Democrats gained control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly on Tuesday, tapping strength in the suburbs to consolidate power for the first time in a generation and deliver a rebuke to President Trump.
Officials reported unusually high turnout in an election that served as an opening salvo in next year’s presidential showdown, a test of Democratic defiance and Republican resolve in the era of Trump.
The sweep completed a dramatic political conversion, from red to blue, of a Southern state on Washington’s doorstep.
Both of Virginia’s U.S. senators, a majority of its congressional delegation and all three statewide officeholders are Democrats. The state was carried by Democrats in the past three presidential elections. Republicans have not won a statewide contest since 2009.
And the last Republican in the Northern Virginia delegation, Del. Tim Hugo, lost to Democrat Dan Helmer.
National Democratic organizations and interest groups — promoting such issues as gun control, women’s rights and clean energy — carpeted the state with money, boosting suburban legislative races to the spending level of congressional elections.
The result enables another remarkable rebirth: Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, just nine months after nearly resigning over a blackface scandal, stands poised to be one of the most consequential Virginia governors in recent times.
The new Democratic majority is younger, more diverse and more liberal than Virginia Democrats of the past. Northam promised to work with them to enact gun-control measures, protect LGBTQ rights and fight climate change.
“Virginia is officially blue!” Northam said to wild cheers at a celebration with other Democrats in Richmond.
Republicans, who when Trump was elected had a seemingly insurmountable majority in the House of Delegates, lost footholds in several suburban districts. They struggled to separate themselves from the unpopular president and to take moderate positions on gun control and a Medicaid expansion after years of voting against them in the General Assembly.
“They’re not only losing Virginia, they’re losing America,” said former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D), calling Republicans out of step on mainstream issues.
“I think Donald Trump was humiliated tonight,” he told reporters. “Trump wasn’t on the ballot this year. However, his polices, his lunacy was on the ballot, and I think it energized Democrats.”
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) won an expensive race against Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman but will have to relinquish the leadership position after only two years. At a gathering in his hometown, Cox thanked supporters, took selfies and accepted hugs, but avoided answering questions from reporters about losing the majority.
“Not right now,” he said, and soon left the party through a back door.
Cox later issued a measured statement pledging to work with Democrats “where we can” and to block them from overreaching. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who also won reelection, released a harsher statement, warning of Democrats’ “extreme agenda” and promising to “fight it at every turn.”
One powerful Republican who did not win reelection was Del. Chris Jones (Suffolk), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Jones lost to Democrat Clinton Jenkins in a district that was redrawn this year under a federal court order aimed at correcting racial gerrymandering.
The GOP was defending thin majorities of 20 to 19 in the state Senate and 51 to 48 in the House of Delegates, with one vacancy in each chamber. All 140 seats in the legislature were on the ballot, but all the heat was on suburban districts in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, where voters could swing either way.
Democrats promise a new Virginia if they take control of the legislature. And that’s exactly what worries Republicans.
Many Republican voters said they dreaded the idea of consolidated Democratic control. That’s why John Grimsley, 78, rolled out of bed in Fairfax County earlier than usual Tuesday, skipped breakfast and headed to the Clifton Community Center in Fairfax to vote for Hugo, the lone Republican state lawmaker from Northern Virginia.
Grimsley, a retired moving services worker who served in the Air Force, said he couldn’t stomach what he called liberals’ dangerous ideas. “I’ve got 12 signs in my yard: one for every Republican I’m voting for today,” he said.
At the same polling place, David Shonka, a 78-year-old lawyer and lifelong Democrat, said he was voting a straight Democratic ticket to protest the behavior of Trump and the GOP.
“It really begins at the top, then it flows into the Senate, then it flows into the House, and then, yes, to issues at a more local level,” said Shonka, who cast a ballot for Helmer. “The Republicans have lost the right to govern.”
The X Factor was turnout, which is typically less than 30 percent of registered voters in an off-off election year. Reports throughout the day suggested that voters were showing up in robust numbers in some of the all-important suburban districts.
Mike DeBord, 41, a designer at Newport News Shipbuilding who recently moved to Chesterfield from rural Surry County, said he voted for Democrats for the first time Tuesday. He was swayed by concerns about the need for gun control and access to abortions.
“I feel that a woman should have a choice with what she wants to do with her body regardless,” he said. “I don’t think the government should have that much say in how we have our health care in general.”
Several key races played out in the Richmond suburbs, where Democrat Ghazala Hashmi defeated Republican Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant Jr. to become the first Muslim woman elected to the General Assembly.
That win, along with the victory of Del. John J. Bell for the Loudoun County Senate seat long held by Republican Richard H. Black, who retired, gave the Democrats their Senate majority.
In the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Trump’s shadow appeared to loom large. McLean resident Richard Stark, 71, who is retired, said he voted straight Democratic because he thinks the Republican Party has “abandoned the principles for which it stood when I was growing up.”
Stark, who described himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, said he thinks changes in the national GOP have trickled down to the local level.
At Battlefield High School in Haymarket, the effort by Democrats in Congress to impeach Trump motivated some Republican voters to cast their ballots for Loudoun County Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) against Bell for the Senate seat.
James Ness, 72, said he felt a need to send a message to Democrats in Virginia that the party has gone too far in its efforts to oust Trump, saying they’re trying to nullify the 2016 election.
“If that’s the attitude those people have, they can find someplace else to live,” he said. “A lot of people died for our right to pull that lever and vote.”
Gun policy dominated the election cycle after a May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach, where a gunman killed 12. A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found it to be the top issue among Virginia voters, and national gun-control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety poured enormous resources into state campaigns to test messages ahead of next year’s national races.
Northam called a special session of the General Assembly in July to take up gun-control measures, but the Republicans in charge adjourned after only 90 minutes without debating any bills. That outcome was a hot topic in Virginia Beach, where a cluster of close races stood to have a major impact on who would hold majorities in the legislature.
Democrat Missy Cotter Smasal ran hard on the topic in a solidly Republican district against GOP Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr., a licensed gun dealer. DeSteph appeared to edge her out.
Susan and George Okaty are both gun owners but said they voted for Cotter Smasal because of her stand on the environment and guns. “She’s willing to talk about gun control and not give lip service,” said George Okaty, 69, a retired security director for a community college and former police chief at Trinity University in Texas.
He said DeSteph represents a part of the Republican Party that is not willing to discuss gun issues, even after the Virginia Beach shooting. “That is an insult to the people of Virginia Beach, and DeSteph is part of that insult,” Okaty said. “It’s not an emotional issue. Let’s look at the facts.”
Gun policy gets its biggest political test in the Virginia Beach district that suffered mass shooting
Rhianna Lawson, 25, a graduate student in speech pathology at Old Dominion University, also voted for Cotter Smasal because she wants stronger gun control. “I think gun violence is really important to the younger generation,” said Lawson, who spoke in the rain at the Norfolk Christian Lower School on Laskin Road in Virginia Beach.
But at the same polling place, Gregory Jepson, a 48-year-old Defense Department employee, cast his vote for DeSteph because it’s “a brand name around here.”
He said Cotter Smasal made herself “the worst candidate” with ads that included the Virginia Beach mass shooting. “Her take was over the top,” he said.
Although he said gun policy wasn’t a deciding factor, Jepson added: “I do own a gun. But I’m not pro-pro-I-need-all-the-guns-in-the-world. I’m a Second Amendment fan. Don’t take my stuff away.”
For Spencer Brown, a retired State Department employee who voted at Buckland Mills Elementary in Gainesville, gun control was also a top issue — but he wants to see military-style weapons removed from the streets. “We want more than record checks,” said Brown, a political independent who said he’s voted mostly for Democrats in recent years. “We want the legislature to convene for more than 90 minutes.”
In Hampton Roads, the most-watched race was a rerun: Del. David E. Yancey (R-Newport News) faced Democrat Shelly Simonds two years after their 2017 contest resulted in a tie, which was decided by a random drawing on live national television. This time Simonds won decisively, in a district that was also redrawn under court order.
John Calver, 74, a retired director of trades training at Thomas Nelson Community College, is friends with both Yancey and Simonds. But at the Warwick Moose Lodge, he cast a ballot for Simonds, largely because of gun policy and health care.
“The Virginia Beach issue this year really did put an emphasis on how people don’t want to be,” he said. “After that, they did not want to be in the position where they feared for their lives or feared for their kids’ lives.”
He described Simonds as new blood and said he wanted to see more cohesion in Richmond.
“We need to find a way to enable everyone to feel as though they’re represented, even though the result may not be what they wanted at the end of the day,” he said.
Hannah Natanson, Rachel Chason, Jim Morrison, Jenna Portnoy, Meryl Kornfield, Antonio Olivo, Patricia Sullivan and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.