Republicans look to regain seats in Congress
Republicans look to extend their 2021 wins in state elections as they closely eye congressional targets in November’s midterm elections.
Democrats hold seven of the state’s 11 congressional seats, with three of those having changed hands during the last midterms in 2018. U.S. Reps. Elaine Luria of Norfolk, Abigail Spanberger of Glen Allen and Jennifer Wexton of Leesburg were elected as part of a blue wave that saw Republicans lose seats across the country during President Donald Trump’s term.
Now, it’s Democrats’ turn to brace for widespread losses as President Joe Biden’s approval rating has dropped below 40% amid skyrocketing inflation, stocks flirting with bear market territory, and recent survey results from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showing that only two in 10 adults say the U.S. is heading in the right direction or the economy is good.
It’s still unclear how that will play out in Virginia, where polling remains sparse.
“We just don’t know,” says Amanda Wintersieck, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We have very little data. There is exactly one poll from more than a month ago now, and it’s specifically focused on [Luria’s race in] House District 2.”
Luria and Spanberger appear to be the GOP’s top targets.
Luria, a retired Navy commander, defeated incumbent Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, in 2018 by 51.1% to 48.8%, then again in a 2020 rematch that also included an independent candidate. Her Republican challenger for this year’s race was not yet determined by press time for this issue. Republicans were slated to choose their candidate for the seat in a June 21 primary between state Sen. Jen Kiggans, Tommy Altman, Andy Baan and Jarome Bell.
Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, has prevailed in even closer races than Luria. The Richmond-area congressional representative defeated incumbent Dave Brat in 2018 by a 50.3% to 48.4% margin, then defeated state Del. Nick Freitas by a similar margin in 2020. The GOP candidates running in the June 21 primary to face her included state Sen. Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania; Derrick Anderson; Gina Ciarcia; David Ross; Crystal Vanuch; and Yesli Vega.
The 10th congressional district was held by Republicans from 1980 until 2018 but trended left until then-state Sen. Jennifer Wexton defeated incumbent Barbara Comstock 56.1% to 43.7%. Wexton was reelected by a slightly larger margin in
2020. In a May convention battle between 11 candidates, Republicans nominated retired U.S. Navy Capt. Hung Cao to run against Wexton.
Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, rates the 10th — as well as the 3rd, 4th, 8th and 11th districts — as “Safe Democratic.” The 1st, 5th, 6th and 9th districts are rated as “Safe Republican.” In early June, Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated Spanberger’s 7th District as “Leans Democratic,” indicating a more competitive race, and Luria’s 2nd District race as a “Toss-up.”
The midterms take place across 11 new congressional districts drawn by the Virginia Supreme Court after a bipartisan commission failed to come to any agreement on state and congressional redistricting. The court appointed two special masters who proposed new maps, which were opened to public comments and then tweaked.
The court also approved new maps drawn by the specialists for the 40 districts of the Virginia Senate and the 100 districts for the House of Delegates.
Democratic lawyer Paul Goldman argued the 2021 House of Delegates elections had taken place in outdated districts and sued the state to force new elections this year, instead of waiting until 2023. However, in June, a panel of three federal judges dismissed Goldman’s lawsuit, ruling that he lacked standing to bring the legal challenge. State elections will take place as scheduled in 2023.
VCU’s Wintersieck says many Republicans expect to retake the U.S. House of Representatives during this year’s midterms, and perhaps the U.S. Senate too. That’s largely because they’re currently locked out of power, which lends greater urgency among their base while swing voters tend to focus their frustrations on whoever’s in the White House.
“Negativity bias is really taking hold,” Wintersieck says. “People in the ‘out’ group are much more incentivized to vote. In this regard, we should expect turnout more from Republicans than Democrats. Dems [are] not as driven by burning desire, and we’re seeing disillusionment among youth voters or progressive voters, which could result in lower turnout.”
Democrats could be fired up, however, by a leaked draft opinion that came out in May suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark 1973 ruling that established a woman’s right to have an abortion without excessive government restrictions. That could rally Democrats who need something to vote against, instead of something to vote for.
“It’s a small boost of negativity for Democrats who do not want to see women’s health care in the form of abortion abolished,” Wintersieck says. “It makes them more competitive, but if you look through history, the reigning political party typically loses at least some seats in elections. So, it may mitigate some losses, but I don’t expect it to completely alleviate them.”
Political scientist Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington agrees but warns that a Roe reversal still could trigger backlash.
“Normally, midterms are very painful for the president’s party,” Farnsworth says. “On average, the president’s party can expect to lose 20 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate. There are sometimes exceptions. If the abortion decision reverses Roe v. Wade, as seems likely, this may be another one of those exceptional elections where the president’s party doesn’t suffer as much as it might otherwise.”
Election Day is Nov. 8.