This post has been updated with the latest news.
In the end, a blind drawing out of a ceramic bowl decided the balance of power in Virginia's House of Delegates.
It will stay Republican, as it has for nearly two decades, after Republican David Yancey's name was drawn as the winner for a long-contested House district. A few weeks earlier, a recount had declared Democrat Shelly Simonds the winner, effectively splitting control of the chamber 50-50. Democrats have not ruled out challenging the result, so this seat (and the balance of power) may not officially be decided for a while.
But even if Democrats didn't officially climb back from a 2-to-1 deficit to nearly take the majority in the House of Delegates, add this dramatic race to the growing pile of evidence that Democrats are positioned to put a dent in Republicans' control of government in 2018 at all levels.
"It remains remarkable that Virginia House Republicans are scrambling to hold onto a one-seat majority after blowing their 66-34 majority in the chamber last fall," said Carolyn Fiddler, a statehouse analyst with liberal political blog Daily Kos.
Democrats have flipped 34 contested statehouse seats since Donald Trump was elected president. Some of those seats — such as those in Oklahoma, New Hampshire and Iowa — represent districts that had voted for Trump by double digits in November 2016. (By comparison, Republicans have flipped four statehouse seats this year.)
At the congressional level, Democrats won their first U.S. Senate seat in Alabama in nearly three decades, giving Democrats an opening to control that chamber next year. And recent polling shows that voters are inclined to choose a nameless Democrat over a Republican for Congress by a 16-point margin.
That most of their success has happened in Virginia is notable. Virginia, perhaps more than any other state, reflects the national mood after a presidential contest. Its state elections are held the year immediately following a presidential election, so it's the first chance that voters have to chime in on the party in power in Washington.
With a historically unpopular president, Virginia voters let Democrats keep the governors mansion and now have nearly given them control of the state House. (Caveat: There is one outstanding race that could swing power back to Republicans by a seat.)
“If we see this type of wholesale Republican rejection, the GOP majority is in deep trouble,” Democratic operative Jesse Ferguson, who was a political operative in Virginia, said after the recount.
Virginia suggests that other previously out-of-reach statehouses could be in play next year, said Jessica Post, director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Democrats already have calculated that they are only 13 wins away from flipping seven state legislative chambers next year.
“It means we can make double-digit gains in a number of chambers,” Post told The Fix days before this recount finished.
Statehouse elections have been won and lost literally by the flip of a coin before. But the way it came together in Virginia is unprecedented, said Tim Storey of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “One vote decides control of the Virginia House. There's no precedent for that,” he said.
Now here's the bad news for Democrats: Winning seven more chambers still wouldn't give Democrats control of state governments across the country It would make only a small dent.
Republicans control 67 of 99 legislative chambers. In 26 states, Republicans control the entire government (the state legislature and the governor's mansion).
Democrats are fighting for their political lives. Republicans seized control of a number of state legislatures ahead of redistricting in 2011, taking more than 900 state legislative seats in the Obama era. Some of those historic gains were ultimately going to swing back to a more sustainable center of power.
Republicans don't see any evidence of a Democratic wave. Earlier this month, Democrats lost a seat in Massachusetts in a district that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and the seat Democrats won Tuesday represents a district that had voted for Clinton, said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “What they've been able to do is to crawl back to neutral in a blue state,” he said.
Democrats also haven't settled on a playbook for how to take back those chambers, struggling instead with how to balance the rush of attention from national groups that suddenly want to play in this field.
But if Democrats don't win back some seats, redistricting in 2020 could lock them out of power in a number of states and the House for a generation.
Whatever happens in this dramatic state House race, the fact that Democrats did so well in Virginia's elections portends more victories next year. But they have a long way to go to get to parity with the Republicans.