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Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg defeats GOP incumbent in Virginia state Senate race; Legislature majorities still unclear

Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg won a key seat in the Virginia state Senate Tuesday, unseating an incumbent Republican and aiding his party's efforts to hold onto its majority and derail GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin's conservative agenda.

The balance of power in both the Virginia state House and state Senate were at stake Tuesday, as Democrats tried to deny Youngkin a trifecta, control of the both houses of Legislature and the governor's mansion.

File: Virginia state Representative Schuyler VanValkenburg(D-72nd) at work in the statehouse, on February, 20, 2019 in Richmond, VA.  Bill O'Leary, Washington Post via Getty Images

Dunnavant's suburban Richmond seat was seen as a key part of the GOP's path to a majority.

In a statement, VanValkenburg thanked Dunnavant for her service but said: "Voters have chosen a new path forward with a bold vision for the future of Virginia. In the State Senate, I will continue to deliver on the issues that matter most to families in Henrico County."

While all 140 General Assembly seats were on the ballot in a costly and competitive election year, the balance of power was expected to be decided in about a dozen districts in Hampton Roads, suburban Richmond and northern Virginia. Vote counting was still underway late Tuesday.

Whatever the outcome in Virginia — which was among just four states with legislative elections this year — it will be closely scrutinized nationwide for hints of what may come in the 2024 presidential cycle.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday evening at a suburban Richmond polling place, Youngkin said he hoped voters would extend Republicans' "license to lead" but added he expected the battleground races to be tight, likely decided by "hundreds of votes."

"I'd ask folks to elect a House and elect a Senate that will work with me, not against me, so that we can continue to release this unbridled opportunity across the Commonwealth of Virginia," Youngkin said after chatting with voters and handing out sample ballots.

Candidates made their case to voters this cycle on the economy, the environment, public safety and schools, but no issue was more hotly contested than abortion in the last state in the South without new restrictions since the end of Roe v. Wade.

Democrats made protecting abortion access the centerpiece of their campaigns, while Republicans in many of the key swing districts coalesced around Youngkin's pledge to try again for an abortion ban after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and situations where the mother's life is at risk. Such legislation was defeated this year in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Voters across the political spectrum said in interviews that the issue was top of mind.

James Burkhardt, 37, a software engineer from Henrico County outside Richmond, waited in a long line Friday to cast his ballot early. He supported two Democrats who emphasized protecting abortion access — Del. Rodney Willett, who won reelection to the House, and VanValkenburg.

Burkhardt said he could not understand Dunnavant's support for putting new limits on abortion access, given her career. She is an OB-GYN who said she supports access to abortion through 15 weeks and afterward only in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal anomalies, and to save the mother's life.

"It blows my mind that she could vote against women's right to choose at any stage of their pregnancy what's right for them," he said.

Other voters said Youngkin had landed on a reasonable position.

Retiree Scott McKenzie, 78, voted early for Republicans in Virginia Beach. He said he's comfortable with a 15-week ban and supports some of the same exceptions as Youngkin.

"On the one hand, I support right for life. But on the other hand, there's times when a young lady maybe did not have a choice," he said.

Candidates spent the run-up to Election Day hosting last-minute get-out-the-vote rallies and canvasses, and some were door-knocking even in the waning hours of voting Tuesday.

President Joe Biden, who won Virginia in 2020 by 10 percentage points and campaigned against Youngkin in the state in 2021, did not appear in person, but signed off on a fundraising email and endorsements.

Republicans are hoping their candidates benefit from the Democratic president's persistently poor approval ratings, which are lower than Youngkin's.

The governor headlined his party's campaign events. He appeared with candidates in competitive districts statewide as part of a bus tour promoting an early voting initiative aimed at reversing years of GOP mistrust in the policy.

Other notable matchups include an ultra-competitive Tidewater race between Democratic Senate incumbent Monty Mason and GOP challenger Danny Diggs, a retired longtime sheriff. The contest has featured particularly bitter TV ads, and is critical to Republican efforts to flip control of the Senate.

In Virginia's Washington exurbs, another tight Senate race between Democratic Marine veteran Joel Griffin and GOP Del. Tara Durant also features Monica Gary, a wild-card independent candidate with a history of electoral success.

Democrat Danica Roem, a current member of the House of Delegates, defeated Republican Bill Woolf in a northern Virginia Senate district with a slight Democratic lean.

In her victory speech, Roem referred to her groundbreaking win in 2017 as a transgender woman: "Six years later they doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on transphobia in their closing message in this race. ... And we won."

In suburban Richmond, Democrat Susanna Gibson — who proceeded with her campaign after news broke that she had performed sex acts with her husband in live videos posted on a pornographic website — aims to prevail over Republican David Owen even after some party support wilted away following the controversy.

Other competitive House races are playing out in Hampton Roads, the exurban D.C. Interstate 95 corridor and one district south of Richmond.

Republicans generally saw a tougher path to flipping the Senate than holding the House under the new maps all legislative candidates are running under for the first time this year. During this year's session, Republicans held a slim House majority, while Democrats narrowly controlled the Senate.

Also on the ballot were local school board and prosecutor races around the state, and a referendum in Richmond on whether to authorize a proposed casino.

Polls closed at 7 p.m. after a day of voting that seemed to proceed smoothly, with no reports from either party of major issues.

"Overall, it was a very successful election day in Virginia," Susan Beals, commissioner of the Department of Elections, told reporters during an evening briefing.

The department does not yet have an estimate on turnout, but Beals said it was "healthy."

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