Va. voters to decide Statehouse control, with climate on the line

By Scott Waldman | 10/03/2023 06:42 AM EDT

Come November, every seat in the 140-member state General Assembly will be on the ballot for the first time in four years.

Virginia state lawmakers meet inside the House of Delegates chamber.

Virginia state lawmakers meet inside the House of Delegates chamber. Every seat in Virginia's Statehouse is on the ballot this year. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This story was updated at 12:05 p.m. EDT.

Republicans have a chance in about seven weeks to take full control of the Virginia state government for the first time in a decade.

A GOP sweep would mark a major reversal of political fortune in the Old Dominion and set the stage for a broader rollback of climate policy that started when Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office nearly two years ago.


Democrats, who control the state Senate but not the House of Delegates, have been able to slow Youngkin’s attempts to dismantle climate efforts that took root under his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. In particular, they have been instrumental in opposing Youngkin’s push to pull Virginia out of a regional cap-and-trade program.

But Virginia Democrats hold a tenuous 22-18 majority in the Senate. And this year’s election promises to be even more unpredictable than usual.

On Nov. 7, every seat in the 140-member state General Assembly will be on the ballot for the first time in four years. New court-drawn electoral district maps have wiped out about a third of the state’s incumbents, adding more chaos to the contest.

One factor leaning in the GOP’s favor is that Youngkin is one of the most popular governors in the country, said J. Miles Coleman, an elections expert at the University of Virginia. But Republicans shouldn’t expect to replicate the success they had in 2021, he added, because of the heightened attention to abortion rights in the aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court case.

“It’s really just going to hinge on a few districts,” Coleman said. “I can see the state Senate coming down to five or six seats out of the 40 and the state House is going to come down to 10 or less seats out of a hundred.”

For now, it appears Republicans have a heavy lift in trying to flip back the Senate because “the environment is better for Democrats than it was a couple of years ago,” according to a University of Virginia analysis released last month.

That’s because Democrats are running on abortion as a primary issue, and giving Youngkin a trifecta in Richmond means he would have a chance to fulfill his promise of enacting a 15-week abortion ban. What’s more, infighting among House Republicans in Washington could lead to a government shutdown about a month before Election Day — an issue that will anger voters in a state where many federal workers reside, the analysis found.

A special election earlier this year provided another warning, where Democrat Aaron Rouse won a Republican-held seat.

At a recent campaign reception in McLean, just outside Washington, President Joe Biden said that for the first time the Democratic National Committee would be pouring $1.2 million in the state legislative races, a major increase in state-level spending, because “the stakes have never been higher.”

In total, the DNC has invested $1.5 million in the Virginia Legislature, which is about 15 times what it spent on the Legislature in 2019 and a signal it is worried about Youngkin’s fundraising prowess.

“It matters, control of the state legislature,” Biden said. “The one place we made a mistake the last 20 years, in my view, is putting much more emphasis on the federal legislature than on the state legislature.”

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee announced Monday that it was dropping another $1 million into the legislative races, bringing the group’s total contribution up to $2 million.

To rally more support, Youngkin has promoted early voting, even as national Republicans and former President Donald Trump have attacked it. Youngkin has considerable firepower in his Spirit of Virginia political action committee, which has raised millions of dollars from wealthy donors across the country because of his national profile.

The PAC garnered $6 million in the second quarter alone, part of the $16 million it has pulled in since 2021. Likely due to that success, the Republican National Committee has not yet echoed the Democrats’ investment, though millions of dollars more for both parties is likely to be dumped into the state in the next month.

Democratic allies are paying close attention as well and stepping up their spending. To counter Youngkin’s support, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters announced $2 million in funding for the state Legislature races, its biggest-ever investment.

“Governor Youngkin and his extreme allies up and down the ticket have one thing in common: they want to dismantle the progress we’ve made in Virginia and put big polluters’ interests above what’s best for our Commonwealth,” Virginia LCV Executive Director Michael Town said in a statement.

On climate, Youngkin has spent his first two years in office rolling back climate policy. He withdrew from the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states that joined together to create significant domestic climate policy after Trump withdrew from the international Paris climate agreements in 2017.

Youngkin is now trying to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that would cut 30 percent of the power sector’s emissions by 2030. Former Attorney General Mark Herring ruled that the governor does not have power to withdraw from the cap-and-trade program by using an executive order — as Youngkin is doing to get around the Democratic-controlled state Senate — and now environmental groups are suing to block the withdrawal.

Earlier this year, Youngkin blocked Virginia from being considered for a Ford electric vehicle battery manufacturing facility. He said it was because Ford had partnered with a Chinese company on the plant, which could have brought hundreds of jobs to an economically depressed rural corner of the commonwealth. Other Republican governors have welcomed electric vehicle and battery manufacturing, as well as the jobs those industries bring.

Youngkin recently made it clear on Fox News that he would continue to attack climate policy as being beneficial to China, echoing a claim by conservative lawmakers in Washington who have long opposed cutting carbon emissions. He told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo that Virginia blocked electric vehicle manufacturing because it was a “Trojan horse structure” of the Chinese government to spread its influence throughout America.

“This laser-focus [that Biden and Democrats] have on driving America into a mandated electric vehicle purchase — all it does is drive us economically into the communist Chinese party’s hand,” he said.

Since Virginia governors are limited to one consecutive term, Youngkin has every reason to try to use the next two years to pursue a more conservative legislative agenda if Republicans take control of the Legislature, much as Gov. Ron DeSantis has done in Florida. DeSantis passed a six-week abortion ban, signed a law to make it possible to carry concealed weapons without a permit and made it easier for schools to ban books.

The White House is watching the elections closely and could add more firepower to Virginia in the coming weeks. One target is young voters, who are more likely to be concerned about climate change than their peers.

Vice President Kamala Harris rallied young voters at Hampton University last month and told them their votes were the best way to change state and federal climate policy.

“Your generation has, your entire life, been acutely aware of the climate crisis,” she said. “That’s why I can’t wait for you to continue in your role of leadership, because when you all start voting in your numbers, this is gonna change.”