Both parties rally supporters as voting begins in Virginia's closely watched legislative elections

Early voting has begun in Virginia’s costly, high-stakes and closely watched legislative elections after a week in which elected officials and candidates rallied their supporters across the state

Sarah Rankin
Friday 22 September 2023 18:23 BST

Early voting started Friday in Virginia's costly, high-stakes and closely watched legislative elections after a week in which elected officials and candidates rallied their supporters across the state.

All 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot, with candidates running for the first time in an environment shaken up by maps overhauled in the most recent once-a-decade redistricting process.

With the Legislature narrowly divided, both parties say they see a path to a full statehouse majority running through a little more than a dozen battleground districts centered in central Virginia, Hampton Roads and the outer Washington suburbs.

"At the heart of this is holding our House and flipping our Senate," Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin told supporters in Petersburg on Thursday afternoon, urging the crowd to vote early, donate and volunteer.

A GOP trifecta would clear the way for Youngkin to move swiftly on what he calls his “commonsense” conservative priorities — boosting pay and funding for law enforcement, protecting parental rights in education, overhauling the mental health system, and enacting additional tax cuts and greater restrictions on abortion.

While he has notched some successes on taxes and education through bipartisan support during his first two legislative sessions, many of his priorities have been blocked — with great fanfare — by the Democratic majority in the Senate, which prides itself on being a “brick wall" against Republicans' agenda.

Democrats, who held news conferences around the state this week, warned that total Republican control would lead to the repeal of legislation enacted in 2020 and 2021 while they ran the state government, including measures that mandated a transition to cleaner cars and electric generation, greatly expanded voting access, and added restrictions to firearms purchases and ownership.

Many Democratic candidates are also making abortion rights a top campaign issue, arguing that Youngkin’s proposed ban on abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother, would endanger women’s health and infringe on their bodily autonomy. Virginia is the only state in the South that has not enacted new restrictions since Roe v. Wade fell.

If voters instead elect a blue majority, Democrats over the next two years “can finally focus on making sure that we put some good legislation on Glenn Youngkin’s desk,” said Sen. Lamont Bagby, who represents a suburban Richmond district and is chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Members of the 100-seat House of Delegates serve two-year terms, while all 40 senators serve for four years. Youngkin, who is limited by Virginia law from seeking a second consecutive term, is scheduled to leave office in January 2026.

For Youngkin, the election outcome may have implications for his political prospects.

The former private equity executive entered the race for governor as a first-time candidate and quickly established himself as a sought-after voice in the Republican Party. He has spent months indirectly answering questions about a possible 2024 bid for president, though in recent answers has emphasized that he is campaigning in Virginia, not Iowa or other early-voting presidential states.

“I am laser focused on our legislative races,” he said on Fox Business this week.

Both parties are urging their supporters to use the state's 45-day early voting period to bank their vote ahead of Election Day on Nov 7. While Youngkin similarly encouraged early voting in his 2021 campaign, Republican legislators have sought to repeal many of the ballot access measures they're currently embracing through a Youngkin-led “Secure Your Vote” initiative that included a bus tour this month.

Voters, especially those in swing districts, can expect reams of mailers and persistent TV ads in the weeks ahead. Fundraising and spending could break records.

The Legislature is also headed for massive turnover, no matter how party control shakes out.

The new district maps, which were drawn by outside experts without regard to incumbent protection, contributed to a wave of retirements and a higher-than-usual number of open seats. And a record number of senators were ousted in the June primary.

Because of its narrow political divide and its atypical voting cycle, with elections of some kind every single year, Virginia's political contests are often closely watched around the country. They are seen as a chance to spot potential signals from the electorate and to test both parties' messaging ahead of federal election cycles.

“The nation will be watching our elections in November as a barometer for the upcoming presidential election,” Rae Cousins, the unopposed Democratic nominee in a liberal Richmond House district, said Thursday.

Voters will also make picks in races for local offices like prosecutors and school board members. In Richmond, casino developers are asking residents for a second chance after voters previously rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed the project to proceed.

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