Virginia As a Bellwether for the Midterms?
Have you enjoyed the 11-month break in political advertisements since last year’s presidential and congressional elections?
Voters in Virginia never got a break.
This year, that state is the venue for a close-as-can-be gubernatorial election. Members of the state’s House of Delegates also are up for reelection and a net shift of six seats or more in Republicans’ favor would mean the party would wrest control of the chamber from Democrats. As if that is not enough pressure, there is this fact: the Virginia 2021 election outcome could be a bellwether for what happens in the 2022 U.S. congressional midterm elections. (For those of you keeping track, those contests are set for November 8, 2022.)
What is going on in Virginia, what party is ahead in the polls, and what is the race likely to tell us about what we can expect in November 2022?
Let’s take a look.
What’s Going on with the Virginia Governor’s Race?
Early voting in Virginia began more than a month ago: on September 17. Voters will go to the polls in person on Tuesday, November 2.
Early turnout is way up in the state. As of October 14, more than 340,000 Virginians already had cast their ballots. That’s nearly double the number of people who cast ballots before election day in 2017, when voters elected Virginia’s incumbent Democratic governor, Ralph Northam. That means there is nothing either candidate can do – and no money they can spend – at this point to change those voters’ minds.
Democrats have won four of the last five Virginia gubernatorial elections. The Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, actually won one of those elections. (Because Virginia governors are only allowed one consecutive, four-year term McAuliffe is not actually the incumbent, however.) President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump by 10 points in November 2020.
That means that Democrats should have the state firmly in hand, right?
Perhaps, but they don’t. According to the latest RealClearPolitics compilation of polls, McAuliffe either is tied with his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, or is leading by just a handful of points, well within the margin of error. Democrats also are worried about President Biden’s falling approval ratings in the state. According to Morning Consult, only 48 percent of Virginia voters approve of the president’s job performance, down nine points from earlier this year. Forty-nine percent of voters disapprove, up 12 points from early 2021.
McAuliffe has a good track record in such circumstances, however. As the election website FiveThirtyEight pointed out, McAuliffe previously won the Virginia governorship “in 2013 when another Democratic president, Barack Obama, had an approval rating in the mid-40s and Virginia was redder than it is now.”
But if McAuliffe wins, does it mean Democrats will hold the House and Senate in 2022?
As New York magazine has said, the Virginia governor’s race is not “an infallible bellwether” for the following year’s congressional midterm elections. The magazine explained, “In 1997, Republican Jim Gilmore won the governorship over Don Beyer by a landslide the year before Democrats made gains in the House. And in 2001, Democrat Mark Warner solidly defeated Republican Mark Earley just before Republicans made House and Senate gains in the 2002 midterms.”
But control of the governor’s mansion is not all that is up for grabs in Virginia. Are political prognosticators looking in the wrong place for their 2022 crystal ball?
Virginia House of Delegates As A Bellwether
As noted above, the GOP needs to gain just six seats to take control over the lower chamber of the Virginia statehouse.
According to the elections website Ballotpedia, in five of the 10 preceding House of Delegates elections, there have been net shifts of six seats or more: twice in Republicans’ favor and three in favor of Democrats. Ballotpedia says, on average, 6.6 seats shifted control per election cycle.
Republicans are within striking distance, particularly given that Ballotpedia election analysts estimate there are 22 battleground seats in the House of Delegates. Because the vast majority of these seats — 16, in fact — are currently held by Democrats, the president’s party is in a somewhat perilous position.
Historically, struggle for control of Virginia’s House of Delegates has been a referendum on what is happening in Washington. Indeed, as Ballotpedia noted, “commentators have described the House of Delegates elections as a gauge of political sentiment following Joe Biden’s (D) election as president in 2020.” That’s because the presidential election winner’s party lost seats in the House of Delegates in five of the seven state election years following a presidential election between 1993 and 2017.
And is that sentiment a bellwether for congressional elections? It does appear that what has happened in Virginia House of Delegates races has foreshadowed what happens in the following year’s off-year congressional elections.
In 1993, for example, Democrats lost seats in the House of Delegates. As we know, the 1994 congressional midterm elections were a disaster for Democrats. Virginia Democrats also lost seats in the House of Delegates in 2009, a year before the Obama majority lost control of the U.S. House and Senate. And Republicans lost seats in Richmond in 2017 — a year before their 2018 midterm losses. There is one anomaly: in 2001, Virginia Republicans lost seats in the House of Delegates. The next year, the party defied history and picked up U.S. House and Senate seats in President George W. Bush’s first congressional midterm election.
Congressional Democrats Are Watching the Results
We are far from the only ones who think that what happens in Virginia could presage what happens in November 2022. In fact, congressional Democrats are laser focused on the outcome—including what the results could mean for their policy agenda over the next several months.
Here is the inside-the-Beltway publication Punchbowl on how the 220 House Democrats who are on the ballot next year are thinking of the Virginia races: “Virginia will be a data point … in an environment in which Democrats are looking for feedback on their aggressive agenda.” Specifically, Punchbowl said, “There will be Democrats who look at a McAuliffe loss as a warning to slow down when it comes to Biden’s massive infrastructure and social spending agenda.”
To put an exclamation point on that statement, Punchbowl reminded readers that a Republican won the Virginia governor’s race in 2009, right as President Barack Obama and the Democratic congressional majority were debating the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. The Virginia race did not slow the policy momentum back in 2009 and, as noted above, Democrats lost big in the 2010 congressional races.
Do voters want Democrats to learn from history? The party’s Virginia gubernatorial candidate seems to think so.
So What Do Virginia Voters Want?
Readers might remember that Terry McAuliffe is a member of former President Bill Clinton’s close circle of friends and advisers. He has been around Democratic politics for decades, and he even served a stint as chair of the Democratic National Committee.
His political instincts are sharp, which means his actions and comments are as a good an indicator as any for what voters are feeling about what’s going on in Washington.
In recent days, McAuliffe has been making the argument both publicly and behind closed doors to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that Democrats must quickly move to a vote on the bipartisan $1.2 trillion physical infrastructure bill. He wants action on that legislation—even at the expense of leaving behind the much larger, $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act that the White House is working so hard to finalize.
McAuliffe might be reading the Virginia tea leaves—or he might have just taken in one of Gallup’s latest polls. A new survey from the nation’s most prominent polling firm indicates that voters are skeptical of Democrats’ federal policy agenda. According to a poll fielded in early to mid-September, right when Virginia voters started casting their ballots in early voting, 52 percent of Americans believe the federal government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Only 43 percent want the federal government to do more.
As Politico noted, these “numbers are a reversal from a year ago when Gallup asked the same question.” In other words: the voting public is less aligned with Democrats’ agenda than it was in November 2020.
Will that shift turn into electoral success for Republicans in 2022? The results from Virginia on November 2, especially with regard to control of its legislature, could tell us.