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Balance of power

Control of the General Assembly is at stake in pivotal fall election

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Print this page by Bob Gibson

Photos by Caroline Martin and Shandell Taylor

Three years ago, Sheila Bynum-Coleman’s then-19-year-old daughter was at a club in South Richmond when gunshots rang out. As she fled to her car, a bullet ripped through her shoulder and grazed her chin.

“I don’t think you will ever get over the emotional scars of being shot, but she definitely physically has healed,” the 47-year-old mother of five says of her second-oldest daughter, who was not an intended target of the shooting.

A Democrat from Chesterfield County who has unsuccessfully run for the House of Delegates twice before, Bynum-Coleman is one of a record number of women — 65 Democrats, 20 Republicans and four independents — running for the General Assembly in a pivotal Nov. 5 election when all 100 House seats and all 40 Senate seats will be on the ballot.

In any other election year, Bynum-Coleman’s race against GOP Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, might be viewed as quixotic. Instead, Cox finds himself in what political observers say is his closest contest in decades, thanks to a June federal court decision that redrew the boundaries of 25 legislative districts to correct what judges ruled was racial gerrymandering.

Cox’s newly redrawn 66th District, which includes Colonial Heights and Chesterfield, now leans Democratic, a 32-point shift from its previous position as a Republican stronghold, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). A 62-year-old retired high school government teacher and father of four who has held his seat since 1989, Cox was knocking on 50 to 55 doors per day in his district this summer.

“I’ve been running full speed in my new district. I have about 30,000 new voters, but I’ve gotten a good reception. We’ve tried to be very responsive,” says Cox, adding that his constituents are most concerned about “business and K-12 education and health care.”

After redistricting, “the speaker’s district has moved from being a completely safe district ... to a toss-up,” wrote Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of Christopher Newport University’s Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy, in a September election preview report.

In July and August, Cox brought in $390,453 in donations, compared to $330,347 raised by his opponent, Bynum-Coleman. However, Cox’s war chest of $590,172 dwarfed Bynum-Coleman’s $341,463.

By the end of August, Cox had already produced two television ads, including one spot that prominently features an African American supporter saying that Cox is “definitely one of us.” (In redistricting, Cox’s district went from 18% to 34% African American.) His other ad focuses on his 14 years as a youth baseball coach. By contrast, Bynum-Coleman debuted one TV ad in early September. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the ad, titled “Kirk Cox Sold Out,” incorrectly states that Cox voted against teacher raises — confusing him with former Del. John Cox, R-Hanover, who did.)

Cox isn’t the only high-profile politician campaigning for his political life this election season. After the redistricting, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has seen his 76th District shift by more than 27 points to become even more Democratic-leaning than Cox’s district.

With Republicans holding slim majorities of 51 to 48 in the House and 20 to 19 in the Senate, political observers say Democrats have their best chance to gain full control of state government for the first time since 1993.

Normally, Virginia’s off-year legislative elections “make barely a ripple on the sea of political news coverage,” says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. However, “this year is an exception because both houses are so evenly divided and no other [state] legislatures up [for election] this year are in a position to flip party control.”

‘Watershed moment’
A mid-August poll of Virginia voters conducted by Roanoke College found that voters were more inclined to vote for Democrats. Of the 556 likely voters polled statewide, 36% would support Democrats for the Senate as opposed to 31% for Republicans. Likewise, 38% of respondents said they intended to vote for Democrats for the House, with 30% supporting Republicans.

House Democrats outraised their rivals this election, with $8.6 million on hand, versus $7.7 million for the GOP. In the Senate, however, Republicans held $5.3 million, compared to the Democrats’ $5 million.

If Democrats gain control of the House of Delegates, Virginia also is likely to have its first female Speaker of the House: Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax County, the current House minority leader.

Additionally, the first Democratic House majority in more than 20 years “would give unprecedented influence to Northern Virginia,” which boasts the largest concentration of Democrats in the General Assembly, says Steve Farns­worth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“The election will be decided on party and issues, but having a majority of women candidates — a first for either party in Virginia — is a plus for Democrats,” Sabato says. 

A record number of women, 12, were elected to the House of Delegates in 2017. The even larger number of women running for state office this year demonstrates how they are reshaping the political and business landscape, says Deirdre Condit, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“In terms of women, the 2017 election in Virginia was like the watershed moment for the country,” Condit says.

This fall’s elections will also determine which party has more say in drawing boundary lines in the 2021 redistricting, granting the majority party the power to shape General Assembly and congressional districts for the next decade.

No ‘dead men walking’
Quentin Kidd, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University, says Democrats appear to have momentum and an edge in taking majorities in both chambers, especially the Virginia Senate, where two retiring GOP senators live in districts vulnerable to Democratic takeover.

However, “I would not call Kirk Cox or Chris Jones dead men walking,” Kidd adds, noting that both are well-known, popular political leaders with long track records of service in their communities.

Voter turnout will be key to tipping the General Assembly’s balance of power, notes Bob Holsworth, a Richmond political consultant who formerly headed Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Low-turnout years usually favor Republicans, he says, but polling and other data show voter enthusiasm on the rise.

New-voter registrations soared in the first half of this year, as 111,487 Virginians added their names to the rolls — a 67% jump over voter registrations during the same time period in 2015, the last time all 140 General Assembly seats were up for election, according to VPAP.

In 2017 and 2018, 10% higher-than-normal voter turnout helped Democrats make large gains, Holsworth says. “The Democrats have been a little more energized. Their advantage in this election is that the redistricting decision by the Supreme Court gives them an opportunity to take a number of seats, but at the same time having to protect all these new seats represents an opportunity for the Republicans.”

Republicans insist they will win back some of the 15 seats Democrats captured in 2017, with Cox pointing out that the party reached out this year to recruit a strong and more diverse class of GOP House hopefuls, including 14 women and two African American candidates.

But with a few months to go before presidential primaries kick off, it’s unclear whether the “Trump factor” that contributed to the 2017 blue tide may still cloud this year’s contests.

“The question is whether you have the same kind of driving force today that you had two years ago” in opposition to President Trump, Sabato says. “While we will never know for sure, my bet is that a sizable majority of the new registrants plan to vote Democratic. Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Business as usual?
An atmosphere of uncertainty also surrounds business issues this election season. The parties are clashing over a host of issues — from the minimum wage, Virginia’s right-to-work law and green energy to health-care spending, gun control, marijuana legalization and possible utility deregulation.

Businesses dislike uncertainty, notes Myles Louria, senior director of governmental affairs for Hunton Andrews Kurth, the state’s second-largest law firm. “You want a predictable environment,” Louria says. “The only thing you can be sure of is it’s going to be a rocky road regardless of who wins control.”

Democratic Party dominance in many of the state’s large urban and suburban localities has pushed the party leftward philosophically. Gaining a majority in the legislature could boost support for a higher minimum wage and more spending on education, Medicaid and urban transportation priorities such as rail and mass transit, political scientists agree.

Former GOP Del. Chris Saxman, now executive director of the pro-business nonprofit Virginia Free, says Republicans were smart to nominate more women and African Americans in moderate suburban districts this year. He also notes that Democrats may be hampered by a growing internal schism between moderates and progressives that nearly resulted in a June primary defeat for Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw.

The election of more progressive Democrats would result in policy debates the Virginia General Assembly has not seen in recent years, Condit says, especially if the party gains control of both legislative chambers. “I would not be surprised if the Democrats go after right-to-work legislation,” she says.

In the House, traditionally moderate Democrats have been supportive of business interests, notes Holsworth. “What’s emerging inside of the Democratic Party is kind of a tension between that pro-business wing and a more progressive wing that wants to be more aggressive on issues of social justice and the environment.

“The Republicans are basically claiming that if the Democrats win, AOC [U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York] is going to be running Virginia,” enacting socialist-style agendas for health care, the environment, the minimum wage and right-to-work laws, Holsworth says.

Gun-control legislation certainly would fare better with a Democratic majority, he says. However, utility deregulation probably would be derailed or delayed, despite having more support from an alliance of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Minimum wage, maximum debate
In fact, even if the Democrats gained majority control of the Assembly, Holsworth doesn’t foresee any drastic changes ahead. That’s largely due to the moderating influence of Gov. Ralph Northam, who appears to have largely weathered a blackface scandal that drew national news coverage and calls for his resignation.

“I think Governor Northam is in sort of the traditional mode, very proud to have Virginia be the No. 1 state for business,” Holsworth adds, referring to Virginia regaining its position this year at the apex of CNBC’s annual Top States for Business report.

Bill Shobe, an economist who directs U.Va.’s Center for Economic Policy Studies, says some form of minimum wage increase probably would emerge from Democratic control. “Something like a $15 minimum wage seems to be picking up steam in a lot of places,” Shobe says.

Nonetheless, outlining the GOP’s position, House Speaker Cox says a $15-an-hour minimum wage would “really hurt both getting businesses to stay in Virginia and businesses to come to Virginia.” Such a high minimum wage would also hurt workers, he says, by cutting the numbers of available jobs and encouraging businesses to automate.

Former Del. Paul Harris, senior vice president at Hampton University and the first black Republican to win a House seat in 100 years when he won election in 1997, predicts Democrats would encounter difficulty pushing an aggressively progressive agenda.

“I don’t see the $15 minimum wage passing. Certainly, free college tuition, I don’t see that going anywhere,” says Harris, who works on education and economic development issues with Hampton Roads business leaders. “You know Virginia doesn’t move as swiftly in one direction or the other as other states are prone to do.”

Democrat Sally Hudson, an economist who’s running unopposed for a House seat from Charlottesville, says that she and fellow progressives will mount efforts to ensure that Virginia’s healthy business climate is shared with its workforce through a higher minimum wage, as well as legislation empowering unions and protecting workers’ bargaining rights.

“I think it’s important that the top state for business is also good for workers,” says Hudson, who has taught public policy at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy the past two years.

Hudson says she will also be one of many advocates for a more friendly regulatory environment for solar and wind energy production.

Powder keg issues
Each party is stressing different themes as candidates meet voters, going door to door in battleground suburban districts. 

Addressing gender equality issues, chipping away at restrictions on abortion, passing the Equal Rights Amendment and responding to climate change are issues that Democratic majorities would consider high priorities, political analysts agree.

Republican majorities, on the other hand, would continue to support freezing college tuition, regulatory reform measures and policies designed to maintain the state’s ranking as the top state in which to do business.

Guns are likely to be a divisive factor in the election as well, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety gun control group pledging to spend $2.5 million in support of state and local candidates in Virginia this fall. In early September, the nonprofit’s political action arm donated $438,000 to Democratic groups and candidates for the General Assembly elections.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association donated a record $200,000 in early September to a PAC for Republican House candidates run by House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock. The largest one-time contribution ever made to a Virginia political action fund, according to VPAP, it amounts to about 20% of the $1.08 million that the gun-rights organization has donated in all Virginia races since 1996.

Gun safety is one motivating factor for Democratic candidate Bynum-Coleman, who calls herself  “a mom on a mission,” running on issues including equal rights for women, education, criminal justice reform and health care.  She has run twice for a Hopewell-based House seat before, losing a 2017 race to veteran Republican Del. Riley Ingram by 819 votes.

As she tries to knock on 1,000 doors a week, Bynum-Coleman, a real estate agent, says the voters she encounters mostly care about “issues that have impacted their lives,” like gun safety. “Every person I’ve talked to, Republican or Democrat, agrees with universal background checks.”

She charges that her opponent, Cox, and General Assembly Republicans should have acted on gun safety bills this summer, instead of putting the issue off until after the Nov. 5 elections.

Cox adjourned a July special legislative session on gun safety proposals after 90 minutes, without hearing or voting on any legislation. Northam called the special session in the wake of a May workplace shooting in Virginia Beach that took the lives of 12 people. Cox criticized the governor’s move as “an election-year stunt,” saying legislators needed more time to study the complex issues involved.

Republicans voted to delay the special session until Nov. 18.

For Cox’s part, in his door-to-door visits, he promotes his record for maintaining and protecting Virginia’s strong economy and business-friendly reputation, as well as cutting regulations and supporting education.

“In Virginia, you know, the economy’s good, and you hear some of that [from voters], which is good news. Whether it be K-12 level or higher education, I get really good kudos,” Cox says.

Cox also touts Virginia’s No. 1 rating as the top state in which to do business, pointing to how Virginia landed Amazon’s HQ2 East Coast headquarters by creating a $1 billion-plus tech-talent education initiative to produce the skilled workforce needed by Amazon and other industries.

“The Amazon incentive package is a good example where we offered about a third of what New York offered [Amazon in incentives], but we really came in with the whole higher-ed piece,” Cox says, “and … that’s not just targeted to Amazon; it’s targeted to the whole tech-talent pipeline.”

The top business issues Cox says he hears about are protecting right-to-work laws, as well as concerns over potential business cost increases from New Green Deal environmental measures to address climate change. He also says that Republicans will protect consumers from unnecessary energy bill hikes. A Democratic majority, he says, would sign on to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which the State Corporation Commission estimates would result in a $144 annual rate increase for Dominion Energy customers. 

As for this November’s election, Cox vehemently disagrees with the federal redistricting decision. And while acknow­ledging that this year’s Assembly races will present more of a challenge for Republicans, Cox says it is, however, one the GOP can surmount. 

Don’t count Republicans out, he insists. “The districts are more Democratic-leaning [but] they’re all winnable, and I guess the good news for us is that we have just great candidates in the ones that were drawn a little worse for Republicans. We feel pretty strongly we can win those seats.” 

Bob Gibson is the communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

House of Delegates races to watch

Virginia Senate races to watch

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