The change was quick and, for most campaigns, utterly unexpected.
Freshmen Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger made the switch in a group op-ed published Monday in The Post. Another Virginia Democratic holdout, Rep. Don McEachin, has joined the impeachment bandwagon.
The lone undecided Democratic House member is the dean of the state’s congressional delegation: Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott.
As for Virginia’s Republican House members, this is President Trump’s party now. Anyone thinking of following the path blazed by the late M. Caldwell Butler in the Watergate hearings will be sprayed with Twitter invective and likely face a nomination challenge from MAGA-land.
It’s small potatoes compared to what Butler faced when the then-freshman member of the House Judiciary Committee publicly announced he would vote to impeach Richard Nixon:
Butler dealt with hate mail and bomb threats, but his stiffest opposition came from his mother, who wrote him that his future “will go down the drain if you do not stand with your party at this critical time.”
Before Virginia curls into a collective ball at that prospect, there are the political consequences of impeachment to consider.
Democrats seeking to take full control of the General Assembly for the first time since 1995 have long counted on some sort of “Trump bump” to help motivate their base.
How much of a bump is the great unanswered question. It will help drive turnout, which is paramount in an off-off year election.
Until now, it looked like Virginia Democrats might have to fight Republicans on kitchen table issues: education, taxes, schools, public safety. In other words, Democrats were inexorably heading toward a low-turnout election that would have given Republicans a stronger chance to hold the House of Delegates and a glimmer of a chance to retain the Senate.
The rapid shift in the U.S. House toward impeachment has changed that dynamic. Virginia’s General Assembly elections are now nationalized.
We’ve seen how these types of elections work before.
The 2009 gubernatorial race between Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell was seen as an early test of President Barack Obama’s popularity in Virginia, coming as it did just a year after Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry the state in the general election.
Deeds lost in a landslide, and down-ballot Virginia Democrats lost ground throughout the Obama years, even though Obama carried Virginia again in 2012.
Nationalization has worked for Democrats in the recent past, helping them cruise to a statewide sweep of the top three offices in 2017 and nearly taking control of the House of Delegates.
But impeachment’s effects are much harder to predict.
The only recent example we have for comparison is the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Voters weighed in soon after the GOP opened an impeachment inquiry into Clinton on Oct. 5, 1998. Republicans lost ground in the House nationally, but all of Virginia’s House incumbents were easily reelected. There was no impeachment bump either way.
In that year’s House of Delegates races, Republicans under Gov. Jim Gilmore’s guidance ran campaigns that generally shied away from the bruising national issues, particularly any mention of impeachment.
But that victory was the culmination of a years-long process. Did nationalized elections play a role along the way? Absolutely. But impeachment’s effects were muted even a year later. Virginia had moved on.
This time, however, the electoral calendar is flipped. General Assembly candidates will ride the impeachment wave before their congressional counterparts. Will Virginia’s results mirror those of the 1998 or the 1999 contest?