The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans end Democratic control of Virginia House of Delegates

Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia’s governor on Nov. 2, defeating his Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Republicans ended Democratic control of Virginia’s House of Delegates in Tuesday’s elections, winning enough seats to achieve at least a 50-50 tie in the chamber and sitting on the verge of retaking the majority with several races still too close to call.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) declared around 1:40 a.m. Wednesday that the GOP had retaken control of the chamber.

“Virginia voters made an historic statement, delivering a clear rebuke of the failed policies of the last two years and electing Republicans up and down the ballot,” he said in a statement.

With all 100 House seats in play and all but nine races contested, Republicans needed to flip at least six seats to retake the majority, given that Democrats held only a 55-45 majority going into the elections.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) stressed in a statement Wednesday morning that Democrats were still waiting for all votes to be counted in several close races. In one, Del. Alex Askew (D-Virginia Beach) was trailing Republican challenger Karen Greenhalgh by 202 votes with all but one precinct reporting, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Earlier Wednesday, unofficial returns showed Republican Kim Taylor overtaking Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg), leading Republicans to declare that they had taken control of the chamber. On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press called the race for Taylor.

Taylor, co-owner of an auto repair shop, had gone after Aird, a vocal member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, over her outspoken support for policing and criminal justice overhauls. As with much of Democrats’ agenda, Republicans seized on the policing changes — including the banning of chokeholds and no-knock warrants — to argue that Democrats had gone too far left for Virginia.

Without former president Donald Trump on the ballot to galvanize liberal voters, the election tested the endurance of the blue wave that had flipped more than a dozen House seats to Democrats in 2017 and ousted Republicans from power in 2019 for the first time in a generation. Instead, Democrats had to grapple with President Biden’s waning popularity and reduced enthusiasm among their voters.

Now, with Republican Glenn Youngkin projected to be the next Virginia governor, the GOP agenda could hinge on whether Republicans are able to eke out enough victories to win control of the House. Democrats retain only a slim majority in the Senate, creating the potential for political gridlock.

In pursuing control of the General Assembly, Republicans argued that Democrats had overplayed their hand since they took full control in 2019, insisting that Virginia was not as left-leaning as Democrats believed. Republicans drummed up voter enthusiasm by campaigning fervently against what Democrats considered some of their biggest legislative achievements, such as expanding gun-control restrictions and enacting major overhauls of criminal justice and police oversight.

Mark Rozell, the founding dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said Republicans appear to have found success with that messaging. “The entirety of the Democratic agenda may have been just a bit too much for the overall voting public in Virginia,” he said. Democrats’ losses Tuesday indicate that they may have “misread” the four years of anti-Trump resistance as enthusiasm for liberal policies, he added.

“The Democrats took control of state government and they moved forward a boldly progressive agenda when the mandate of the previous four years was much more anti-Trump than it was pro-progressive policy,” Rozell said. “And I think that’s a critical point.”

This year’s House of Delegates campaign was marked by an unusually high amount of competition, with Democrats and Republicans contesting more seats than they had in over 15 years.

Republicans most aggressively targeted voters in the Richmond suburbs, the Northern Virginia exurbs and the Hampton Roads area, seeking to win back seats that flipped from red to blue in the past four years. They also pursued the few remaining rural districts still represented by Democrats, arguing that Democrats had pushed the state too far to the left and were out of touch with rural Virginians.

And, following Youngkin’s lead, Republican candidates sought to cajole centrist voters turned off by Trump back into their ranks, including energizing parents concerned about critical race theory or sexually explicit content in books used in schools.

They realized a number of notable gains, even as Democrats in many cases clobbered Republican candidates in fundraising.

In the Hampton Roads area, Del. Nancy D. Guy (D-Virginia Beach) lost narrowly to Republican Tim Anderson, a gun-shop owner and lawyer who activated Trump’s base with a law-and-order campaign coupled with provocative theatrics, such as taking a flamethrower to the Democratic policy agenda. Guy had raised more than $2 million — nearly three times as much as Anderson, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Nearby, Republican newcomer and cybersecurity professional A.C. Cordoza appeared on the brink of eking out a win over Del. Martha M. Mugler (D-Hampton), a longtime Hampton school board member, leading by 1.5 points with an estimated 99 percent of votes tallied.

In Fredericksburg, Del. Joshua G. Cole (D) was defeated by Republican Tara Durant, a private elementary school teacher who made education a focal point of her campaign after virtual learning set many students back during the pandemic — just one example of the success of GOP messaging on the issue.

Republican Mike Cherry, principal of a religious school, defeated Democrat Katie Sponsler, a former National Park Service ranger, in the race for the seat in Colonial Heights vacated by former GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox, who retired.

In two of the rural districts targeted by Republicans, Democratic incumbents Chris L. Hurst (Montgomery) and Roslyn C. Tyler (Sussex) lost to Republican challengers.

Tyler’s opponent, pharmacist Otto Wachsmann, sought to paint Tyler as out of touch with the district’s rural interests, citing Democrats’ leftward march. An ad by the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC warned that “radical liberal Chris Hurst, he’s even worse for your wallet than Washington,” describing him as too friendly to tax increases and apathetic about inflation. His Republican challenger, Jason Ballard, criticized Hurst for voting for major policing reforms that Ballard argued hurt police.

A third Democrat representing rural areas, Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-Clarke), in the Northern Virginia exurbs, was clinging to a narrow lead in the most expensive House race by far. Gooditis and her Republican opponent, Nicholas Clemente, were both the top fundraisers in their parties, with Gooditis pulling in more than $2.8 million — fueled by more than $1.8 million in total contributions from the House Democratic Caucus and the Democratic Party of Virginia — to Clemente’s $1.5 million, including $375,000 from the Republican Party of Virginia.

Gooditis — whose district is largely divided between rural, conservative-leaning areas in Frederick and Clarke counties and some left-leaning suburban areas in Loudoun County — had flipped the previously GOP-controlled district in 2017. But she noted recently that it had become more difficult to connect with conservative constituents amid a Republican messaging campaign that painted Democrats as radicals.

Still, a number of Democrats facing similar challenges in the suburban districts — Virginia’s prime political battleground — managed to fend off their GOP opponents in tight races.

Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a high school government teacher, defeated Republican opponent Christopher Holmes by about six percentage points. And Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) held off a spirited challenge from Harold Pyon, a retired federal employee focused on merit-based education and advocating for the area’s Asian American community.

In one race that remained too close to call, Del. Kelly K. Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) had just over a one-point lead against her Republican challenger.

Rozell said that in the event of a 50-50 split, he expected that Republicans would be forced to negotiate with Democrats to achieve any of Youngkin’s priorities. That could lead to gridlock — or less partisan legislation, he said.

“The Republicans have a chance to put together an effective governing coalition, not an entirely partisan one — if they can move a few Democrats in the House and the Senate on key issues,” Rozell said. “So it will be up to party leadership to focus on issues where they know they can pick up some Democratic votes, and they don’t need to pick up that many if they can hold their caucus together.”

Gilbert, the Republican leader in the House, said in his statement that the party would “look forward to immediately going to work with Governor-elect Youngkin and his administration to restore fiscal order, give parents the voice they deserve in education, and keep our Commonwealth safe. Our work begins now.”