Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Jeremy R. Engel is a junior political science major at UMW and a research associate at the center.
Nearly a year after his nine-point electoral victory, Virginia’s Democratic governor remains very popular. A new statewide survey conducted for the University of Mary Washington by SSRS, a national research firm, revealed that 55 percent of Virginians approved of Ralph Northam’s performance as governor, with 24 percent disapproving. That net job approval rating of 31 points is far above the comparable rating of 13 for former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who garnered 44 percent positive and 31 percent negative assessments in October 2014, a year into his term.
Virginia governors often struggle to pass landmark legislation during their time in office, but Northam’s first year featured the passage of his top-priority Medicaid expansion plan, an agreement that had eluded his predecessor. The new Mary Washington poll shows that the prospect of Medicaid expansion is more popular than ever, with 76 percent of Virginians supporting the policy and 18 percent opposed.
Key to Northam’s success were the huge Democratic electoral gains in the House of Delegates last year. McAuliffe endured roughly 2-to-1 Republican majorities in the lower chamber across his term. Northam had the good fortune to face a slim and nervous Republican majority of 51-to-49 in the House of Delegates, secured only after a random drawing for a tied district favored the Republican candidate. (The Senate, with its 21-to-19 Republican majority, always seemed likely to pass a Medicaid expansion bill if one emerged from the House.)
In terms of the legislature’s composition, the best for Northam may be yet to come. Besides the tiebreaker seat in the Hampton Roads region, a few other Republicans in the House of Delegates won only narrowly last year, and the second half of the governor’s term may feature the first Democratic majority in the House in about two decades.
The continuing hostility of suburban voters to President Trump could also spell doom for a few Republican incumbents in the narrowly divided Senate next year, when Virginians decide who will fill all 40 seats in the upper chamber. Republicans are unlikely to cast Northam as a partisan villain. Even in these combative times, only 14 percent of Democrats, 25 percent of independents and 35 percent of Republicans say they disapprove of the governor’s job performance.
If Democrats do win both chambers in Richmond next year, Northam will be the first Democratic governor in a quarter-century to have his party in full control of the legislature.
Republicans who want to keep their majorities next year need to figure out ways to connect better with suburban voters, who are more concerned about traffic, heath care and education than about Confederate monuments and immigration.
Even if 2019 is a good year for the Virginia GOP, the consequences may be short-lived. The results from the 2020 Census will require moving some legislative seats from rural counties to suburban areas, precisely where Republicans have been struggling in recent years. Winning the legislative elections of 2019 would allow Republicans to draw the lines for 2021, but those lines would have to be approved by Northam to take effect.
The past three Democratic governors of Virginia — McAuliffe and current Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner — would have loved to have had Northam’s trifecta of first-year legislative success, current political leverage and compelling future prospects.