The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Did Virginia’s Democrats misread their mandate with a boldly progressive agenda?

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) talks to the media at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Nov. 6, 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Mark J. Rozell is the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, where he holds the Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy. He is co-author of “The South and the Transformation of U.S. Politics.”

Virginia is preparing for an election this fall that will serve as a barometer in more ways than one.

Two states — Virginia and New Jersey — elect governors the year after a presidential race. Pundits and politicos always eagerly dissect those results for the first omens about the midterm congressional elections one year later, and even the next presidential race three years down the road.

But Virginia’s race this November will yield a telling result for Democrats on a critical question: Did they misread their mandate by enacting an audaciously progressive agenda in the two years since they won full legislative control of the commonwealth?

These Democrats promised change if voters gave them House of Delegates and state Senate majorities in the 2019 elections. They wasted no time delivering on it after their victories.

In the past two years, Democrats repealed decades of restrictions Republicans had imposed on voting during their 20 years of legislative dominance. Among them was an end to the requirement that voters bring photo identification with them to the polls and eliminating the need to cite a specific excuse to vote absentee, a step taken weeks before the coronavirus pandemic prompted other states to follow suit. They decriminalized marijuana possession in 2020 and this year legalized its eventual recreational use. They enacted a slew of civil rights protections for LGBTQ Virginians. They repealed the death penalty in Virginia, a state that once ranked only behind Texas in the number of inmates executed annually.

New laws that compel background checks for any firearm purchase and a “red flag” statute that gives authorities a way to remove firearms from people judged dangerous to themselves or others sent rural Virginia into a frenzy of defiance. Sheriffs and local governments adopted legally meaningless resolutions proclaiming themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” where the new state gun laws would not be enforced.

It was a leftward lurch unprecedented in more than 400 years of always cautious, predominantly conservative Virginia governance. Was it too much too soon? Did Democrats misread their 2019 mandate? Virginia voters will decide that on Nov. 2.

Clearly, Virginia’s political complexion has changed from fire-engine red at the turn of the 21st century, when Republicans took control of every statewide office and institution of government in Virginia, to azure blue over the past few years.

A dozen years have passed since a Republican last won a statewide election. The GOP’s once overwhelming numerical superiority in the General Assembly eroded over the past decade, even in districts the GOP engineered in 2011 to perpetuate their dominance. Besides state legislative majorities, Democrats hold the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of its 11 U.S. House seats.

Democrats have benefited from decades of changing demographics that tilted the state from mostly rural to predominantly urban/suburban. Sprawling bedroom communities surrounding D.C., Hampton Roads and Richmond attracted college-educated, affluent people who moved here for well-paying white-collar jobs, and they’ve consistently rejected strident social conservatism and particularly former president Donald Trump’s pugnacious nationalism.

This key bloc of voters is clearly averse to extreme policy, in this case veering too far to the right for them. These are cautious voters who reward moderation and pragmatism.

From the 2021 elections, we will learn whether this decisive suburban vote is as averse to undiluted liberalism as it has been to conservative legislation that came on too strong.

The wild card, however, may be the cultural and social issues that consume so much of today’s public discourse. Election data show Virginia’s suburban voters repeatedly rejected Trump and his anti-immigrant policies, his empowerment of white nationalist groups and his often crude and demeaning style. They took it out on Republicans in every election in Trump’s term, allowing Democrats to gain ground each year.

Trump is gone, but a proxy who calls herself “Trump in heels,” state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield), is one of seven Republicans seeking the gubernatorial nomination. The field also includes former House of Delegates speaker Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights) and wealthy businessmen Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder.

Democrats now hold power thanks to narrow legislative majorities won in 2019 and, for the first time in a generation, will have to defend what they’ve done to keep it.

Read more:

Brad Komar: What the Virginia elections will tell us about the Biden presidency

Mark J. Rozell: Virginia Democrats may be overlooking a valuable asset in Donald Trump

Norman Leahy: It’s Opening Day for Virginia’s political season

Norman Leahy: The Virginia GOP is blowing it

Peter Galuszka: The disturbing ‘Second Amendment sanctuary’ trend in Virginia