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Democratic enthusiasm in Virginia faces test in 2021 statewide elections


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Democrats have controlled the political landscape in Virginia for the last two years, following a trend seen statewide for nearly a decade.

The party captured majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly in 2019 and last lost a statewide election in 2009. Every Democratic presidential candidate has won Virginia since 2008 and Democrats also make up the majority of the commonwealth’s Congressional delegation.

Changing demographics and a more nationalized approach to state politics have helped drive this shift, political analysts say. But this year’s statewide elections could be a real test of Virginia’s recent status as a blue state.  

“I’ve been concerned since November 2016 when Hillary Clinton didn’t win. I mean, I wake up concerned every day although I’m sleeping a whole lot better now that Joe Biden is president,” Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said with a laugh when asked by 8News if she’s worried about the party’s ability to draw in its coalition of voters for the off-year election.

Exciting the party’s base for the election could be a challenge for Virginia Democrats, especially without former President Donald Trump on the ballot or on Twitter. Another potential issue could be President Biden’s presence in the White House.

Before Terry McAuliffe’s win in 2013, the political party that held the White House had lost Virginia’s governor’s race for 36 years. Biden carried Virginia by 10% last November, but his approval rating has dropped in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could cost Virginia Democrats.

Recent statewide polls show Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer, within striking distance of McAuliffe, a former Democratic Virginia governor seeking a second term, in the governor’s race. Even Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, the only incumbent on the Democratic statewide ticket, could be at risk of losing to his Republican challenger Jason Miyares, poll results suggest.

“I know this sounds cliché; I really don’t pay that much attention to polls because we’ve seen how they’ve been wrong,” Swecker continued. “All I know is what I’m seeing out here in enthusiasm.” 

Voting numbers predictably dip without a national race on the ticket. In the last governor’s race, 2.6 million voters cast their ballot. The year before, for the 2016 presidential election, nearly four million votes were cast in Virginia.

In November, close to 4.5 million Virginia voters cast their ballot for the 2020 presidential election. While there are no expectations of reaching that total, voter turnout will be vital for both parties.

“I understand we’re in an off-year election. That’s always been somewhat of a challenge, but we’ve proven before, and look here’s the other thing, I want to give credit to the voters,” Swecker said. “Virginia voters are very smart. They’re very savvy and they’re very tuned in.”

Hoping to rally their base this election cycle, Democratic candidates have turned their attention to issues such as abortion rights and the coronavirus pandemic. Until the votes come in and the results are certified, it remains unclear whether these tactics will get voters to the polls.

Republican candidates have targeted policy changes enacted during the Democrats’ rein over the state legislature, such as several gun control measures, as an example of government overreach amid a shift in power. The GOP is banking on enthusiasm fading for Democratic rule, 8News political analyst Rich Meagher says, but has yet to focus on agenda items that will galvanize independents and its own base.

“So, that could be an argument. We’ve had Democratic control in Virginia, there’s Democrats in national government and both of those factors could push some Virginians to say, ‘OK, enough of those guys, now let’s go see what the other team has to say,” Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College, said in an interview.

“But what are Republicans offering for the mushy middle, left? They’re offering concerns about election fraud, a full-throated defense of gun rights and they’re offering restrictive abortion laws.”

Meagher noted that many voters back some form of gun restrictions and believe abortions should be allowed. He added that while Trump hasn’t taken center stage since leaving office, despite his endorsement of Youngkin, his presence in state politics is still felt and could have an impact on Democratic voters in Virginia.

“Republicans are still very much informed by and influenced by Trump and Trump sort of lurks around at the background,” said Meagher. “He’s not on Twitter every day but he’s still there, doing interviews and having events and people are invoking him and talking about him. So, I still think there’ll be some of that driving Democratic turnout.” 

With early voting already underway, Virginia voters can cast their ballot for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general for the Nov. 2 election. All 100 House of Delegates seats, where Democrats currently hold a 55-45 majority, and certain local races will also be on ballots. 



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