Early in-person voting begins on Friday in Virginia, kicking off what is shaping up to be one of the most watched and high-stakes state-level election seasons in the Commonwealth’s recent history.
The stage for this November’s contests in the Old Dominion was set from virtually the moment political newcomer Glenn Youngkin secured the governor’s mansion in 2021. His victory also ushered in a Republican lieutenant governor, attorney general, and House of Delegates, but left Democrats narrowly controlling the state senate.
For the GOP nationally and Virginia Republicans especially, 2021 was just the jolt of energy the party needed. Heading into Election Day two years ago with two Democrat senators, no Republican elected there statewide since 2009, and one year after a 10-point Biden victory in the Commonwealth, it seemed that Virginia might have become a reliably blue state. But Youngkin’s focus on education, crime, the cost of living, and opposition to COVID lockdowns led him to victory over former Governor Terry McAuliffe.
For Democrats, Virginia’s 2021 cycle was a disaster. In 2019, Democrats had secured a governing trifecta in Richmond for the first time in nearly two decades and used it to ram through a slate of far-left policies. The results two years later raised the possibility that Youngkin’s victory was a rejection of their state-level agenda as much as it was a referendum on Biden’s failures at the national level.
Now, Democrats are betting big that the 2021 outcome was a result of brewing backlash against Biden and not against the ever-more radical direction of the Democrat party generally. Republicans, meanwhile, are equally invested in the belief that 2021’s victories are repeatable with the right electoral strategy, and have made Youngkin (who maintains a strong approval rating for a purple state governor) the face of their midterm push.
The actions of lawmakers from both parties over the past two years and throughout the early months of the campaign season have reflected these opposing viewpoints.
Democrats in the state senate have dubbed themselves a “brick wall” and fought to block as much of Youngkin’s legislative agenda as possible. Democrats have opposed seemingly popular or bipartisan Youngkin-endorsed proposals, including: a bill imposing tougher penalties on fentanyl dealers; legislation mandating that schools notify parents before allowing students access to potentially sensitive or inappropriate material; a voter ID law; a bill mandating parental consent for minors to access social media; requirements that schools notify parents if their children receive a National Merit Award or other commendation (following a controversy earlier this year where several schools withheld notification of such awards); and a gas tax holiday when fuel prices were at their highest last year.
Virginia Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to characterize vociferous Democrat opposition to this popular agenda as obstructionist and too extreme for the state.
Despite the partisan gridlock, Youngkin and his Republican allies have been able to peel off enough Democrat support in the state senate on a few key issues to achieve some major wins. In his biggest victory to date last year, Youngkin signed a budget with more than $4 billion in tax cuts along with record investments in public schools, following through on two top campaign promises.
Youngkin has also actively exercised his executive authority on a number of initiatives that Republicans believe appeal to large swaths of voters. A $230 million overhaul of the state’s behavioral healthcare system last December drew praise from both sides of the aisle. His efforts to cut regulations, forge partnerships between state and local law enforcement to combat crime, and invest in some of Virginia’s poorest communities are also viewed as widely popular.
Virginia Republicans are making the case that an expanded House majority and GOP control of the state senate would mean even more successes like these over the next two years thanks to a legislature working with and not against a popular governor.
One “x factor” that Democrats are leaning heavily on to sway voters is the abortion issue. Currently, abortion is legal until 26 weeks in Virginia – relatively late compared to other states (especially considering that 8 out of 10 babies born prematurely at 26 weeks now survive).
Youngkin has publicly staked out a position that abortion should be prohibited after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is at risk. Public polling shows that a majority of Americans would support such a policy.
Despite this seeming compromise, much of Democrats’ messaging has followed the pattern seen in other states during the midterms last year by asserting that an “abortion ban” will follow a Republican victory in Virginia. The outcome in November will provide valuable insights about whether this strategy is still effective when Republicans have outlined a more moderate position.
Virginia’s elections will also be one of the first major tests of how well Republicans can mirror Democrats’ success with early voting. Earlier this summer, Youngkin unveiled his “Secure Your Vote” initiative to drive Republican voters to cast their ballots early and by mail.
The governor and his team have poured millions into the effort, taking money away from other more traditional messaging strategies. But what remains to be seen is whether conservative voters will respond – and if it will be enough to overcome Democrats’ early and mail-in voting advantage.
A final intriguing element to this year’s elections in Virginia is how they might influence Youngkin’s political future.
Youngkin’s success in 2021 immediately thrust him into the national spotlight and sparked speculation about a potential presidential run in 2024. So far, however, the 56-year-old former Carlyle Group CEO has carefully avoided definitive statements one way or the other about his aspirations for the White House.
But that might change if Virginia Republicans can manage to hold on to the House of Delegates and retake the state senate in November. Some political commentators have suggested that Youngkin could be hoping to use successive victories in a state once thought to be a lost cause to make the case that he is the GOP’s best chance to win back states that Biden won in 2020.
To be sure, such a late entry into the race would be highly unusual. Former President Donald Trump’s massive polling lead would also be a daunting challenge to overcome. But a Republican sweep might tempt Youngkin into thinking he has an opening.
Either way, when the final votes are counted on Election Day, the country will have much to watch for.
B.C. Brutus is the pen name of a writer with previous experience in the legislative and executive branches.
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