With the abrasive Manhattanite in the White House, Democrats in Virginia made gains every November, whether it was gubernatorial elections, state legislative seats in 2019 or U.S. House and Senate seats in 2018 and again last fall, Virginia Democrats have found an easy boogeyman to help them win with unbeatable margins in Virginia’s suburbs and cities, particularly in D.C.’s vast bedroom communities.
Those margins more than offset any advantages Republicans could muster in rural Virginia. The last statewide GOP victory was in 2009.
Virginia’s gubernatorial election this fall puts the commonwealth in a familiar role as an early electoral barometer of the national mood. With Trump now out of office, however, Virginia’s Democrats, who have taken control of every elective branch of state government and seven of Virginia’s 11 U.S. House seats under Trump’s watch, may not have him as a convenient villain.
No state is as quickly or deeply impacted by Washington and the administration in charge as its neighbor across the Potomac. The economic fortunes of the suburbs as far west as Loudoun County and as far south as the Rappahannock and beyond are tied to the federal payroll and the massive corps of federal government contractors. Hampton Roads is also a major stakeholder as home to the world’s largest U.S. Navy base, a NASA research center and a major supplier of vessels for the Navy fleet.
Virginians, particularly in those regions, live according to the familiar rhythms and established norms of the federal system, and they do not appreciate disrupters, from the right or from the left. Trump was easily the most disruptive president in modern American history, and the mayhem he set in motion in his final weeks will continue even though he has retreated to Mar-a-Lago.
In Trump’s first year in office — marred by the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — he so stained the GOP brand in Virginia that in the 2017 race for governor, Republican Ed Gillespie, who nearly unseated popular Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner in 2014, lost badly to Democrat Ralph Northam, then a lieutenant governor not nearly as politically formidable as Warner.
A year later, Democrats unseated three Republican U.S. House members. Sen. Tim Kaine, the unsuccessful Democratic vice-presidential candidate two years earlier, also swamped Republican firebrand and Trump loyalist Corey A. Stewart. In 2019, Democrats won back the House of Delegates majority that they had lost to the GOP in 1999 and claimed the Senate as well. In November, the Democrats held their congressional delegation numbers, elected Warner to a third consecutive Senate term and handily gave Joe Biden the state’s 13 electoral votes.
Now, as a Democratic president exhausts a short honeymoon, Virginia ramps up its off-year governor’s race and a crowded field of diverse Democratic contenders go after one another for the nomination. The survivor could face a Republican unstained by Trump, a conservative such as former House speaker Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights) or businessman Pete Snyder. Both would be highly marketable to suburban Virginians and might find voters ready to give the GOP a try after eight years of Democratic governors and a coronavirus vaccine distribution that has floundered badly.
But Trump and Trumpism could still influence Virginia’s fall election.
The violent U.S. Capitol insurrection attempt by a pro-Trump mob will likely poison Trump’s legacy in the minds of all but his most ardent devotees for years. A divisive Trump loyalist, state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield), is a declared Republican gubernatorial candidate. After repeatedly asserting baseless claims that the election was stolen from Trump and commending Trump’s followers who violently stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she was denounced by fellow senators of both parties before being censured by the chamber. However, the rarely used formal Senate rebuke may actually endear her to a bloc of Trump voters, and that could be decisive in a GOP nomination battle. Should she become the nominee, Democrats again will be the beneficiaries of a viscerally polarizing president, even after he’s gone.
For those who aren’t burned out on dark political drama after the past year, keep an eye on Virginia for the next several months.