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The tight battle for control of Virginia's House of Delegates

Virginia's off-year gubernatorial races have historically served as a temperature check for the party controlling the White House. In every gubernatorial election since 1977 (except for 2013), the state has elected a governor from the party opposite the president's. 

The tight race for control of the Virginia House of Delegates could also provide some sense of where the parties stand ahead of the midterm congressional elections in 2022. 

In 2017, Democrats in Virginia's House of Delegates were just two seats shy of flipping the chamber. They captured the majority two years later, and rode a wave of suburban animosity against President Trump to win 55 of 100 seats.

Now, first-term Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn is trying to retain her party's slim majority in a post-Trump and post-pandemic election cycle. 

Like the U.S. House of Representatives, the Democratic majority in the Virginia legislature is exceedingly thin. Democrat majorities won in the past four years are within single digits of flipping back toward Republican control.  

Legislating by Zoom
House speaker Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, gavels in the session to an empty Virginia House of Delegates chamber after a Zoom Legislative session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Steve Helber / AP

But while House Democrats still have more of President Biden's agenda to enact and run on for 2022, Virginia's House of Delegates has completed a full term since it won the majority — while a Democrat was governor. 

With both chambers and the governorship under Democrat control, the House of Delegates was able to fulfill most of the progressive agenda Democratic members campaigned on: expanding voting rights through repealing voter ID laws and expanding absentee voting, instituting gun-control laws, raising the minimum wage, abolishing the death penalty and legalizing marijuana.

Part of their pitch this year is that Virginia Republicans would roll it all back. 

"I do consider Virginia a bellwether [for 2022]," Filler-Corn said in an interview. "We've been advocating for these issues but until we actually had the votes and started governing in the majority, we weren't able to actually pass half these bills. The message we're going to get out there [is] that Republicans are going to want to roll it all back. And that can't happen."

"It's created a record I'm proud to run on," Democrat Delegate Nancy Guy said about the General Assembly's actions. "Successful implementation by Democrats helps everybody up the ballot, whether it's us doing it in Richmond or them doing it in Washington."

"The big challenge is broadcasting that message as we come out of a pandemic," she added.

Guy represents the 83rd District in Virginia Beach, and she beat a 10-year Republican incumbent last cycle by just 40 votes, the tightest delegate race in 2019. Fifteen Democrats won their 2019 races with less than 55% of the vote. 

Republican candidates in Virginia's most competitive districts have made the state's economic recovery and school reopenings part of their core messaging, pinning any fatigue from restrictions on Democrats. But a February survey conducted by Virginia's Christopher Newport University showed a 55% approval rating for Governor Ralph Northam's handling of COVID-19. 

"Pandemics are hard. But I think we did an extremely good job of managing our economy. We're clearly seeing the rebound coming, and we're losing as few people as possible," Guy said. 

Attorney Tim Anderson, who represents several Virginia Republican lawmakers, including state Senator and gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase, is running to unseat Guy in the 83rd.

He said Democrats have created a "toxic environment" with their agenda — particularly by raising the minimum wage; he also pointed out an ongoing scandal over the state's parole board, which is currently under investigation over breaking state code.

Despite the partisan rhetoric, Anderson knows the tightrope he and other Republican candidates have to walk in districts like the 83rd, which he said "is probably as purple as you're going to get in Virginia politics."

Virginia's 83rd District is completely contained in the state's 2nd Congressional District. Democratic Congresswoman Elaine Luria flipped the seat by 2.3 points in 2018 and widened her lead to 5.8 points in 2020.  

"I'm almost scared to even admit it, but she's pretty well-liked in this district. People aren't complaining about her," Anderson said about Luria's reputation in the district while adding that GOP State Senator Jen Kiggans, who declared her candidacy for the congressional seat, will make it "an interesting race."

"I don't think a lot of people attribute the pains that we feel right now to the federal government — I think they attribute it all to the state government," he added.

While Virginia has voted Democratic in presidential elections since 2008, Biden won it by 10 points in 2020, the state's shift towards Democrats happened primarily under Trump's watch. Democrats represented a majority of the state's congressional delegation in 2018, and flipped both chambers of the General Assembly in 2019. 

University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth says Democrats' recent success in elections can be attributed to northern suburban counties drifting away from the GOP. 

"The key question nationally for the midterm elections is will traditionally Republican areas in the suburbs, revert back to being Republican now that Trump is no longer president?" he said. 

Speaker Filler-Corn said she wasn't concerned about Republicans turning back in the suburbs, saying Democrats ran and acted on the issues that brought voters towards the party. Mary Margaret Kastelberg, a Republican candidate for a district in the West Richmond suburbs, said she's already heard from some voters reverting back.

"It remains to be seen how much. But I've had a few people at the doors say, now [that Trump] is not in office, I'm taking a different view of Republicans," she said. 

Kastelberg is running for a second time against Democrat Rodney Willett for Virginia's 73rd District. Willett beat Kastelberg by less than 5% in 2019.

"I'm getting a much higher and intense level of engagement from people," Kastelberg said on what feels different this election cycle. "Two years ago you ask, 'What are your issues?' They say healthcare, education, run of the mill, standard kitchen table issues. But now, [the COVID restrictions] affect people every day, their family life has been turned upside down by these policies."

Willett's district in the Richmond suburbs is part of Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger's sprawling 7th District, another competitive federal seat Republicans have targeted.

After her race was one of the last to be called in the state (Spanberger won by less than two points) and many of her freshmen colleagues in competitive districts lost reelection, Spanberger notably criticized House Democrats' messaging in 2020.

"From what I saw in 2020, the most important thing we can do as elected officials is to reflect the priorities of the voters," Willett said, adding that the GOP attacks tying Democrats to the "Defund the Police" movement don't match what the Democrat-led government is doing  in Virginia. 

Willett, whose opposition to Mr. Trump was a catalyst in his decision to run for delegate, said the former president still has a following among  local Republicans. 

"I was hoping he's gone and good riddance, and we can move on. But unfortunately he is not. His thinking and philosophies, approach, live on in other people that are still here," Willett said. 

A majority of Republicans, 61%, believe Mr. Biden did not win legitimately, according to a February poll by Christopher Newport University. But overall, Mr. Biden's approval rating was 57% in that same poll.

"If a year from now, people are less favorable about Biden and people stay home, there may be a number of Democrats that become ex-members of Congress," Farnsworth said of 2022. "Traditionally, midterm elections are angry voter elections. And the angry voters are the ones that are out of power in the moment."

Still, Farnsworth says that redistricting and the economic recovery in the state, will be key factors that could decide the fate of  vulnerable House Democrats like Luria and Spanberger.

"If you tell me what the lines are going to look like and what the unemployment rate in Virginia is in October of 2022, I'll tell you who wins the election," he said.  

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