RICHMOND — Former governor Terry McAuliffe whipped up fellow Democrats at a recent fundraiser by outlining what’s at stake in next month’s state election: control of the General Assembly and the power to enact a long list of Democratic priorities such as gun control, the Equal Rights Amendment and a higher minimum wage.
“Do not rest! Do not sleep!” McAuliffe exhorted. “Stop everybody you see — if they don’t stop, tackle ’em! Explain to them why this is so important. . . . We are going to make Virginia a new state.”
The next day, the Republican Party of Virginia quoted McAuliffe’s words with a different spin: “It should send shivers down your spine,” state party Chairman Jack Wilson wrote in a fundraising email that also invoked national Democratic donors. “This should be a grave warning to patriots like yourself. If the Soros-Bloomberg Democrats win the General Assembly this November — YOU WON’T RECOGNIZE VIRGINIA ANYMORE.”
If Democrats win control of the state legislature Nov. 5, they will join with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to exercise their first consolidated grip on state government in a generation. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot; Republicans are defending a 20-19 edge in the Senate and a 51-48 advantage in the House of Delegates, with one vacancy in each chamber.
Virginia Democrats hope to build on gains they’ve made in two elections since President Trump, who is unpopular in the state, won the White House. And new polling suggests some momentum.
Virginia voters favor Democrats over Republicans by a slim margin, 49 percent to 42 percent, in a recent statewide Washington Post-Schar School poll, with voters who are “certain” to vote giving Democrats a slightly larger edge of 52 percent to 41 percent. And by a similar margin, registered voters appear comfortable with Democrats taking majorities alongside a Democratic governor, with 48 percent calling it a “good thing” and 42 percent a “bad thing.”
There is broad support for at least two Democratic agenda items — making Virginia the 38th state to ratify the ERA and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. When it comes to the issue of abortion, which Republicans had hoped to make into a major focus but so far are highlighting in only a few races, Virginia voters are mixed in their opinions.
More than 8 in 10 Virginians polled said they support approval of the ERA, which would mandate that state and federal laws give people the same rights regardless of their sex. Support cuts across party lines with 95 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of independents and 78 percent of Republicans in favor. A handful of Republicans joined with Democrats in voting for the ERA in this year’s General Assembly session; it passed the state Senate, 26 to 14, but Republicans killed it in a House committee.
About two-thirds of Virginians support raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 from $7.25 an hour, the poll found. Roughly 9 in 10 Democrats favor the increase, along with about 6 in 10 independents. Fewer than half of Republicans support it, at 44 percent, with 53 percent opposed.
Virginians also broadly support several gun-control measures favored by Democrats, with majorities supporting statewide bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines as well as limiting handgun purchases to one a month. Decisive majorities support expanding background checks and “red flag” laws allowing authorities to seize weapons from someone deemed a danger, the poll found.
But while Virginia voters rate gun policy as the top issue in this fall’s elections, with 75 percent polled calling it “very important,” those who are most concerned about guns split almost evenly between support for Democrats and Republicans. That signals that both sides of the gun-control debate are energized to vote.
On abortion, Virginians largely mirror national attitudes. A majority, 63 percent, say abortion should be “generally legal” in the first three months of pregnancy, while majorities say it should be “generally illegal” in the second three months (57 percent) and last three months (73 percent), the poll found.
But most Virginians say there are some circumstances in which third-trimester abortions should be allowed, a pattern that is also found in national Gallup polling. A February Post-Schar School poll found 60 percent of Virginians said third-trimester abortions should be legal if the mother’s health is at risk.
Among Democrats, majorities say abortion should be “generally legal” for the first two trimesters, but 57 percent say it should be “generally illegal” for the last trimester. Republicans are split on first-trimester abortions — 44 percent say legal, 49 percent say illegal — and resoundingly against abortions after that point, the poll found.
Nearly two-thirds of independents support legal abortions for the first trimester, while majorities are against abortions later than that.
Abortion flared up as an issue early this year when Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) presented a bill to a House committee that would have loosened restrictions for late-term abortions. Republicans circulated video of her testifying that the bill would permit abortions up to the point of delivery. When Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist, defended Tran by clumsily describing medical procedures, Republicans, including Trump, accused him of favoring infanticide. Northam, who has volunteered at a pediatric hospice, called that suggestion “disgusting.”
The issue subsided over the summer after several other states took actions to severely limit access to abortions, prompting abortion rights advocates to suggest that Virginia Republicans were planning similar restrictions.
Less than half of Virginia voters, 46 percent, say abortion is very important in their vote for the General Assembly, ranking lowest among six issues tested in the poll, which was conducted by The Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. These abortion-focused voters are split in their vote preference for the state legislature, with 48 percent backing Republicans and 47 percent backing Democrats.
Republicans have mounted a broader strategy of warning about sweeping policy changes that could result if Democrats control the legislature as well as the executive mansion — from higher taxes to compulsory union membership and seizing of guns.
House Speaker Kirk Cox has warned that Virginians would see higher electric rates under Democrats because they favor a regional greenhouse gas initiative.
“Our majority in the House of Delegates is the only thing standing between Virginia consumers and high electricity bills,” Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said in a conference call with reporters in September.
In a debate Wednesday night, Sen. Glen Sturtevant (R-Richmond) — whose suburban district is a key battleground — said Democratic policies favoring unions would “mean jobs and business and the strong economy leaving Virginia immediately.”
Lobbyists for business interests are wary of a Democratic takeover of the House — not for partisan reasons, they say, but because Democrats have been locked out of power so long in that chamber that lobbyists don’t know what to expect.
“In the House, you’ve got a situation where charitably, maybe two people [on the Democratic side] have ever chaired a committee,” said one lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
But they do not have the same concern about a Democratic takeover of the Senate, which was last in Democratic hands in 2014. “Those who will be in charge have been in charge before, and the commonwealth was not torn asunder,” the lobbyist said. “There’s a confidence level.”
Democrats argue that their agenda is popular among most Virginians. They note that several Republican candidates in swing, suburban districts have advertised positions in line with Democrats, from supporting certain gun-control measures to expanding Medicaid — both policies that Republicans long opposed in the General Assembly.
“These commercials are actually helping us because it’s highlighting that they knew what the right thing to do is and they just didn’t do it,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Bagby noted that Republicans such as Cox are holding neighborhood events for black constituents who were moved into their districts under court order this year, after federal judges ruled that the old district boundaries had been racially gerrymandered.
He thinks voters will be unimpressed. “I don’t believe they’re going to fall for it this go-around,” Bagby said.
“It’s not enough moon bounces and hot dogs in the world” to make them vote Republican, he said.
Del. Lashrecse Aird, who has emerged as a young leader in the Democratic caucus, said she and others have begun planning how to execute priorities if they win a majority.
“I want to make sure there’s a balanced approach,” said Aird (D-Petersburg). “We are very aware that if you try to do too much, too soon you risk the advantage that you have being in the majority.”
But there’s no denying the buzz among Democrats about the potential for change. At an event earlier this year in his home district, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) spoke excitedly about the potential for enacting priorities that have long been blocked by Republicans, such as tightening gun laws, protecting workers and the environment, and shoring up the social safety net.
“If we have the majority,” he said, in remarks widely circulated online, “the work of a lifetime is the work of two afternoons.”
Democrats cheered, but the conservative Family Foundation promoted Lopez’s remarks as a warning.
“His point is essentially correct,” the group said on its website, “and this should motivate every freedom-loving Virginian to do anything they can to prevent it.”
The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted Sept. 25-30 among a random sample of 876 Virginia adults, 55 percent reached on cellphones and 45 percent on landlines. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus five percentage points for the overall sample as well as for the sample of 814 registered voters.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.