Norman Leahy is a political reporter for RealClearInvestigations and and weekly commentator on WRVA radio.
After four years of legislative squabbling and brinkmanship, Virginia expanded its Medicaid program. This victory came from the most unlikely of sources: Senate Republicans, some of whom hail from some of the most pro-Trump areas in the commonwealth.
Conventional wisdom says the political fallout for the Gang of Four legislators who broke ranks — Sens. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta), A. Benton Chafin Jr. (Russell), Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier) and Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach) — will be severe, maybe fatal.
Hanger’s 24th District has long been a Republican bastion. Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie won 66 percent of the vote there in 2017, matching President Trump’s 2016 tally. Hanger was the leader, prime defender and main strategist for getting expansion through the GOP-controlled Senate.
Chafin, from the coal-dependent 38th District, was first elected in a 2014 special election that grew out of that year’s fight over Medicaid expansion. Trump won 75 percent of the vote there in 2016, two points better than Gillespie in 2017.
Vogel, the GOP’s 2017 lieutenant governor nominee, hails from the 27th District, which stretches across the state’s northwestern corner. Gillespie carried 60 percent of the vote there in 2017. Vogel did better, winning 63 percent on the statewide ticket. Trump won it with 61 percent in 2016.
These three Republicans appear to have a lot of explaining to do to the folks back home. Vogel has been savaged on her Facebook page for her vote, with people promising never to support her again.
But for Chafin and Hanger, the consequences may be muted.
Hanger got out in front of the expansion issue relatively early, telegraphing his support for the issue in a March constituent newsletter. Hanger praised “rural conservative legislators” in the House of Delegates for backing expansion in their version of the state budget.
Hanger reaffirmed his support in an April opinion piece in which he quoted Proverbs: “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do it.”
Hanger, then, has staked out the moral high ground against potential challengers. Not an invincible defense but perhaps just enough to work.
In 2014, Chafin criticized his opponent, Democrat Mike Hymes, for supporting Medicaid expansion, calling Hymes’s stance out of touch with their district’s principles.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Chafin said he changed his mind because “no just wasn’t the answer anymore” to his constituents’ needs.
But Chafin got something to bolster his change of heart: On May 18, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a bill sponsored by Chafin to establish tax credits for metallurgical coal production. This gives Chafin a lot of political cover back home.
Wagner, who sought the GOP’s 2017 gubernatorial nomination, joined Hanger in backing expansion in April. On Wednesday, he couched his support in terms of cost savings and helping every Virginian struggling with high insurance premiums.
But Wagner’s political situation differs from the others’ — and may be the most precarious. Northam won Wagner’s 7th District by nine percentage points in 2017. Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton essentially finished in a dead heat there.
Republicans are already rumored to be searching for a challenger to Wagner. Democrats, while they probably appreciate his vote, aren’t likely to give him much, if any, credit for it at the polls.
But Wagner did get roughly $2 million for Hampton University’s cancer research institute, part of a goodwill gesture to help ease negotiations between the university and the Virginia Department of Transportation over a parcel of university-owned land that may be needed to complete expansion of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.
Wagner said the project is vital to the commonwealth. It’s certainly important to his voters. Will it be enough for them to give him a pass on Medicaid expansion?
We’ll know in about six months, when the 2019 campaign season gets underway.