Hopes Unmet in Virginia
In the Old Dominion, Republicans win fewer state-senate seats than expected.


Jim Geraghty

Although Virginia’s Democrat-controlled state senate redrew its district lines to protect its incumbents, Republicans had high hopes going into Tuesday’s elections. With its healthy majority in the House of Delegates assured, the GOP was free to focus on winning the two seats needed to form a tie in the senate, which Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling could break in the party’s favor. And winning three additional seats would have given the GOP outright control. Eleven seats, meanwhile, were considered “in play.”

Those in-play races lived up to the hype with some spectacularly close finishes. But in the end, the power of redistricting demonstrated its full force, and Democrats held on in almost all of the places they needed. By late Tuesday night, Virginia appeared to have a 20–20 split — with a possible recount demand upsetting the apple cart.

Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, was stunned by the efficiency of redistricting, pointing out that in the state-senate races, Democrats had won only 420,000 votes to Republicans’ 661,000, roughly 39 percent of the total. Yet they were likely to win 52.5 percent of the seats.

In plenty of places, GOP candidates ran up huge margins against token or nonexistent Democratic opposition: Eleven Republican state senators were uncontested, while only two Democrats had no GOP opponent. Meanwhile, the Democrats won just about all the close ones they needed: At 10:24 on Election Night, there were nine senate races where the margin was ten percentage points or less — and Democrats led in eight of them.

About an hour after the polls closed but before any significant results had been reported, University of Virginia political-science professor Larry Sabato declared via Twitter, “The only shocker from Virginia will be if the GOP does NOT win the State Senate. Democrats ran a dismal campaign, starting with leaving so many Republicans unopposed.” Wasserman concurred, saying that before the results came in, he gave the Democrats about a one-in-three shot at keeping control of the senate.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared that a GOP senate “might be the equivalent of a second term for Gov. Bob McDonnell.” The governor is expected to pursue pension reform, economic development, and K–12 education in particular this upcoming session. With Virginia governors limited to one term, he will not face the voters again, at least not for his current office.

But the fact that the GOP didn’t meet its high hopes left some election observers surmising that McDonnell will need to build consensus before enacting his biggest reforms. “The Virginia State Senate will be 21–19 or 20–20. It will NOT be passing as much controversial legislation as some projected, even if 21–19 R,” Sabato predicted.

Republicans felt great about the odds of former U.S. Army ranger Bryce Reeves against incumbent Democratic state senator Edd Houck. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Reeves led by 86 votes, according to the Virginia Board of Elections. Houck can ask for a recount after the November 28 certification, and with the stakes so high, it is hard to imagine Virginia Democrats not pulling out all the stops to reverse a Reeves victory.