s, won this year’s primary. He also faced tough challenges from a 29-year-old activist who raised more money and argued that Mr. Marsden was not vocal enough on abortion and gun control. In the neighboring district, Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky defeated another veteran Democrat centrist in the primary.

“Just trying to motivate people with antipathy or fear, or hatred of the other side is not enough. I think people are looking to be for ideas, for initiatives that resonate in their lives,” said Mr. Allen.

“They can say, ‘Alright, this will improve the education of my children,’ or ‘this will make it easier for me to make ends meet for the cost of living,’ or they’re insulted by some of the restrictions on their freedoms, their safety, or their opportunities.”

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