On Tuesday, the General Assembly returns to Richmond for the special session that Gov. Ralph Northam has called in the wake of the recent mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
Northam’s goal is to use that slaughter to persuade the legislature to pass a series of laws dealing with guns. Will a Republican-controlled General Assembly actually do so? That’s the big question, but by no means the only one hanging over this summertime session. Here are some others.
1. Will any Republicans defect? Technically, this is the same question above, just in a more atomized form. If Northam is going to get anything through, he’ll need a few Republicans. Will he find any? Republicans cling to narrow margins — 51-48 in the House and 20-19 in the Senate (there’s a vacancy in each chamber) — but even those slim margins might be too much for Northam to overcome. The legislature passed Medicaid expansion after some Republicans broke from party orthodoxy. However, there were sound economic and political reasons why some Republicans from Southwest Virginia could vote for Medicaid expansion and get away with it. Notice that the only two pro-Medicaid Republicans who failed to get renominated were from parts of the state that didn’t feel the pressure of hospitals closing and a large uninsured population. Republicans seem far more united when it comes to guns.
If Northam’s going to find any defectors, he’s likely looking in the ranks of the lame-duck Republicans who are retiring and won’t have to face voters again. That assumes, of course, that those legislators believe in their heart that Northam’s proposed bills are necessary. Democrats like to portray Republicans as being captive of the National Rifle Association. However, if even lame-duck Republicans vote against Northam, that’s a sign that their pro-gun votes aren’t a matter of fearing the wrath of the NRA, but a matter of conscience.
2. What constitutes a political win for each side? The short-term answer is obvious. For Democrats, it’s passage of some gun bills; for Republicans, it’s preventing anything of the sort. The real answer, though, comes in November, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot. Democrats would like to get some bills passed, of course. But they also don’t mind seeing those bills shot down — because they’re convinced that would give them a campaign issue to rally voters. Put another way, they think a loss in July could turn into a win in November. Republicans think just the opposite: A win in July is also a win in November.
3. Will Northam get any political credit from Democrats? Northam is typically described as “embattled” or “beleaguered” for reasons we know all too well. Polls show he’s one of the least popular governors in the country. And yet, ironically, he’s also one of the most successful. He’s expanded Medicaid, long a Democratic priority. He’s landed Amazon, which may not have been his doing but came under his watch. He’s engineered a funding mechanism for upgrading Interstate 81. He secured some changes to the state’s criminal justice laws Democrats have long wanted to see. Any one of these would be a powerful talking point. Taken together, they form a legacy that overshadows that of most other recent governors — not that Northam gets any credit for that yet. Here’s some more context that also gets overlooked: Northam may be the only governor to respond to a mass shooting by calling a special session of the legislature. To be fair, some other state legislatures were already in session when horrors befell them. Republicans see this special session as purely political, but every legislative action is political to some degree. To Democrats, Northam ought to be seen as an action figure who is putting Republicans on the spot. Will they give him credit for that, though?
4. Is this the last stand for the Republicans? A tremor rumbled through Virginia in the 2017 House elections — its epicenter was likely Donald Trump — and caused Democrats to pick up 15 seats, far beyond anyone’s expectations on either side. Republicans have never held a big majority in the Senate, but they once held a two-thirds majority in the House. Suddenly, after the last election, both chambers were nearly tied. Then last year they picked up three Virginia congressional seats. Democrats are convinced this blue wave will keep rolling. Surely that means they’ll win back the entire General Assembly in 2019, right?
Mathematically, they have reasons to think this. Twelve House Republicans hold seats that voted Democratic in 2018 — and that was before the latest court-ordered redistricting that shifted some seats even further in the Democratic direction. Seven Senate Republicans hold seats that voted Democratic in 2018.
Republicans are more skeptical, as Republicans tend to be. Off-year elections tend to produce a different set of voters, more favorable to Republicans. Perhaps 2017 was an aberration? And just because some of those Democrats won last time doesn’t mean they’ll win re-election. Republicans think they have a fine set of issues to run on — such as pointing out some of the more unpopular things that Democrats might do if they ever gained control of the legislature. Democrats want to talk guns? Republicans will talk abortion — and also taxes, the state’s right-to-work law and lots of other things.
Still, if Republicans, in the back of their minds, worry that this might be their last time in the majority for a while, what would that prompt them to do? Just because the governor has called the special session to deal with guns doesn’t mean the legislature is limited to that. What might Republicans try to achieve if they thought this was their last opportunity to do so? Here’s one possible example:
5. Will Republicans schedule hearings on the sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax? They’ve talked about this before, but Democrats haven’t cooperated. There’s really nothing stopping Republicans, though. Politically speaking, it’s hard to imagine why Republicans wouldn’t want to hold hearings. The two women apparently want to testify — although they’ve also apparently so far declined to pursue court action, raising the question of why they’d want to testify before politicians who can’t do anything, instead of a jury that might. Northam has little at stake in this session — a loss might actually be politically useful for Democrats from their point of view — but Fairfax is in more political jeopardy.
Bottom line: This week’s special session isn’t just about guns.