Republicans haven’t won a statewide victory since 2009, and now that Democrats have seized control of the House of Delegates and state Senate, Gov. Ralph Northam declared Virginia “officially blue” at a raucous victory party in Richmond Tuesday night.
Photo by Michael Lee Pope.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Northern Virginia had its own breed of Republicanism. People like U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11), U.S. Sen. John Warner and Del. Dave Albo (R-42). Now, after a series of stunning defeats since the election of Donald Trump to the White House, Northern Virginia Republicans are a dying breed, with moderates bowing out or being voted out.
“Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Del. Mark Keam (D-35) during a raucous victory rally in Richmond. “Virginians want Democrats to be in charge, and Donald Trump was the factor that led us to where we are.”
Two years ago, Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates and unseated longtime incumbents like Jim LeMunyon (R-67). Last year, Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and voted out U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-10). This week, Democrats flipped two seats in the state Senate and six seats in the House of Delegates, including Democratic challenger Dan Helmer unseating longtime incumbent Del. Tim Hugo (R-40).
“Dan Helmer won because voters in Fairfax and Prince William want a representative that doesn’t stand in the way of progress,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “With his long record of standing up for his community, not his party, Dan will make an excellent delegate and will work to keep Virginia moving forward.”
After the defeat of Hugo, who served as chairman of the House Republican Caucus, the Fairfax County delegation in the General Assembly will have zero Republicans. Voters in Fairfax also rejected Republican-backed candidates for the School Board.
Alexandria and Arlington haven’t had any elected Republicans for years. The last foothold the GOP has in Northern Virginia is the Springfield District, where longtime incumbent Republican Supervisor Pat Herrity was able to eke out a narrow victory against Democratic challenger Linda Sperling.
“We have a clear message that the residents of the Springfield District want someone who shares their common sense conservative values to have a seat at the table,” said Herrity. “The Springfield District wants Fairfax County to be a place where everyone can become successful.”
DEMOCRATS HAVEN’T controlled the House of Delegates since the late 1990s, a time when Republicans have been able to use their majority to push back efforts on gun control, the minimum wage and the Equal Rights Amendment. Now voters have expelled Republicans from power in a high-turnout election with almost 40 percent of registered voters showing up to cast a ballot compared to 29 percent in 2015. House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn says that’s a mandate for change.
“Without a doubt, the House candidates have offered Virginia a progressive and inclusive future,” said House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, who is a leading candidate to be the next speaker. "And guess what? You, the voters, said yes.”
At the top of that agenda is what Democrats call common-sense gun control. When asked which issues motivated voters this year, Democrats almost universally cited the lack of reaction to mass shootings across Virginia and the country. Democrats are poised to institute universal background checks, ban assault-style weapons and give judges authority to confiscate weapons from people who raise red flags.
“Tomorrow the work begins, and the people want to see results,” said Democratic Senate Leader Dick Saslaw, who is expected to lead the caucus next year. "They want to see gun violence curtailed, and Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, you’re going to get action.”
ONE OF THE REASONS why Northern Virginia no longer has its own brand of Republicanism is its changing demographics. Over the last decade, the region has become more urban and more diverse. That’s led to a changing sense of what its voters want from elected officials in the General Assembly, and Democrats say that’s why Republicans have been expelled from power.
“When you get out of touch with constituents, that’s what happens,” said Del. Charniele Herring (D-46), who serves as chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus. "It’s guns. It’s the years of trying to make it harder to vote. It’s restrictions on women’s health care and their privacy."
Democrats may have seized power, but that doesn’t mean the fighting is over yet. They’ll still have to vote on who leads the party when they gavel into session this year, and that could mean a fight to become Speaker of the House when Democrats take control for the first time in 20 years. Filler-Corn might be the obvious choice, but she already has opposing from Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-63).