The Democratic majority in the Virginia state Senate made national news in January when it defeated several bills pushed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the GOP-led state House to limit abortion access, but Republicans are hoping to remove that obstacle on Nov. 7 when all 40 seats in the upper chamber are on the ballot for new four-year terms. What follows is a look at the seats that will likely decide control of the Senate, as well as some of the longer shots that could come into play.
The entire House will also be up this fall, which we'll explore in a future post. If Democrats aren’t able to retake that chamber, though, they’ll need to hold onto the Senate, where they currently have a 22-18 edge, to stop Youngkin and his allies from gaining full control of the state government. At most, Democrats can afford to lose just a single seat because Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, who isn’t up until 2025, can break any deadlocks for her party.
The Lay of the Land
This will be the first election conducted using the legislative maps that were crafted in late 2021 by special masters appointed by the state Supreme Court after Virginia's brand-new bipartisan Redistricting Commission failed to agree on boundaries. Under this plan, Joe Biden would have carried 24 districts to Donald Trump’s 16 en route to a 54-44 victory statewide. (You can also follow along with this interactive map from Dave’s Redistricting App).
The following year, though, saw Republicans bounce back as Youngkin defeated former Democratic Gov Terry McAuliffe 51-49, giving the GOP its first statewide win since 2009. (Republicans also won the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general.) At the top of the ticket, Youngkin also improved on Trump's showing, taking 20 districts, including four that had previously favored Biden.
No one can say for sure what the state's political climate will look like this fall, especially since recent polls show the governor with solid approval ratings even as voters disapprove of much of his agenda. Republicans have typically benefited from the hallmark lower turnout resulting from Virginia's odd-year elections, suggesting Biden's performance might be a high-water mark. But Democrats have fared unusually well in special elections so far this year—including a critical one in Virginia—and abortion remains a major albatross from the GOP.
The Old Dominion’s primary will take place on June 20, and unlike in many other Southern states, there are no runoffs—it only takes a plurality to win a party's nomination. Virginia also allows local party organizations to decide whether they’ll choose their candidates through the traditional primary system managed by the state, a convention, or a small-scale, party-run “firehouse primary." However, both Republicans and Democrats will be using traditional primaries in all of the races we're previewing in this piece.
One Big Primary
Even if Republicans fail to flip the Senate this fall, they may still be able to get much of what they want through the upper chamber if Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey turns back a primary challenge from former Del. Lashrecse Aird in the 13th Senate District. This constituency in the Richmond area favored Biden and McAuliffe by margins of 62-37 and 57-42, respectively, so the Democratic nominee should have no trouble in the general election here.
Morrissey, a conservative Democrat, has confounded observers for years by surviving numerous serious scandals, but the self-described "unapologetically pro-life" lawmaker infuriated his party all over again over the last year by saying he was open to backing Youngkin’s anti-abortion bills. Democrats got a reprieve in January when Aaron Rouse flipped a GOP-held district in a special election, but it would take the loss of just one seat to make Morrissey the pivotal vote all over again.
Aird, who is the incumbent’s only intra-party foe, has earned endorsements from Planned Parenthood as well as from several Democratic legislators, including all six women in the party’s Senate caucus. Morrissey characteristically responded, “Unfortunately, the women in the Senate Democratic Women’s Caucus appear [to] have made the Abortion issue the central focus in the 13th Senate District Primary." If he's right and abortion does prove to be the dominant issue in the race, that's good news for Aird and bad news for the incumbent.
Much of the action in November will likely revolve around a quartet of Senate seats where no party holds a clear edge. Further below, we’ll also delve into a couple of second-tier targets where one party is in good shape but still could lose on a tough night, as well as a few more longshot opportunities for each side. It’s still early in the cycle, though, so these categorizations can and likely will change.
The most vulnerable Republican in the chamber appears to be Siobhan Dunnavant, whose already competitive constituency outside Richmond got a few points bluer following redistricting. The new map, which changed the number of Dunnavant’s district from the 12th to the 16th, extended Biden’s margin of victory from 55-43 to 57-41, while McAuliffe’s edge moved up from just 50-49 to 52-47. The Democrats are fielding Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who, like Dunnavant, has no intra-party opposition.
Democratic Sen. Monty Mason, meanwhile, is defending a Hampton Roads seat that experienced an even more dramatic and unwelcome transformation. While Biden and McAuliffe pulled off decisive 62-36 and 57-42 victories in the old 1st District, the revamped 24th supported the president only 53-45 while backing Youngkin 51-48. Republicans are aiming to take advantage of this by running former York-Poquoson Sheriff Danny Diggs in another race where neither side has a contested primary.
Both parties are also focusing on a pair of Biden/Youngkin seats with no incumbents on the ballot. Southside Virginia’s 17th District features a Republican nomination battle between Del. Emily Brewer and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler; the winner will take on Democratic Del. Clint Jenkins. Biden won 53-46 here, while Youngkin prevailed 52-47.
The primary situation is reversed in the 31st District, a Loudoun County-based seat that backed Biden and Youngkin by margins of 56-42 and 50-49, respectively. The Democrats have a contested race between former local prosecutor Russet Perry and Leesburg Town Council member Zach Cummings. The GOP, meanwhile, has consolidated behind businessman Juan Pablo Segura, the son of billionaire Enrique Segura.
The Second Tier
The fourth and final Biden/Youngkin seat is the 27th District, which includes parts of Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and the city of Fredericksburg, but the GOP looks to have the advantage here. One reason is that Youngkin scored a 54-45 victory the year after the president won by a smaller 52-46. Further complicating matters for Democrats is the candidacy of Stafford County Supervisor Monica Gary, an independent who calls herself an abortion rights supporter.
Republicans, though, may give Democrats a bigger opening in June if they take a pass on Del. Tara Durant and instead nominate Matt Strickland, who furiously castigated Youngkin last winter after state troopers raided his bar for defying COVID restrictions during the worst days of the pandemic. The Democratic primary, which has attracted less attention, is a contest between Marine veteran Joel Griffin and attorney Ben Litchfield.
The aforementioned Aaron Rouse also faces a rematch in the 22nd District with the Republican he beat by a 51-49 margin in January, Navy veteran Kevin Adams. However, the district became much bluer under the new map: While Biden and Youngkin took the old 7th District 54-44 and 52-48, respectively, the renumbered seat favored Biden 59-39 and supported McAuliffe 52-47, so Rouse is the favorite.
Hey, You Never Know
Far-right Sen. Amanda Chase, who has called herself "Trump in heels" and left the GOP caucus years ago, faces primary opposition from both former state Sen. Glen Sturtevant and 2020 congressional candidate Tina Ramirez in the 12th District. Sturtevant is arguing that the incumbent could jeopardize the party’s hold on this suburban Richmond constituency, but even Chase would need to work hard to lose the general election in a district that favored Trump 52-46 and Youngkin 57-42.
If by November the playing field has shifted sharply toward Democrats, a couple of “reach” seats to keep an eye on include the 4th District, where GOP Sen. Dave Suetterlein is running, and the 20th District, where Sen. Bill DeSteph is seeking re-election. On the other hand, if it's shaping up to be a strong Republican year, Democratic Del. Danica Roem could have a challenging time in the 30th District, a Northern Virginia constituency that Biden carried but that only favored McAuliffe 52-47. (While Biden's win in the 30th pencils out to 62-36, there are concerns about how Prince William County allocated votes between precincts in the 2020 election that point to his actual margin being smaller.)
America could learn a lot from how other countries elect their leaders! Political science professor Matthew Shugart joins us on this week's episode of The Downballot to explain how a variety of electoral systems around the world operate, as well as his thoughts on which might work well here—and actually improve our democracy. Shugart gets into the weeds on proportional voting, single transferable vote, "decoy lists," and much more. If those terms are new to you, you'll definitely want to listen!