|Dear Readers: This is Part Two of our series previewing the races for the Virginia state legislature. In Part One, we looked at the big-picture stakes and trends. Today, we go through the districts that we think will decide the chamber, including 10 in the House and 6 in the Senate. We would like to recognize the co-author of this piece, Jackson Hamilton, who interned with us over the summer and did important background research for this article.
For more on the race for the Virginia legislature, check out our latest episode of the “Politics is Everything” podcast, which is now available wherever you get your podcasts.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Because of new, court-drawn maps, the 2023 Virginia election cycle has been defined by a high rate of attrition — and this is before the general election has even taken place.
— Though he is not on the ballot himself, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) has emerged as a visible player, using his platform to boost Republican nominees as he aims to win a GOP trifecta.
— In the Democratic-held state Senate, Sens. Monty Mason (D) and Siobhan Dunnavant (R) are in competitive races, while the majority will likely hinge on several open, Biden-to-Youngkin seats.
— Close races abound in the GOP-held House of Delegates, which feels like more of a true Toss-up chamber than the state Senate.
Mapping the road to November
Before we start our look at the state legislative races, something that has defined Virginia’s electoral landscape this year is the way in which the maps were drawn. After 2010, the Democrats, who controlled the state Senate, and Republicans, who controlled the House of Delegates, essentially signed off on each other’s gerrymanders. Though there has been considerable churn in state politics since then, the parties entered this election cycle holding both those respective chambers (even after court-ordered changes to the House map weakened the GOP gerrymander in advance of the 2019 elections — Democrats flipped the chamber that year but Republicans regained it in 2021).
In 2020, though, voters approved an amendment that created a redistricting commission made up of a combination of legislators and citizens. While the redistricting process went relatively smoothly in some other states that adopted similar commissions that were meant to draw lines after the 2020 census — notably Colorado and Michigan — the situation was messier in Virginia. Redistricting was kicked to the state Supreme Court, which appointed a pair of special masters who produced maps as the 2021 calendar year was winding down.
Though the court-drawn maps cleaned up many of the erose lines that the outgoing, politician-drawn plans featured, the special masters were not deferential to incumbents. The result was a flood of retirements. Before primary season even got underway, 10 senators and 17 delegates opted to step aside — for both chambers, those numbers represented the highest attrition rate this century.
In June, one of the larger subplots of the election cycle was a wave of involuntary retirements, specifically in the state Senate. Five state senators, many but not all of whom were weakened to some degree by the new maps, were defeated in their primaries, and two others had close calls. With the exception of state Sen. Amanda Chase, a far-right Republican from the Richmond area, all of the other primary losers were veteran Democrats. In their messaging, Republicans pointed to the Democratic infighting and tried to project an image of unity: as one of their most problematic members (Chase) was given the boot, all of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) endorsed candidates won their primaries.
This brings us to the general election. In 2021, as former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) lost 51%-49% to Youngkin, he would have carried 20 of the 40 seats on the new map — this gives Democrats a clear, though not guaranteed, path to 20 seats. Because of Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears’s (R) tie-breaking vote, though, Democrats will have to pick off at least one Youngkin-won district for a majority. Meanwhile, it would be hard to call either party a favorite in the 100-member House of Delegates, where the likely path to a majority runs through a handful of Biden-to-Youngkin districts.
While Donald Trump has spent much of the last few years ranting against absentee voting, Youngkin — who has been very involved in the 2023 campaign season as he tries to build a national profile — has taken a smarter approach: He has implored Republicans to cast their ballots ahead of Election Day (early voting starts today). After winning control of state government in 2019, Virginia Democrats expanded early voting options. These changes coincided with the pandemic, a time when many voters began looking for ways to cast ballots aside from going in-person on Election Day. Since then, early voting has remained popular in Virginia. In 2022, roughly one-third of ballots counted were cast early (either in-person or by mail), and those votes broke to Democratic candidates by more than 25 points. With that, Youngkin’s team seems determined to claim a larger share of the absentee vote pie. That said, it’s also fair to note that Youngkin and the GOP did just fine in 2021, when Trump-driven skepticism of early/absentee voting was arguably at its peak (nor did the proliferation of early voting bar them from having a strong year).
For Democrats, this year’s contests represent a mostly defensive battle, although if they claim control of both chambers, it could increase their leverage in future budget negotiations with Youngkin. Realistically, though, Democrats won’t be able to pass many of their desired big-ticket priorities until the next Democratic trifecta comes along, which would be after the 2025 elections at the earliest. Still, Democratic partisans warn that, under a GOP trifecta, Virginia would start to look much more like Florida or Texas. As we mentioned yesterday, abortion rights has emerged as a key issue because of this dynamic.
With that background out of the way, in what follows we’ll survey 16 races — 6 in the Senate and 10 in the House of Delegates — that seem likely to determine control of the legislature. While it is possible that some districts that we won’t mention could flip, that would likely mean an as-yet-unanticipated big wave developed for one side or the other.
Map 1: Virginia State Senate districts
Note: District colors are based on DRA 2020’s 2016-2021 composite data.
Table 1: Key state Senate districts
Source: DRA 2020
The sole state Senate district on our list that features a Republican incumbent is SD-16, which takes up much of Henrico County’s western geographic half. Though this upscale district has GOP lineage, by 2020, Joe Biden carried it comfortably. Recent gubernatorial results have confirmed this movement: McAuliffe lost the district by 4 points in his successful 2013 campaign, but carried the district by about that same margin when he lost to Youngkin. In an open-seat contest, Democrats would likely be clear favorites, but Republicans have a battle-tested incumbent in two-term Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant. The only Senate Republican who voted against a 15-week abortion ban that Youngkin favored, Dunnavant has positioned herself as a maverick who delivers for the district — one GOP source described her to us as the “Susan Collins of Virginia.” Three-term Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, who represents a House district that is politically similar to SD-16, is the Democratic nominee. VanValkenburg is a teacher who recently released an ad lamenting the necessity of school shooter lockdown drills — a potentially strong message in this blue-trending suburban seat. As of the most recent financial reporting (ending Aug. 31), VanValkenburg had a narrow cash-on-hand advantage. Overall, we suspect the trend of the district could be too much for Republicans to overcome, but we can’t count Dunnavant out in what is probably a must-win seat for Democrats.
Moving south of the Richmond metro area, SD-17 begins in the Hampton Roads area and takes in some Southside localities. SD-17 is 40% Black by composition and has not seen the type of rapid leftward movement that has characterized other districts on our list — in fact, Biden’s 53%-46% margin in the district was down from the 55%-44% that Barack Obama got eight years earlier, even as the former did better statewide. This open-seat race features two sitting delegates: Republican Emily Brewer and Democrat Clint Jenkins. So far, Brewer has raised significantly more money than Jenkins — we may note that the former had to fundraise for a competitive primary while the latter did not. Still, given Brewer’s fundraising advantage, SD-17 would seem to be more on the Leans Republican side of Toss-up (we are not issuing formal ratings), although Democrats have a high floor in the district.
Now, going east of the Richmond metro area, SD-24 is the sole state Senate seat on our list that features an incumbent Democrat. Located on the Peninsula, its largest sources of votes are Newport News City and York County while, on either end of the district, deep blue Williamsburg City (home of the College of William and Mary) and deep red Poquoson County were appended to the seat. Sen. Monty Mason (D), who was unopposed in his previous race and has served in Richmond for a decade, is in a Toss-up race against Republican Danny Diggs, a former local sheriff. Though Mason outraised Diggs since July, Diggs ended August with more cash on hand. This district voted for Biden by about 9% in 2020, but it is historically redder down ballot — it backed losing GOP statewide candidates in 2013 and 2014 before giving Youngkin a 4-point margin in 2021. Both parties have strong candidates who can clearly fundraise, so this is likely to be one of the closest races in the November elections. One source involved in this year’s campaigns told us the district could be decided by double-digits — in terms of actual raw votes, not percentage margin, that is.
Getting closer to Northern Virginia, as the DC suburbs have continued to spill into the broader commonwealth, the Fredericksburg area has emerged as an electoral battleground — on a historical note, Civil War buffs may recognize the city as of one of that conflict’s most infamous literal battlegrounds. The 27th District includes the city of Fredericksburg and parts of Spotsylvania and Stafford counties. Like the 17th, it voted for both Biden and Youngkin by about 5%, but unlike the 17th, it has been trending left in federal elections due to its suburban nature (it voted for Trump by 6% in 2016). Joel Griffin, a local businessman, is the Democratic nominee, while Tara Durant, a current delegate from the Fredericksburg area, is the Republican nominee. Throwing a wrinkle into the race, Monica Gary, a current Stafford County supervisor, is running as an independent candidate. Both major-party candidates have raised roughly $1 million, and Gary has received almost $190,000 worth of contributions, a substantial amount for an independent. Because both parties are running mainstream candidates, and the district is usually competitive, this is likely to be a close race in November, although Gary’s presence might hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans.
Going by just its presidential partisanship, the Loudoun County-centric 31st District, which gave Biden a 13-point margin in 2020, would appear to be a slam dunk for Democrats. But the district very narrowly voted for Youngkin and its voters are still open to some other down-ballot Republicans. In this contest, Republicans are excited about their candidate, entrepreneur Juan Pablo Segura. On the Democratic side, Russet Perry, an attorney with a background in the CIA, seems cut from the same cloth as Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D, VA-7). Perry had a contested primary, although she garnered endorsements from several sitting state senators and won comfortably. Though Segura’s fundraising numbers were stronger earlier in this cycle, Perry has gained significant ground since the primary. So far, both candidates have raised close to $2 million for this district that is located within the pricey DC media market — though we’ll check back after November, we would not be surprised if SD-31 ends up as the cycle’s most expensive race.
Finally, though we aren’t expecting Democrats to actually lose the district, Republicans are determined not to let current Delegate Danica Roem have an easy path to a promotion in northern Prince William County’s SD-30. In 2017, Roem made history by becoming the first openly transgender candidate to win a legislative seat in Virginia. In June, Bill Woolf, a former police detective who is fluent in Spanish, easily emerged from a competitive primary, thanks in part to an endorsement from Youngkin. Though the district is tough sledding for Republicans — in 2021, Youngkin lost it 52%-47% — we are watching the margin here.
We detailed six districts here. The expected partisan breakdown of the other 34 is 18-16 Democratic. Assuming there are no upsets in those other races, Democrats need to win three of these six to get to a 21-seat majority, while Republicans need to win four of these six to get to a 20-20 quasi-majority because of the lieutenant gubernatorial tiebreaker.
House of Delegates
Map 2: Virginia House of Delegates districts
Note: District colors are based on DRA 2020’s 2016-2021 composite data.
Table 2: Key House of Delegates districts
Source: DRA 2020
In the state House, we’ll start off with a pair of Biden-to-Youngkin seats that overlap with SD-30. HD-21, which includes Gainesville and Haymarket, saw one of the biggest shifts from 2020 to 2021 out of anywhere in the commonwealth — after going for Biden by more than 25 points, it backed Youngkin by 2 points. Josh Thomas, the Democratic nominee, is a veteran of the Marine Corps, and John Stirrup, the Republican nominee, is a former member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Thomas has a cash-on-hand edge in the most recent reporting.
Moving closer to Interstate 95, HD-22 is a more marginal seat that contains Buckhall and Nokesville. Compared to HD-21, the 11-point shift that HD-22 saw between 2020 and 2021 was much more in line with Virginia as a whole. The Republican nominee is Ian Lovejoy, a former member of the Manassas City Council and the unsuccessful nominee for delegate against now-former Delegate Lee Carter (D) in 2019. The Democratic nominee, Travis Nembhard, is a lawyer. The candidates are roughly even in terms of their cash-on-hand totals.
As something of a technical aside, before 2022, Virginia did not allocate its absentee votes to precincts. For those of us who study election returns at the more granular levels, this quirk was not as consequential before the pandemic, when the vast majority of ballots were cast on Election Day (as we alluded to in the introduction section). But in 2020, 63% of ballots were cast early — in 2021, that number fell to a lesser, but still high, 36%. In any case, in 2020, it seems possible that ballots were (mis-)allocated in Prince William County in a way that overstated Biden’s support in the marginal north while understating his strength in the deeper blue south. So in the context of 2023, it may be important to remember that SD-30, as well as the duo of HDs 21 and 22, were probably not quite as pro-Biden as their official numbers imply. This would also mean that the 30-point swing that HD-21 saw between 2020 and 2021 is likely somewhat exaggerated.
Moving down I-95, HD-65 centers on Fredericksburg, mentioned above as an important battleground. In this open seat, Republicans have nominated Lee Peters, a Marine Corps veteran, and Democrats have nominated Joshua Cole, the former delegate for the old 28th district, which was essentially the predecessor to this district. Cole lost his bid for reelection in 2021, but he still likely has some residual name recognition. Cole does have a significant monetary advantage, and the baseline partisan lean of the district favors Democrats in most elections. But the fact that Cole lost a similar district in 2021 means that winning the race is not guaranteed for Democrats.
In western Henrico County, HDs 57 and 58 are both considered competitive seats. The race in the former made national headlines last week: It was reported that Susanna Gibson, the Democratic nominee who is a nurse practitioner, performed with her husband in X-rated chatrooms. The Republican nominee for this open seat is businessman David Owen — he has not offered much public commentary on the recent story, and has preferred to keep the focus on his own effort. Though the revelations could help Republicans, Gibson had outraised Owen since the primary, and the Democratic backlash to the story may help pad her monetary advantage. As one smart observer pointed out, while Democrats would very much like to have HD-57, it is not necessarily a must-win seat for them — though Biden carried the district in 2020, it was only his 53rd-best seat in the chamber (meaning Democrats would theoretically have a path to a majority without it). A generation ago, this is the sort of story that would have seemed to be fatal to a campaign; nowadays, we just don’t know.
HD-58, which is closer to Richmond proper, is a bluer district, and it is one of only three McAuliffe-won House seats on our list. Still, the Democratic incumbent, Delegate Rodney Willett, notably only won reelection by 5% in 2021 in a district that is 4% bluer than the new seat. In one recent mailer, he pointed to his bipartisan work with Youngkin. Republicans are taking his postpartisan tone as evidence of desperation, and claim that their nominee, Riley Shaia, is keeping the race close (of course, in marginal districts, candidates of all stripes often try to blur partisan lines).
South of Richmond, HD-82, encompasses Petersburg and has something of a rural flavor. Like SD-17, the Democratic lean of this seat has eroded over the last decade: after it gave Obama a roughly 25-point margin in 2012, Biden went on to carry it by just 10 points before Youngkin narrowly flipped it. The current Republican incumbent, Kim Taylor, flipped a similar district from an incumbent Democrat in a 2021 upset. Taylor won that year despite being heavily outraised. This year, Democratic nominee Kimberly Pope Adams emerged from a contested primary. Given Taylor’s history, and the trend of the area, this district is certain to be competitive despite its presidential lean.
Continuing our southeastern trek, the 84th district, which runs from Suffolk to Franklin, voted for Biden by 16% and McAuliffe by 2%. The Democratic candidate, Nadarius Clark, is a former delegate from a district that does not overlap with this district. Mike Dillender, the Republican candidate, is a retired Navy captain. Both candidates faced contested primary elections, which they each won by over 30%. Given that even McAuliffe won this district, and Clark is raising significantly more money than his Republican opponent, Clark seems at least a tenuous favorite.
The 89th District, which voted for Biden by 3% and Youngkin by 8%, is another one worth watching. This is an open seat, and Republican nominee Baxter Ennis, an Army veteran, is running against Democrat Karen Jenkins, a member of the Suffolk school board. Jenkins has raised $100,000 so far, while Ennis has raised more than three times that ($340,000). This seat has the makings of a competitive district, but Jenkins’s lackluster fundraising is a sign that Republicans may have the edge.
Republicans claim that the 94th District, located in the city of Norfolk, could be something of a sleeper race that could break their way on a good night. In this open seat, which voted for Biden by 16% and McAuliffe by 4%, Democrats nominated Phil Hernandez and Republicans nominated Andy Pittman. Hernandez has outraised Pittman by a factor of 3-to-1. Given the clear fundraising discrepancy and the blue lean of the district, Hernandez seems likely to win, but Pittman could make the race close since he appears to be running a serious campaign.
Finally, the 97th District, located in Virginia Beach, voted for Biden by 12% in 2020, and Youngkin by 2% in 2021. Karen Greenhalgh is the incumbent Republican running for reelection in the district, and the Democratic nominee is Michael Feggans, an Air Force veteran. Greenhalgh and Feggans have raised roughly equal amounts of money so far. Given that Greenhalgh is an incumbent and Virginia Beach voters are fairly elastic and incumbent-friendly, this is likely to be a close race despite the federal partisan lean of the district.
So that’s 10 key races in the House of Delegates to go along with 6 in the Senate. The 90 House districts not noted here would break 45-45. So if there are no upsets in the other races, each side needs to win 6 of these 10 to get to 51 seats. As we noted yesterday, there’s no tiebreaking vote in the House, and a 50-50 chamber is possible.
Note: In addition to DRA 2020, the following outlets provided valuable information used throughout this article: The Virginia Public Access Project, Redistricter, and CNalysis. Carah Ong Whaley, our colleague at the Center for Politics, put together the interactive maps seen in this piece.