RICHMOND — Leaders of the Virginia state Senate and House took a victory lap Wednesday, the day after Republicans sealed their control of the General Assembly by picking up the last seat held by a Democrat in southwest Virginia.
A. Benton Chafin Jr., a freshman state delegate, easily defeated Democrat Mike Hymes on Tuesday to capture the 38th District Senate seat that Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) abruptly resigned in June.
On a conference call with reporters, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said voters gave GOP lawmakers a mandate that strengthens their bargaining position against Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). After Tuesday’s win, Republicans will keep control of the Senate even if Democrats hang on to the seat vacated by the retirement of Henry L. Marsh III (Richmond) in July. That seat will be filled in November.
“I think that Governor McAuliffe is continuing to mature as a governor and that he is continuing to learn about the nuances of governing,” Norment said. The new Senate majority “will perhaps give him some encouragement and act as a catalyst for him to sit down with Republican members of the House of Delegates and Republican members of the Senate to see if we can work together to work collaboratively to move Virginia forward.”
Howell and Norment stressed that the two chambers are united, in contrast with the state Republican Party, which is riven by a struggle between moderate establishment members and an insurgent wing of tea party supporters and other conservative activists.
Asked what they hoped to accomplish with their new 21-to-18 advantage in the Senate, as well as their comfortable House majority, Howell and Norment did not lay out a legislative agenda.
Howell did say that he and House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) met with McAuliffe on Tuesday to discuss working together on two proposals. They want to secure state funding for veteran-care centers in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia and to set up apprenticeship academies to train workers in advanced manufacturing.
“Governor McAuliffe is focused on creating jobs and growing our economy, and he is ready to work with anyone to accomplish those goals,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said in a statement. “The Governor has built productive partnerships with Republicans and Democrats on a number of key issues, and he looks forward to continuing to work with both parties to build the new economy Virginia families deserve.”
Like the governor, the Republican leaders provided no specifics on where they would cut $882 million from planned spending to offset the three-year, $2.4 billion projected shortfall that McAuliffe announced last week.
Turning to politics, Howell echoed a campaign message of Ed Gillespie, the Republican trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner this year. Warner campaigned for Hymes to no avail.
“The people in southwest Virginia see President Obama and the Democrat Party have abandoned them, and now they returned the favor. And I don’t think this is very good news for Senator Warner,” Howell said.
He added: “I think this election certainly bodes well for Ed Gillespie and his election down in southwest Virginia.”
Warner courted voters in that rural region during his successful 2001 campaign for governor and recently returned from a swing through the area. “Senator Warner has spent years helping boost southwest Virginia’s economy while Ed Gillespie spent much of his career as a self-described partisan warrior and a lobbyist for Enron. The difference between the two could not be clearer,” Warner campaign spokesman David Turner said.
Both sides spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the 38th District race, but Howell noted that Democrats outspent Republicans and still lost.