The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s governor and lieutenant governor should run as a team

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, left, and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg News; Steve Helber/AP)
5 min

Unlike a majority of states, Virginia elects its governors and lieutenant governors independently of one another. Although historically rooted in a desire to constrain the executive power in a state with a part-time legislature, having the chief executive and the second-in-command elected separately can produce dysfunctional governing dynamics.

Like Virginia’s nationally unique custom of prohibiting governors from running for reelection, the separate balloting for the commonwealth’s two top offices is a practice due for reform. The governor and lieutenant governor should run as a team.

Twenty-six states pick governors and lieutenant governors as a ticket, much as we elect presidents and vice presidents. It affords some advantages when a party’s gubernatorial candidate can choose a running mate, considering factors such as geographical and geopolitical balance, complementary skills and ideologies, and even personal chemistry.

With separate balloting, the potential exists for candidates from opposite political parties serving together in the state’s two top offices. That is the case now in three states that elect the two offices separately. In Louisiana and North Carolina, Republican lieutenant governors serve under Democratic governors. In Vermont, a Democratic lieutenant governor serves under a Republican governor.

North Carolina’s case is particularly revealing. Gov. Roy Cooper (D) constantly fights rear-guard actions against Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (R), a skillful political skirmisher. Cooper was considered the Democrats’ best shot at North Carolina’s open U.S. Senate seat last year, but he said he remained in place to block Robinson’s immediate ascent to the state’s top office.

Bitter rifts can develop even between independently elected governors and lieutenant governors of the same party, as Idaho starkly illustrates. In 2021, when Gov. Brad Little (R) left the state to visit the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas with other governors, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a Trump loyalist, tried to use interim authority granted to Idaho’s lieutenant governor in the governor’s absence to deploy the state’s National Guard to the border. Another time, when Little was outside Idaho, McGeachin sought to broaden one of Little’s executive orders and further restrict where “vaccine passports” could be required. McGeachin unsuccessfully challenged Little’s nomination for a second term last year.

In Virginia, voters have elected lieutenant governors to serve governors of a different party five times in the past 54 years. In four of those instances, Democratic lieutenant governors served under Republican governors, beginning with Lt. Gov. J. Sargeant Reynolds, who was elected alongside Linwood Holton, Virginia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, in 1969.

Reynolds died in office and was succeeded by populist independent Henry Howell, who won a special election in 1971. Democrat Chuck Robb was elected lieutenant governor in 1977 when Republican John Dalton was elected governor. Don Beyer, now a member of Congress, served his second term as lieutenant governor alongside Republican Gov. George Allen. Republican Bill Bolling, another two-term lieutenant governor, served his first term with Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine from 2006 to 2010.

Bolling, now my colleague at George Mason University, has no doubts about which system he believes is most effective. “I’ve always felt that the governor and lieutenant governor should run on the same ticket,” he said. “I think that would elevate the Office of Lieutenant Governor” and ensure “that the state’s top two elected officials have a meaningful working relationship.”

Kaine and Bolling had an amicable working relationship, at times a model for how bipartisanship should work. But Bolling’s access to the Democratic administration was notably limited, compared with what he might have had if he and Kaine had been a same-party team.

After Bolling won reelection in 2009, however, he became one of Virginia’s most consequential lieutenant governors, working closely with Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who designated him as the state’s “chief jobs creation officer,” tasked with economic growth and corporate expansions in the depths of a deep recession from 2010 to 2012.

“Frankly, right now, most lieutenant governors are an afterthought. The office is terribly underutilized,” Bolling said. “If the governor and lieutenant governor ran together, it would increase the lieutenant governor’s visibility and role.”

Indeed, as the office now stands, it is largely ceremonial. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate, occasionally breaking tie votes, and pays close attention to the well-being of the governor, whose death or removal from office would result in a significant and immediate promotion.

Besides avoiding conflict between the two offices, a closer, more collegial political bond would confer some advantages. By running as a team, the candidates could present voters a unified plan with clearly delineated duties. That would be a significant force multiplier for an administration with an ambitious agenda in the only state that does not allow governors to seek reelection.

What is the prospect for such a reform in Virginia? The legislature jealously guards its authority, and ceding a strategic advantage to the state’s executive branch admittedly is unlikely in the short term. But that is not a reason to forgo making steps toward reforming an antiquated practice.