Amazing news: After trailing her Republican opponent by 10 votes, unofficial results from the recount in Virginia’s 94th House District just gave Democrat Shelly Simonds the win by a single vote and broke the Republicans’ two-decade-old majority in the House of Delegates. What’s more, members of the Daily Kos community played a key role in securing this stunning victory by giving over $78,000 via 5,282 donations to Virginia Democrats to make sure they’d have all the resources they’d need to keep pursuing this race deep into overtime.
With a likely Republican challenge to this recount result, two more recounts looming, and pending legal action in the 28th District, the final makeup of the Virginia House could yet change. But if the current situation holds, Democrats and Republicans will be at parity with 50 seats each in the 100-member chamber—with no one empowered to break ties.
So what now?
Glad you asked!
This situation is not entirely without precedent, so while there are few hard and fast rules governing the situation, we have a pretty good idea of what will happen when the Virginia House is evenly split between the parties.
After the 1997 elections and a few specials (the result of Republican Gov.-elect Jim Gilmore appointing Democrats to positions in his administration), Republicans held 49 seats to Democrats’ 50, with one independent member caucusing with Republicans. The State Board of Elections, despite having a 2-1 Republican majority, resisted pressure from the governor and GOP lawmakers to expedite the certification of the results of the three special elections that boosted the Republican caucus to 50, so on the first day of the legislative session in 1998, Democrats still had a majority in the chamber. That majority’s last gasp was to elect Democratic speaker, allowing the party to control committee assignments and the chamber’s agenda despite the even split.
Republicans cried foul and engaged in some theatrics (turning their backs on the speaker’s dais, pounding their desks and shouting “shame,” that sort of thing), but there was nothing they could do. The next day, the special election results were certified and the Republican caucus ranks swelled to 50. Democrats and Republicans negotiated a power-sharing agreement, under which 19 House standing committees had Democratic and Republican co-chairs and equal party representation. However, if the co-chairs of any standing committee could not agree on how to conduct committee business, a special rule kicked in: one party’s chair would preside the first year of the biennium, and the other party’s the second. (That agreement was later obviated when Republicans won outright control of the House the following year.)
This history indicates that one of the following scenarios will come to pass:
- Republicans try every tactic and trick in the book to delay seating Shelly Simonds until they can elect Republican House Leader Kirk Cox as speaker. Democrats will howl in righteous outrage, and both parties will enter a power-sharing agreement similar to the 1998 template.
- Democrats and Republicans somehow agree to elect a compromise House speaker, whose power will likely constrained by specific rules, and then enter into a power-sharing agreement.
Okay, scenario 3 isn’t really in the cards, but the point remains that there’s no way to know with any certainty how this situation is going to shake out.
And if a federal judge orders a new election in House District 28, hold on to your butts: With House control at stake, it would likely be the most expensive special election Virginia’s ever seen. A hearing in the case is set for Jan. 5, so even if a new election is ordered, it won’t be held before the legislative session convenes on Jan. 10. By declaring the previous election results invalid, though, the Republican who appears to have won that seat couldn’t be seated in the House, and the chamber’s margin would hold at 50 Democrats and 49 Republicans until after the new results in the 28th could be certified by the Board of Elections—giving Democrats effective majority control for a good chunk of the legislative session, even if they lose the special election.
The significance of the fact that we’re discussing the potential of power-sharing in the Virginia House cannot be overstated. Democrats went into the November elections down 66-34 in the chamber, and no prognosticators (including moi) forecast a 16-seat pickup—underscoring the importance of supporting as many good candidates as possible in any election year, no matter how long the odds may seem.
Carolyn Fiddler ·
UPDATE: Virginia House Republican leadership has issued a statement on the recount results, and it sure sounds like a concession to “Delegate-elect Simonds” and an acceptance of their loss of their majority in the chamber. Instead of “majority leaders,” the statement’s authors are “Republican leaders,” and Del. Kirk Cox no longer refers to himself as “Speaker-designee.”