Gaby Goldstein is co-founder and political director of the Sister District Project.
As we get closer to 2020, a lot of air in the political room is being sucked up by the presidential race. But it’s important that we not forget that the entire state legislature is up for reelection in Virginia this year, with important consequences for the entire country.
Both chambers are on the verge of tipping blue. Democrats made incredible gains in the House in 2017, thanks to a coalition effort that was able to harness anti-Trump sentiment and resources in a gubernatorial year. And Virginia flipped three additional congressional seats blue in 2018.
But it will be a hard road to get to that finish line in November and deliver a blue trifecta to Democrats. Anyone who thinks that flipping Virginia blue this year will be a walk-through is dead wrong. Here’s why:
1. Most flippable House seats were flipped in 2017.
The state Senate hasn’t been up since 2015, so there are still a few Senate districts that are quite favorable for Democrats in the post-Trump era. However, it’s a different story for the House of Delegates. In 2017, Democrats picked up a nearly unfathomable 15 seats in the lower chamber. Politicos thought perhaps Democrats might capture five seats, but there was a gigantic blue wave, carried forward by a coalition of grass-roots activists and progressive organizations from across the country, including the Sister District Project. In 2019, Democrats must face the reality that nearly all of the likely flippable seats, and even many seats that were reaches, are already blue. Many districts that are top targets this year were not even thought to be in play in 2017. This means, by and large, the districts to flip this year are much harder on the numbers than the 2017 targets were.
2. There is no top of the ticket.
It would be one thing if Democrats were facing a harder field of targets but could expect the sort of historic turnout experienced in 2017. That’s not going to be the case in 2019. This is, in part, because those historic gains in 2017 were buoyed by a winning gubernatorial campaign, with significant resources and coordinated turnout efforts coming from the governor’s race. Turnout is always lower in off years. There is little doubt that turnout in 2017 was higher than it will be this year because there is no top of the ticket (presidential or gubernatorial) this year.
3. Energy and resources are different from 2017.
The 2017 Virginia House of Delegates races were some of the first chamber-wide electoral contests following President Trump’s election. In turn, folks were fired up to lend a hand. Volunteers and organizations were motivated and energized. There was nothing much else going on electorally, and it was years away from the next presidential race.
Such is not the case in 2019. Many organizations and volunteers are hard at work on other races this year. With so many Democrats running for president, volunteer, staffing and organizational resources are already becoming stretched. Throw in next year’s congressional and governor’s races, and energy for Virginia’s state legislative races is diluted.
Another factor in Virginia is scandals that have rocked the executive team.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) shocked the commonwealth when a blackface photograph from his medical school yearbook page surfaced. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) seemed poised to transition into the governor’s seat until two women came forward to accuse him of sexual assault. The third in line for the governor’s seat, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), proactively admitted to wearing blackface as a teenager. None of the men resigned, despite calls to do so from numerous elected officials, organizations and citizens groups.
Though these scandals may not sour Virginia’s voters on down-ballot Democrats, it does make fundraising harder. Typically, governors provide legislative caucuses and candidates with certain financial and infrastructural resources, even in non-gubernatorial years. Recent fundraising reports demonstrate clearly that Northam is having trouble fundraising this year, and it’s likely he will will be a lukewarm commodity for down-ballot campaigning. While former governor Terry McAuliffe’s decision to focus on Virginia elections this year rather than run for president may provide a welcome boost, it’s clear that Democratic legislative candidates will need to do more with less this year, and do more for themselves, in terms of human and financial resources.
4. Republicans are not asleep this year.
Republicans were caught a bit off guard in 2017. The blue wave was much bigger than anyone, including Republicans, expected. But they are not asleep at the wheel this year. The party and candidates have gone on a fundraising blitz, raising tons of money off the executive scandals and Democratic positions on issues including reproductive choice. Republicans know that Democrats are eager to flip the legislature this year, and their eyes are open. Democrats will not have the element of surprise in 2019. This will make fundraising and field efforts harder and more important than ever.
5. The House of Delegates maps might be jettisoned.
After a federal court found that 11 lower-chamber districts were illegally racially gerrymandered by Republicans, new maps were drawn. These new maps are more favorable to Democrats. But Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. It is possible the Supreme Court may rule against the lower court, invalidating the new maps. If so, Democrats will have an even tougher time flipping that lower chamber to blue this year.
Make no mistake: Flipping Virginia blue in 2019 absolutely can be done. But winning will take a lot of money, focus, energy and strategy. This year, it’s an uphill battle.