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 1 will deal with how Virginia’s legislative races could make or break the political career of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
A handful of state legislature races in the Virginia suburbs could dictate the political future of one of the Republican Party’s most promising stars.
GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin has bet big on the prospect of Republicans taking control of both chambers in the Virginia General Assembly, which would require defending a narrow majority in the House of Delegates and flipping the state Senate.
Youngkin has poured significant sums from his record-breaking fundraising hauls into helping Republicans grow their ranks at the statehouse. He’s also led a push to ramp up early voting for Republicans, who have, in recent years, ceded early voting advantages to Democrats.
Still relatively untested as a first-time politician, Youngkin’s decision to devote so much of his focus to the off-year election means the results will likely be viewed through the lens of what they mean for his career.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher for him,” Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political analyst, told the Washington Examiner. “If he wins, it catapults him further onto the national stage. If the Democrats win in flipping the House and keeping the Senate, it will basically say that his election was a one-off because of the frustration that people felt about Covid.”
All 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly will be on the ballot on Nov. 7, which is Election Day in Virginia and a few other states.
But just a handful of those races will determine control of the legislature, Holsworth said.
“There’s probably six, maybe seven maximum, in the Senate, and maybe eight or nine in the House,” Holsworth said of the contests that have become competitive enough to swing the assembly.
Democrats have a four-seat majority in the state Senate. Republicans have a four-seat majority in the House of Delegates, with four seats vacant heading into Election Day.
The races next month will test the impact of the new map drawn by the state after redistricting in 2021.
Abortion, crime, and education have factored heavily into campaign messaging this year, with Youngkin spearheading a push for a 15-week abortion ban he has said Republicans will pass if they win control of the state Senate and keep the House of Delegates.
But President Joe Biden and his predecessor also loom over the off-year legislative contests.
Former President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Virginia helped drive Democrats to heights that could prove difficult to sustain without him on the ballot this year.
Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates in 2017, but Republicans just barely clung to a majority when a statistical tie in one district ultimately forced Virginia officials to draw the name of the winner from a bowl. The seat stayed in Republican hands as a result, giving the GOP a narrow 51 to 49 majority.
In 2019, riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment, Democrats won control of both the House of Delegates and the state Senate.
But with Trump out of office, Virginia Republicans have fared better. Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 governor’s race coincided with a strong performance by the GOP in House of Delegates races; the party netted seven seats and took control of the chamber that year.
“I think Virginia really looked bluer than it may actually be” during Trump’s presidency, said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Voter registration has been down this year compared to 2019,” Coleman told the Washington Examiner. “That was the last year where only the legislature was on the ballot.”
Coleman said Trump’s divisiveness likely drove a surge in Democratic voter registration during his presidency that has since abated, with those Democratic voters already priced into the electorate for 2023.
Now, Coleman noted, Democratic candidates have been “overcorrecting” for the mistakes of 2021, when former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe lost to Youngkin after building his campaign around Trump’s unpopularity.
“It seemed like every other sentence, he’d mention Trump, and that didn’t really work out very well,” Coleman said of McAuliffe.
Although he’s running for president again, Trump has featured less prominently in Virginia Democrats’ messaging this cycle.
“Democrats did very well in Virginia when Trump was president because he was so unpopular here,” said Holsworth, the Virginia political analyst. “But Democrats in Virginia, like Democrats nationally, have tended not to focus on how unpopular Biden is in the state.”
“That’s a little bit of a challenge that no one has spoken about, but the fact that Biden is unpopular in Virginia can tamp down Democratic enthusiasm and turnout, and that may be as much of a challenge as Youngkin’s money,” Holsworth added.
Youngkin’s fundraising prowess has helped Republicans neutralize the financial edge that Virginia Democrats have enjoyed in recent years.
In September, Democrats raised $8.8 million for their House of Delegates candidates, while Republicans raised $8.3 million. On the state Senate side, Democrats raised $6.5 million compared to Republicans’ $6 million.
That has allowed Republicans to answer attacks on vulnerable issues like abortion and continue pressing their advantage on issues like parental rights in education, the latter of which helped propel Youngkin into office.
Youngkin hopes to replicate some of the success of his 2021 playbook, which some Republicans have called “the Virginia model,” for General Assembly races this year. That has some GOP activists and donors whispering about a late entry into the 2024 presidential race.
Younkin hosted some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors at a retreat last week in Virginia Beach, where he reportedly pressed them on the importance of sweeping Virginia legislative races next month.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an appearance at the retreat and later told CBS News in an interview that donors discussed a desire to see Youngkin run for president.
“By the way, I would include myself amongst the people who think he would be really good in that place, that he’s a very capable leader and someone who understands the American people,” Pompeo said.
A strong Republican performance on Nov. 7 may not come soon enough to help Youngkin break into the presidential primary, however.
The filing deadline to participate in the New Hampshire primary – the second nominating contest, falling after the Iowa caucus — will have passed by Virginia’s Election Day.
If he waited to use the Virginia elections as a springboard to enter the presidential primary, Youngkin would also miss the filing deadline to participate in the Nevada caucus, the third nominating contest of 2024.
What’s more, Trump’s lead over the existing field remains unyielding, and it has already caused his challengers to reconsider their options.
A political action committee supporting the presidential campaign of Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) canceled its planned ad spending for the fall amid the realization that the dynamics of the 2024 race remain “stuck,” according to a memo prepared by the PAC.
No GOP primary opponent has managed to gain any significant ground against Trump over the course of several months of campaigning and two prime-time debates in which Trump did not participate.
Those dynamics could dissuade Youngkin from entering a race that appears unwinnable, even if his party’s performance next month does supercharge the 2024 speculation surrounding him.
“He has played an enormous role in this election for the Republicans,” said Coleman. “This is his midterm election, basically.”
“Compared to some of the other governors, say a [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis or a [Georgia Gov.] Brian Kemp, who have been able to pass a lot of conservative legislation, he’s really been stymied by his state Senate,” Coleman added.
The remaining two years of Youngkin’s term, rather than the results on Election Day next month, could provide Youngkin a boost into presidential politics if Republicans gain unified control of Virginia’s government.
Youngkin would then have the opportunity to pass abortion and education policies that could offer him a platform to run on in the 2028 presidential race, which will start to take shape roughly one year after his term ends.
Coleman noted that other rising political stars, like Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, already appear to be positioning themselves for the presidential race that follows the likely Biden-Trump rematch.
“2028 is going to come faster than a lot of people realize,” he said.