Divided Government in an Off-Off Year

Divided Government in an Off-Off Year

Democrats want to take the House; Republicans want to take the Senate.

All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot this year, 100 in the House and 40 in the Senate.

All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot this year, 100 in the House and 40 in the Senate. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

Will Virginia continue to be the only state in the South that protects abortion rights? Will books be banned from the classroom? Will the historic surplus be used to help people in need or provide tax cuts to corporations?

These questions — and many more — will be answered at the ballot box this year because all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs. Democrats are hoping to maintain control of the Senate and possibly take control of the House. Republicans, on the other hand, are hoping to maintain control of the House and take control of the Senate. Recent polling suggests voters might actually like the checks and balances of divided government.

"I think there's a sense that people want one house to check the other," said former Gov. Doug Wilder, who now leads the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. "They don't want total control in both Houses."

The Wilder Center recently released results of polling that was conducted last month, and it had some shocking results about the upcoming election for the General Assembly. Perhaps the most perplexing number out of the recent poll from from a question about which party should control the House of Delegates. Unsurprisingly, 92 percent of Republicans say they want Republicans to control the House. But only 80 percent of Democrats say they want Democrats to control the House — and 10 percent of Democrats say they would prefer Republicans maintain control of the House.

"I'm dumbfounded, and I haven't been able to wrap my arms around it," said Wilder. "It's confusing to me, but it's what the people think."

The poll included a similar question about the Senate, although the results there were more conventional: 94 percent of Republicans say they want Republicans to control the Senate, and 88 percent of Democrats say they want Democrats to control the Senate. George Mason University professor Jennifer Victor suggests the survey results about the House of Delegates might suggest that voters are happy with the current state of divided government.

"When you have 10 percent of the out party saying that they are OK with the status quo or the other party controlling a legislative chamber, that says something to me about some preference for the status quo," said Victor. "It could also be a renewed interest among some voters for ticket splitting, which is where a voter will vote for one party in one office but then another party in another office."

PERHAPS NO ISSUE will dominate the landscape of Virginia politics as much as abortion rights. Ever since the Supreme Court struck down Roe versus Wade last summer, Democrats have been working overtime to make sure voters know what's at stake in Election 2023. Virginia is currently the only state in the South that protects abortion rights. But Republicans are campaigning on a platform of banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

"This is a really important moment, and there's a chance for us in Virginia to really demonstrate leadership — to bring people together on a topic that has been really divisive," said Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently on CNN. "I think that where common sense brings us together is around a 15-week bill that protects like when a child can feel pain."

Polling on this issue is nuanced. A recent poll from Christopher Newport University showed 67 percent of respondents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But the same poll also showed 51 percent support for a 15-week ban. Republicans are hoping they can leverage the relative popularity of a 15-week ban to portray Democrats as extremists on the issue, attacking Virginia Beach Democratic candidate Michael Feggans as supporting "elective abortion for any reason ... until the moment of birth." Feggans says that's not true.

"It's misleading. It's false. It's offensive, and it's dangerous," said Feggans. "It's just not how medical care works. And not only is it misleading and dangerous, it lacks compassion for families who have to make serious and difficult decisions with their providers."

The Republican in the race is incumbent Del. Karen Greenhalgh, whose campaign biography includes a stint as a volunteer counselor at a crisis pregnancy center. Like most of the other Republican candidates on the ballot this year, she's following the governor's lead and supporting a 15 week ban. Feggans, on the other hand, supports the current Virginia law, which protects abortion rights through the second trimester and requires three doctors to sign off on abortions in the third trimester.

"There are few things more risky in politics than choosing to talk about an issue that is a loser for your side," said Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. "Polls have consistently shown that Democrats have the advantage on the abortion question, and that advantage has gotten bigger in the wake of the decision by the Supreme Court to reverse Roe versus Wade."

LABOR ISSUES are also in the spotlight, especially now that local governments across Virginia are in the process of unionizing. Democrats are divided about the wisdom of campaigning on the issue of overturning Virginia's so-called Right to Work Law, which limits the power of unions by preventing employers from requiring employees join a union as a condition of employment. Republicans are challenging Democrats who have been on the record in favor of repealing the 1947 law.

"It's smart politics," said former Republican Delegate David Ramadan, now a professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Government. "The minute that you label that candidate as someone who supports overturning the Right to Work, the money is going to stop going to that candidate and possibly it will start going to the opponent."

One issue where Republicans are hoping to gain some traction is the issue of parents rights. After former Governor Terry McAuliffe said parents shouldn't be telling schools what they should teach during a 2021 debate in Alexandria, then-candidate Glenn Youngkin was able to turn parents rights into a winning message on the campaign trail. Now Republicans are hoping the issue will resonate again this year.

"If you go to the main campaign website of any Republican running in a marginal district, you'll see something about empowering parents," said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "So it's still an issue that Republicans think they can run on."