RICHMOND, VA – In an interview with POLITICO, DPVA Chairwoman Susan Swecker laid out the stakes of the 2023 general assembly elections in the commonwealth. Chairwoman Swecker noted that 2023 will not only decide the balance of power in each house of the General Assembly, but it is “the first battle of 2024” that will test the power of the GOP in the commonwealth following their extremist attempts to rollback abortion rights.
“It’s only thanks to Virginia Democrats that we are the only state in the south without an abortion ban,” Chairwoman Swecker added.
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June 20, 2023 | Zach Montellaro
Virginia hasn’t gone for a Republican for president in nearly 20 years. But after Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory there two years ago, the GOP is verging on total control of state government.
It’s a potential sea change with major implications for 2024. And it’s turning Virginia’s off-year elections — which kick off with primaries on Tuesday — into some of the most hotly contested races in the country.
If Republicans achieve dominance, Youngkin could see his star rise even further. Youngkin, who hasn’t entirely closed the door on running for president, could use total control of the state legislature to pass a conservative agenda in a blue-leaning state.
And of course, what happens in Virginia is always viewed as a sign of things to come.
“This is not just about the biggest election of 2023, here in Virginia, it’s also the first battle of 2024,” said Susan Swecker, the chair of the state Democratic Party. “Because trends [in Virginia] tell us a lot about the next year, whether it’s in Virginia or nationally.”
Youngkin has been raising millions of dollars into his PAC and cutting an early ad campaign in mid-May in battleground seats that pumped up his political agenda.
He has been trying to mold the state Republican Party in his image, endorsing downballot candidates, with releases from his PAC pointedly noting that he has waded into 10 contested Republican nominations.
Youngkin is undoubtedly exercising an unusual level of control because he sees his success this November as closely tied to his political future. Earlier this year, he demurred when asked by POLITICO about his calculations for running in 2024, saying he was focused on the state. And after Youngkin was asked if he was running for president “this year” at an event in early May and answered “no,” aides scrambled to stress that this did not shut the door on him launching a last-minute bid down the road.
“The governor is solely focused and committed on what we have to do over the next 144 days,” Dave Rexrode, the chair of Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, told POLITICO recently when asked about 2024. “His whole focus, our organization’s whole focus, everything we’re doing is completely focused on maintaining our majority in the House and flipping the state Senate. And that’s enough to keep us busy.”
For Democrats, this is a battle that goes far beyond just trying to stymie a would-be presidential hopeful. It is about reclaiming control in a blue state — and the potency of abortion as an issue to motivate their voters to get to the polls.
Earlier this year, Democrat Aaron Rouse flipped a state Senate seat in a special election in a race that attracted an unusual amount of attention from both pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion groups. A nonprofit affiliated with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s primary arm for downballot races, has already released ads on abortion access in Virginia.
“The threat to Virginians is if Glenn Youngkin wins two chambers and has a trifecta,” said Swecker. “It’s only thanks to Virginia Democrats that we are the only state in the south without an abortion ban.”
Youngkin has backed a proposed ban on abortion after 15 weeks, which the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected.
And for Republicans, the November elections are an opportunity to provide Youngkin a unified government to pass his agenda. The split legislature has been stuck in a long-running feud over the state budget and proposed tax cuts from Youngkin, among other sticking points.
“Having the House and Senate that [Youngkin’s] able to work together with to get some real meaningful reforms on would be good for the Commonwealth,” Rexrode said.
But first, both parties must navigate a tricky primary season on new maps. This is the first election since the pandemic-era census redrew maps in Virginia. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court stepped in and appointed special masters to draw the lines. Both parties believe they have viable paths to a majority in each chamber — but the court-drawn maps were made without regard to where incumbents lived, and this primary could remake state politics.
Over a third of the state House is calling it quits or running for another office, and at least a quarter of the upper chamber is retiring, according to an analysis from the Virginia Mercury. And many of the senators that remain are facing primary challenges.
Virginia is one of just two states with a split legislature; Republicans have a slim majority in the state House, while Democrats have a narrow hold on the state Senate. All 140 seats across the two chambers are up in November.