Balance of power – Control of the General Assembly is at stake in pivotal fall election

Balance of power

Control of the General Assembly is at stake in pivotal fall election

September 30  |  Virginia Business

by Bob Gibson

Three years ago, Sheila Bynum-Coleman’s then-19-year-old daughter was at a club in South Richmond when gunshots rang out. As she fled to her car, a bullet ripped through her shoulder and grazed her chin.

“I don’t think you will ever get over the emotional scars of being shot, but she definitely physically has healed,” the 47-year-old mother of five says of her second-oldest daughter, who was not an intended target of the shooting.

A Democrat from Chesterfield County who has unsuccessfully run for the House of Delegates twice before, Bynum-Coleman is one of a record number of women — 65 Democrats, 20 Republicans and four independents — running for the General Assembly in a pivotal Nov. 5 election when all 100 House seats and all 40 Senate seats will be on the ballot.

In any other election year, Bynum-Coleman’s race against GOP Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, might be viewed as quixotic. Instead, Cox finds himself in what political observers say is his closest contest in decades, thanks to a June federal court decision that redrew the boundaries of 25 legislative districts to correct what judges ruled was racial gerrymandering.

Cox’s newly redrawn 66th District, which includes Colonial Heights and Chesterfield, now leans Democratic, a 32-point shift from its previous position as a Republican stronghold, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). A 62-year-old retired high school government teacher and father of four who has held his seat since 1989, Cox was knocking on 50 to 55 doors per day in his district this summer.

“I’ve been running full speed in my new district. I have about 30,000 new voters, but I’ve gotten a good reception. We’ve tried to be very responsive,” says Cox, adding that his constituents are most concerned about “business and K-12 education and health care.”

After redistricting, “the speaker’s district has moved from being a completely safe district … to a toss-up,” wrote Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of Christopher Newport University’s Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy, in a September election preview report.

In July and August, Cox brought in $390,453 in donations, compared to $330,347 raised by his opponent, Bynum-Coleman. However, Cox’s war chest of $590,172 dwarfed Bynum-Coleman’s $341,463.

By the end of August, Cox had already produced two television ads, including one spot that prominently features an African American supporter saying that Cox is “definitely one of us.” (In redistricting, Cox’s district went from 18% to 34% African American.) His other ad focuses on his 14 years as a youth baseball coach. By contrast, Bynum-Coleman debuted one TV ad in early September. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the ad, titled “Kirk Cox Sold Out,” incorrectly states that Cox voted against teacher raises — confusing him with former Del. John Cox, R-Hanover, who did.)

Cox isn’t the only high-profile politician campaigning for his political life this election season. After the redistricting, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has seen his 76th District shift by more than 27 points to become even more Democratic-leaning than Cox’s district.

With Republicans holding slim majorities of 51 to 48 in the House and 20 to 19 in the Senate, political observers say Democrats have their best chance to gain full control of state government for the first time since 1993.

Normally, Virginia’s off-year legislative elections “make barely a ripple on the sea of political news coverage,” says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. However, “this year is an exception because both houses are so evenly divided and no other [state] legislatures up [for election] this year are in a position to flip party control.”

‘Watershed moment’
A mid-August poll of Virginia voters conducted by Roanoke College found that voters were more inclined to vote for Democrats. Of the 556 likely voters polled statewide, 36% would support Democrats for the Senate as opposed to 31% for Republicans. Likewise, 38% of respondents said they intended to vote for Democrats for the House, with 30% supporting Republicans.

House Democrats outraised their rivals this election, with $8.6 million on hand, versus $7.7 million for the GOP. In the Senate, however, Republicans held $5.3 million, compared to the Democrats’ $5 million.

If Democrats gain control of the House of Delegates, Virginia also is likely to have its first female Speaker of the House: Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax County, the current House minority leader.

Additionally, the first Democratic House majority in more than 20 years “would give unprecedented influence to Northern Virginia,” which boasts the largest concentration of Democrats in the General Assembly, says Steve Farns­worth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“The election will be decided on party and issues, but having a majority of women candidates — a first for either party in Virginia — is a plus for Democrats,” Sabato says.

A record number of women, 12, were elected to the House of Delegates in 2017. The even larger number of women running for state office this year demonstrates how they are reshaping the political and business landscape, says Deirdre Condit, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“In terms of women, the 2017 election in Virginia was like the watershed moment for the country,” Condit says.

This fall’s elections will also determine which party has more say in drawing boundary lines in the 2021 redistricting, granting the majority party the power to shape General Assembly and congressional districts for the next decade.

No ‘dead men walking’
Quentin Kidd, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University, says Democrats appear to have momentum and an edge in taking majorities in both chambers, especially the Virginia Senate, where two retiring GOP senators live in districts vulnerable to Democratic takeover.

However, “I would not call Kirk Cox or Chris Jones dead men walking,” Kidd adds, noting that both are well-known, popular political leaders with long track records of service in their communities.

Voter turnout will be key to tipping the General Assembly’s balance of power, notes Bob Holsworth, a Richmond political consultant who formerly headed Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Low-turnout years usually favor Republicans, he says, but polling and other data show voter enthusiasm on the rise.

New-voter registrations soared in the first half of this year, as 111,487 Virginians added their names to the rolls — a 67% jump over voter registrations during the same time period in 2015, the last time all 140 General Assembly seats were up for election, according to VPAP.

In 2017 and 2018, 10% higher-than-normal voter turnout helped Democrats make large gains, Holsworth says. “The Democrats have been a little more energized. Their advantage in this election is that the redistricting decision by the Supreme Court gives them an opportunity to take a number of seats, but at the same time having to protect all these new seats represents an opportunity for the Republicans.”

Republicans insist they will win back some of the 15 seats Democrats captured in 2017, with Cox pointing out that the party reached out this year to recruit a strong and more diverse class of GOP House hopefuls, including 14 women and two African American candidates.

But with a few months to go before presidential primaries kick off, it’s unclear whether the “Trump factor” that contributed to the 2017 blue tide may still cloud this year’s contests.

“The question is whether you have the same kind of driving force today that you had two years ago” in opposition to President Trump, Sabato says. “While we will never know for sure, my bet is that a sizable majority of the new registrants plan to vote Democratic. Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.”


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