While most state legislatures aren’t up for election until 2018, all 100 members of Virginia’s House of Delegates will go before voters this November. Here at Daily Kos Elections, we’ve been hard at work calculating the results of the 2016 presidential election for each seat, and the numbers are both very revealing—and, potentially, very promising.
Here’s the good news: Hillary Clinton carried the Old Dominion 50-45 last fall, and she also won 51 of the 100 seats in the state House, despite the fact that Republicans drew these very lines to benefit themselves during the last round of redistricting. What’s more, even though Barack Obama won a similar 51-47 victory four years ago, he only carried 47 state House seats, so recent trends are in Democrats’ favor. (To let you drill down further, Stephen Wolf has created an interactive map to show which seats are represented by which party, and who won each seat in the presidential race.)
However—and it’s a big however—despite how seemingly blue their own map is, Republicans currently hold a huge 66 to 34 majority in the chamber (there’s one vacant Democratic seat in a safely blue district). It’ll be very challenging for Democrats to overcome that gap this year, but in this age of Trump, the party simply has to try its hardest to win as many seats as it can, and there are a lot of potential targets for Team Blue.
In fact, no fewer that 17 Republicans sit in seats that backed Clinton last year. The Republican in the bluest seat is James LeMunyon, who represents HD-67, a Northern Virginia district that Clinton carried 60-34; in 2012, Obama won it by a considerably smaller 54-45 margin, which shows how hostile voters there were to Trump—a pattern we’ve seen in other well-educated suburbs.
But other seats moved in the opposite direction. At the far end of this batch of Republican-held seats Clinton won, Hampton Roads Del. Robert Bloxom Jr. sits in the closest district: His HD-100 voted for Clinton 49-47, a drop from Obama's 55-44 win here. But at least Democrats don’t have to worry too much about playing defense: All 34 Democrats sit in Clinton seats, and even the closest—Del. Roz Tyler’s HD-75 in southern Virginia—still went for Clinton by a comfortable 57-41 margin (four years ago, Obama took it 62-37).
While Democrats always have plenty of Republicans to go after, they’ve had a tough time making gains. The biggest reason is that turnout among Democratic voters tends to drop when there’s no presidential race on the ballot, and state House races take place in odd-numbered years. On the flipside, however, there’s the Trump factor: The new occupant of the White House may be able to motive angry Democrats who’ve stayed home in prior off-year elections to show up in November.
And Democrat office-seekers will need to harness that motivation, since lots of Democratic-leaning voters still split their tickets in Virginia, backing Democrats for governor but Republicans for the legislature. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 win demonstrates puts that obstacle into stark relief. Democrats went into that year’s elections holding just 32 seats in the state House, and they hoped a McAuliffe victory would generate success further downballot. McAuliffe did indeed win statewide 48-45 and carried 44 seats, but state House Democrats netted exactly one seat. If Democrats want 2017 to go differently, state House candidates can’t just hope that Team Blue’s gubernatorial candidate will just sweep them into office.
But it’s also possible that Virginia Democrats will catch a break this year. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing a challenge to Virginia’s state House map, which plaintiffs have argued violates the constitution by packing too many black voters into too few districts. If the court agrees and orders a new map, McAuliffe’s veto will prevent the GOP legislature from just drawing up another gerrymander.
However, that’s a big if—a lower federal court has already upheld the existing map—and Democrats need to go into November assuming they’ll be running under the current lines. Still, opportunities abound, if Team Blue is ready to seize them.