The 2023 elections may not have the fireworks of 2024, but there is still plenty up for grabs. In this “off-year,” most of which takes place on Nov. 7, Virginia will be keenly watched, particularly by followers of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and whether he can springboard Republican success into national aspirations. Meanwhile, the governor’s mansion is up for grabs in Kentucky and Mississippi. New Jersey’s Republicans believe they have a real shot at turning the state red in legislative elections, while there are also fierce mayoral and district attorney battles throughout the United States. Voters will also decide several fascinating referendums, particularly in Ohio, Maine, and Texas. This Washington Examiner series, November to Remember, will dive into all of these and more over the following two weeks. Part Three will deal with the Virginia General Assembly.
All 140 seats of Virginia‘s General Assembly are up for election in November, and the political future of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) single term as governor hangs in the balance as the already razor-thin House and Senate majorities have the potential to be under either party’s control.
Youngkin faces a divided government, as Republicans hold a narrow 48-46 majority in the House of Delegates with six vacancies, and Democrats maintain a 22-17 majority in the Senate with one vacancy.
While issues like crime, education, and Virginia’s status as the last Southern state not to restrict abortion are defining political messaging in the commonwealth, another factor has provided political unknowns for the Western Hemisphere’s oldest lawmaking body. New district maps were drawn by the commonwealth’s Supreme Court rather than the political party in power, leaving both parties in political limbo.
Many incumbents were effectively drawn out of their districts, resulting in 10 senators and 17 delegates deciding not to seek reelection, a phenomenon J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said “represented the highest attrition rate this century” for both chambers. However, Coleman told the Washington Examiner that during primary season, while Democrats were voting out their incumbents, Republicans won primaries with Youngkin-endorsed candidates tailor-made to win in those districts.
Republican candidate Mike Dillender, a retired Navy captain, told the Washington Examiner his opponent, former Democratic Del. Nadarius Clark, who calls himself a working-class community activist, was forced to leave his seat and move into another district after having been drawn out. “Instead of representing home communities, redistricting causes many of these politicians to relocate so they can climb the next rung of their political ladder,” Dillender said.
As a result, the vast majority of competitive races this cycle are open seats, meaning neither party will benefit from the institutional power of incumbency going into tight races. While Coleman believes the Democrats might have a slight advantage in the Senate, he said the House looks more like a “true toss-up.”
Abortion since the overturn of Roe v. Wade has become the overwhelming messaging strategy of Democrats, while Republicans are focused on “kitchen table issues,” according to Youngkin senior adviser Dave Rexrode, who told the Washington Examiner that Republicans are “applying conservative, commonsense solutions to cost of living, public safety, and education and parental rights.”
For Republicans to make the rare move of achieving a governing trifecta in a state that voted for the other party for president, Youngkin and the GOP have made a heavy push to encourage early voting among a group of voters who are typically skeptical of doing so. The polls have been open for early, in-person voting since Sept. 22, and voters appear evenly split on which party they would prefer to win control of the legislature.
Here are the races that will decide the political future of Virginia, taking new legislative lines into account:
Virginia House of Delegates
Control of the House will be decided primarily by 10 close races, where districts won by Biden in 2020 were either lost or nearly lost by former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his 2021 faceoff with Youngkin. Any race and every vote can matter in these races, as Republicans barely maintained a House majority in 2017 House races after the winner’s name was drawn from a bowl. Of the 10 close races, seven are open seats, two have Republican incumbents, and one has a Democratic incumbent.
David Owen (R) v. Susanna Gibson (D)
The race between businessman David Owen, the Republican candidate, and nurse practitioner Susanna Gibson, the Democratic candidate, gained national notoriety after Gibson was found to have performed sex acts with her husband online for money.
Before the scandal, the race was already close, but recent polling and fundraising suggest the race is pulling away from her ability to win. While Gibson raised a massive $490,000 in the immediate aftermath of the news breaking, Owen raked in $565,000 in the same period, more than half of his total money raised.
According to a recent Cygnal poll, support for Gibson has dropped significantly since the news broke, with Owen leading 49.5% to 38.9%; Gibson’s unfavorability also skyrocketed from 12.5% to 45.2%, and favorability declined from 28.1% to 27.3%. In the same poll one month prior, Owen held a 4% lead.
Taking the redrawn lines into account, this open district swung from a Biden victory margin of 5.4% to a Youngkin victory margin of 3.6% the very next year. In the 2022 midterm elections, the Democrat squeaked by winning the district 50% to 49.1%.
John Stirrup (R) v. Josh Thomas (D)
Republican John Stirrup is facing off against Democrat Josh Thomas in a tight northern Virginia race that also flipped from Democratic to Republican to Democratic in the last three elections and is currently open.
While Stirrup, a former Prince William County supervisor, is focusing his campaign on crime and improving public safety, retired Marine Thomas is banking his campaign on abortion.
This race also made headlines when the Washington Post released audio of Stirrup saying he “would support a 100% ban” on abortion, which was used in Thomas’s first television ad.
Despite that, both candidates are nearly evenly split on fundraising, having each raised around $1.4 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
While Biden won this seat by a margin of 26.6% in 2020, Youngkin beat McAuliffe by 1.8%. However, in the 2022 midterm elections, voters favored the Democrat 50.8% to 49%.
Ian Lovejoy (R) v. Travis Nembhard (D)
In another open Biden-Youngkin swing district in northern Virginia, Republican Ian Lovejoy is facing off with Democrat Travis Nembhard.
Lovejoy, a former Manassas councilman and unsuccessful candidate for the House in 2019, told the Washington Examiner his campaign’s message is “responsible governance through lowering the cost of living, ensuring we are fully supporting law enforcement to keep our communities safe, and stopping out-of-control data center development in our communities is resonating with voters.”
Nembhard, an attorney, did not respond to a request for comment but says he is focused on the high cost of living, universal child care, and a concern that the U.S. Supreme Court could roll back gay marriage.
In 2020, Biden won the district by a 5.4% margin, whereas Youngkin took it by 5.7% in 2021. In 2022, the district remained in Republican hands 51.3% to 48.5%.
Karen Greenhalgh (R) v. Michael Feggans (D)
Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh’s battle with Air Force veteran and Democrat Michael Feggans is the most expensive overall race by money raised in the Commonwealth.
Both candidates have raised around $1.8 million, with Greenhalgh a roughly $27,000 advantage.
While it is one of few close contests where an incumbent is running and Coleman describes the Virginia Beach-area district as “fairly elastic and incumbent-friendly,” Biden won the district by 12% in 2020, only to swing to Youngkin by 2% the next year and back to the Democrat by 52.5% to 47.3% in 2022.
Greenhalgh told the Washington Examiner that Virginia’s redistricting will mean a “record number of new members” next legislative session while focusing her message on the economy, including gas and grocery taxes, which she says voters say are the most pressing issues in her district.
Feggans did not respond to a request for comment but is focusing his campaign on abortion.
While Republicans are fighting to maintain the House and grow their majority, they face an uphill battle for statewide control that goes through the Senate. Two out of six close contests have incumbents running, one Republican and one Democrat. Every close district was won by Biden by nearly 6 points or more. The Democratic-controlled Senate has stood as a bulwark against some of Youngkin’s more ambitious policy goals, such as killing a 15-week abortion restriction earlier this year.
Siobhan Dunnavant (R) v. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D)
Incumbent Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant will face off against Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg in what will be one of the most difficult seats for Republicans to defend in the race for control of the Senate.
Abortion has taken center stage in this Richmond-area district, as VanValkenburg, a high school civics teacher, is highlighting Republican attempts to restrict the procedure. Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN, is presenting a more nuanced opinion on the matter, allowing abortion through the first four months of pregnancy with exceptions but making abortions harder to obtain later in pregnancy.
While Dunnavant said she wants to “de-escalate things” and “build consensus,” VanValkenburg said, “A ban is a ban. And she’s proposing a ban.”
Dunnavant also broke with Republicans in a Democratic-backed attempt to restrict firearms like AR-style rifles.
Despite having a Republican incumbent in the state Senate, Democrats have won every other recent election in the district. In 2020, Biden won by nearly 17%, but McAuliffe only won it by 5.6% the next year. However, Democrats took the district by more than 10% in 2022.
Danny Diggs (R) v. Monty Mason (D)
The other race with an incumbent is Democratic state Sen. Monty Mason in a contest with Republican former sheriff Danny Diggs.
This district saw an 8.8% Biden margin of support flip to a 3.5% Youngkin margin from 2020 to 2021.
Diggs told the Washington Examiner that the district is a “true 50-50 district” and he is focusing on “taxes, public safety, and education.”
He also said Mason is focusing on abortion, adding, “My opponent doesn’t have any meaningful accomplishments in the legislature, so he is running a scare campaign on abortion that independent fact checkers have determined is false.”
While Mason did not respond to a request for comment, he has said he supports Virginia’s current 26-week limit on abortion. He has also highlighted his votes to allow parents to have the final say over sexually explicit materials in schools and other instances of bipartisanship.
Mason has outraised Diggs by over $1 million, raking in about $3.25 million.
Bill Woolf (R) v. Danica Roem (D)
Democratic Del. Danica Roem is looking for a promotion to the Senate against first-time candidate Bill Woolf in an open northern Virginia district seen as a pickup opportunity for Republicans.
Roem, a biological man, became the first transgender person to be elected to a state legislature in the country. Roem has more than double the money raised as Woolf, having raked in nearly $1.5 million.
At their first debate in early October after voting started, the two candidates disagreed on abortion and whether parents should be notified about their child claiming transgender identity in school.
Woolf told the Washington Examiner he is focusing on keeping his representation local, saying, “I won’t vote based on what either party wants. I will vote for the people of Prince William, Manassas, and Manassas Park.”
“Struggling families need relief from the rising cost of living, our first responders need support to tackle rising crime, we need to rein in the data center expansion to protect our green spaces, and every single parent deserves to know what is going on in our schools,” he added.