Democrats won in Virginia; here's what comes next

By Matt Blair

November 6, 2019

The new majority has to set their agenda, pick their leaders and face down potential intra-party fights.

President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday that if Virginians voted Republican in the state legislative elections, it would send a “strong signal” to D.C. that voters want second amendment rights, low taxes, and a secure border, among other GOP priorities.

The signal never sent. Democrats won control of both chambers of the Virginia legislature Tuesday, gaining full control of the government for the first time in 26 years.

Whether fueled by anti-Trump resentment or the once-in-a-generation opportunity to undo Republicans’ stranglehold on gun safety efforts, climate action, anti-discrimination protections and a gender equality bill, voters opened the door to progressive agenda items that once seemed unachievable in the former bastion of the Confederacy. 

Democrats flipped six seats and lost none of their own to win a robust 55-45 majority in the House. They picked up two seats in the Senate to earn a slimmer 21-19 majority in the upper chamber.

Before the election, pundits considered flipping the Senate more attainable than the House. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest outside spender in the election, said the election outcome exceeded everyone’s expectations.

But power doesn’t always guarantee results. Even with majorities in both chambers and a Democratic governor, the real test for Democrats starts in 2020, when they begin the business of legislating.

“The smaller the majority is, the harder it may be to actually pass the agenda … you have to make sure you don’t lose anyone on [close] votes,” said Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

On the other hand, he continued, the House and Senate Democratic caucuses have reason to be optimistic.

“There aren’t any kind of outlier, old-style Virginia Democrats … the majorities are going to be more ideologically solid than past ones.”

That doesn’t mean Democrats should expect perfect uniformity on contentious votes, Kondik said. Still, it should help the party maintain harmony as it works to advance its array of legislative goals.

“What we’re not gonna do is spend two years slow-walking this new majority into the next election season,” Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-86) tweeted Wednesday. For Democrats to hold onto their new power, he said, they need to act boldly on their promises.

Democrats have a long wish-list: Pass a package of 8 gun safety bills that past Republican majorities have gone to great lengths to conceal before they could be debated or come into public view, become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, extend anti-discrimination protections on housing and public employment to LGBTQ people, increase teacher pay and public school fundingjoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Second-tier priorities could include adopting a Virginia version of the Green New Deal, implementing a statewide debt-free community college program, and strengthening Virginia’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

“What they ultimately chose to prioritize, I think, is an open question,” Kondik said. “It’s something they’re gonna have to really think about over the next few months to make sure they hit the ground running in January.”

Gov. Ralph Northam will play a critical role in setting the agenda. He “wields a great deal of power in the legislative process,” said John McGlennon, a professor of government and public policy at William and Mary.

“He’s been quietly helping Dems in the campaign financially, and now he’s been moving more into public view as his approval ratings have moved back up. He will want to reclaim his reputation by advancing an aggressive agenda on civil rights,” McGlennon wrote in an email.

But first, lawmakers from both parties need to pick their leaders and assign members to committees, a process that starts today. The House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader control the agenda in their respective chambers and appoint members to committees.

In the House, the current minority leader Eileen Filler-Corn “is likely to be the first woman speaker,” McGlennon said. “As a Northern Virginia delegate, she’ll have a lot of support in the caucus, and since there will be a lot of plum positions as committee chairs, etc., for other Democrats, she shouldn’t have to worry too much about a challenge.”

Current House Speaker Kirk Cox won his reelection bid and is likely to be elected as House Minority Leader.

In the Senate, the forecast is less clear, according to McGlennon. Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35), is the natural choice to succeed Tommy Norment (R-3) as Senate majority leader. But Saslaw could be vulnerable to a challenge from “an infusion of new, younger senators, mostly female,” due to his age, more moderate politics, and closeness to Norment, McGlennon said.

Norment, for his part, is likely to keep his leadership role among Republicans, but in a diminished role as Senate minority leader.

The leaders of both parties will be formally elected on the first day of business in 2020. However, leadership decisions will “take place at organizational meetings held after the elections but well before the session begins in January,” McGlennon said. The General Assembly has a long tradition of voting unanimously for leadership roles in both chambers, meaning once each party puts forth its candidates, their appointment is virtually guaranteed.

Members will get their committee assignments during those organization meetings, McGlennon said. The makeup of these committees are important, as they are the first stop for any legislation. With control of both chambers, Democrats will also control all committees in the General Assembly, giving them an upper-hand in advancing agenda items.

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