Tuesday’s election provided answers. Now we have more questions:
1. When and how will the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly get crosswise of a Democratic governor? Just because the same party controls both the legislature and the executive doesn’t mean they’ll always agree. Just look at all the times that Barack Obama and Donald Trump didn’t get what they wanted when their party controlled Congress. The Democrats who will now run the General Assembly tend to be distinctly further to the left than Gov. Ralph Northam is. At some point they’ll inevitably disagree on something. What will it be?
2. When and how will the new Democratic trifecta in Richmond overreach? Parties flush with victory tend to get overcome by hubris and do something that backfires on them politically. For Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, it was the “court-packing” scheme. What will Virginia Democrats do that reminds them of the limits of their power — and popularity?
3. Will the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly pass a constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering? Part of the significance of Tuesday’s election is that this puts in place the legislature that will be in charge of drawing new legislative districts after the 2020 census. Will this temptation to gerrymander prove too tempting for Democrats who have suffered under a decade of Republican gerrymandering in the House? (The current Senate lines were drawn by Democrats when they controlled the state Senate earlier in the decade.) The General Assembly earlier this year passed a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and hand it to a bipartisan commission. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but does take a big step toward trying to end partisan gerrymanders. Now, here’s the catch: For that amendment to go before voters in 2020, the new General Assembly will have to pass the exact same amendment again next year. Some Democrats are already making noises about “technical” objections to that amendment, knowing that any changes will kill it — and leave them with the power to draw maps however they choose. For Democrats, who have been championing non-partisan redistricting, to renege on that promise might constitute an example of the overreach we mentioned above.
4. Do Tuesday’s results make it more likely or less likely that Virginia will elect another Democratic governor in 2021? Four of the past five governors have been Democrats and this week’s results show Democrats even more dominant in the state. That makes the Democratic nomination even more valuable, which might create even more competition — which could leave the party internally bruised. The larger question, though, is whether voters in 2021 will be amenable to a Republican argument that one party shouldn’t control the entire state government. Nationally, voters appear to like divided government — look at how often they’ve installed different parties at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. We go back to question 2: Some embarrassing Democratic overreach in Richmond could open the door to a Republican comeback. Of course, that also depends on the next question:
5. What lessons will Republicans learn from this electoral disaster? Will they conclude they went too far to the right — or not far enough? Will they look at the state’s demographic changes and conclude they need a new way to appeal to an increasingly diverse suburban electorate? If so, will they be able to figure out what that new way is and execute it? Or are the suburbs — and by extension, a majority in Virginia — simply out of reach so long as Donald Trump defines the Republican Party? That brings us to another question:
6. Can Republicans extricate themselves from Trump? Just four years ago, Republicans held two-thirds of the seats in the House of Delegates and only the most starry-eyed Democrats saw a way to win back the chamber. In just two election cycles in the Trump era, though, that commanding majority has been obliterated as a goodly number of suburban voters who were previously content with Republican state legislators have turned against Trump and taken out their wrath on any Republican in sight. Trump is simply electoral poison to many suburban voters, even as he remains intensely popular to rural voters. If Republicans want to win a statewide election in Virginia, they need to figure out a way around the Trump dilemma.
7. Why didn’t Democrats win more seats in the state Senate? Democrats made impressive gains in the House, apparently picking up six seats when they only needed two. But in the state Senate, they only picked up the bare minimum. Those two seats were all they needed — they will now have a 21-19 majority — but for a time they hoped for more. They poured massive amounts of money into trying to knock off Republicans Siobhan Dunnavant in the Richmond suburbs, Bill DeSteph in Virginia Beach and Bryce Reeves in the Fredericksburg area — plus trying to win the open seat formerly held by Republican Frank Wagner in Virginia Beach. In each of those four districts, they came close but still failed. If they know what’s good for them, Democrats will quietly ask themselves what happened. They had a big advantage in money and motivation and that still wasn’t enough. A 21-19 advantage is certainly enough to run the chamber, but still thin enough that lots of things can go wrong.
8. Which Republicans will thrive in the minority? No party wants to be on the shorter end of the count, but sometimes certain legislators blossom when their party is out of power. Liberated from the responsibility of actually governing, they are free to criticize the party in power in more forceful ways. Think back to Robert Dole when he was Senate minority leader the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. He was able to parlay his opposition first into a Senate majority, and then a presidential nomination. Here’s one legislator who might find a larger voice in the minority: State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. He’s already a contrarian. In the past session, when Republicans controlled the General Assembly, only one other legislator was more frequently the lone vote against something. That was state Sen. Bill Carico, R-Grayson County, who is now retiring. With Democrats in charge, be prepared for a lot more votes that are “39-to-Suetterlein.” Where will that lead? Ah, now that’s another question.