Virginia Democrats had a banner year in 2017. They won the governorship by 9 points and picked up a surprising 15 seats in the state Assembly. Control of the Assembly came down to a Republican candidate being declared the winner of a tied race after his name was randomly picked out of a bowl.
Those wins gave Democrats a good shot at taking back control of the state Legislature, where Republicans have a two-seat majority in each body, in state elections this year. That would give Democrats control of the state government for the first time since 1993 as they head into the next redistricting cycle in 2021, allowing them to draw new legislative maps and help cement control of state politics for the next decade. Democrats were on track for “the most liberal state government in VA history,” tweeted Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Of course, that was before a series of scandals engulfed the top three Democrats in the state—with Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring posing in blackface and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax facing serious sexual assault allegations. Virginia Democrats worry that the scandals could cost them their best chance in a decade at unified control of the state and could even, in the most extreme scenario, give Republicans control of the redistricting process. That could happen if the top three Democrats resign, making Assembly Speaker Kirk Cox—who is fourth in the line of succession—governor, and if Republicans retain their legislative majorities this fall.
“A lot of progressive groups and candidates and activists have been working really hard for the last decade to help put Democrats in a position for success in Virginia before the next redistricting cycle,” says Carolyn Fiddler, political editor of the Daily Kos and an expert on Virginia politics. “To see it all blow up in our faces is bitter.”
Indeed, Republicans in Virginia owe their Assembly majority to the gerrymandered map they passed in 2011, when the party controlled the Assembly and the governorship. (Democrats controlled the state Senate and drew that map.) In 2017, Democratic candidates won the statewide vote for the Assembly by 9 points, but Republicans narrowly maintained control of the body.
A federal court subsequently ruled in 2018 that the Republican Assembly map was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and ordered that 11 districts be redrawn. Republicans concentrated black voters in heavily African American areas like Richmond and Hampton Roads in order to maximize the number of predominantly white Republican districts, the court found. The new maps, which are set to go into effect before elections this year (unless the Supreme Court overturns the lower court ruling after an upcoming hearing in March), could shift six seats to the Democrats.
That includes the district of Assembly Speaker Cox, who has defended his party’s racial gerrymandering. His district would become 32 points more Democratic, according to one nonpartisan analysis. (Facing the prospect of losing the Legislature, Republicans last month endorsed a constitutional amendment for bipartisan redistricting reform before the maps are redrawn following the 2020 census. A nonpartisan coalition has also been pushing for an independent redistricting commission.)
Even if Democrats retain the governorship, a decline in Democratic turnout this fall could cost the party their best shot in two decades at taking back the Legislature despite the new assembly maps in place. “You have to at least account for the fact that these scandals will reduce Democrats’ chances of taking the state Legislature,” says Kondik.
In other words, this election is really, really important for the future of Virginia politics. And Democrats picked a really, really bad time for their party’s leadership to implode.