Election outcomes in Virginia’s off-year races in 2023 looked a lot like they did in 2019, and the folks at the University of Virginia Center for Politics behind the oft-cited Sabato’s Crystal Ball say voters could interpret the outcomes in entirely different ways.
It’s a “choose your own adventure” sort of analysis that can break whichever way the analyzer’s politics would like it to.
First, let’s take a look at the top-line results. Democrats came away from Election Day earlier this month victorious, securing a majority in the House and holding on to the majority in the Senate. But the margins were as narrow as they come, with a 51-49 split in the House and a 21-19 split in the Senate. In either chamber, both parties are just one seat away from a tie.
Ask any Democrat about the performance in Virginia last week and they’ll tell you it was a referendum on Gov. Glenn Youngkin and attacks on abortion access (the latter argument is supplemented by Ohio’s overwhelming vote the same night to enshrine abortion protections into the state constitution). After all, Youngkin, as Sabato’s Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik points out, put a lot of capital into winning both chambers of the Legislature and finishing his sole term with a GOP trifecta and unfettered access to implement his agenda.
Ask a Republican and they’ll be quick to not only find the silver lining, but turn it into an all-out ray of sunshine. Their candidates ran pretty far ahead of margins in the 2020 Presidential Election.
But we’ve seen this before. It was four years ago, the last time there were legislative races on the ballot without statewide contests or other issues to drive turnout. Like this year, Democrats won both chambers and, like this year, the margins were narrow at the same 21-19 in the Senate, but a slightly better 55-45 in the House.
Let’s break down Kondik’s extensive analysis of what that means.
At first glance, it looks in both years like Democrats had some work to do. In both years, they ran well behind President Joe Biden (in 2019 races, that looks ahead toward his 2020 results). In 2019, the party ran about 7 points behind Biden’s eventual performance in the House and about 8 points behind in the Senate. This year it was about 8 points in both.
But as Kondik notes, a deeper dive reveals that such performance, including the converse relationship with GOP candidates overperforming presidential outcomes, is actually fairly normal in off-year elections.
“Likely at least in part because of the smaller and different turnout mix,” Kondik explained, adding that “Virginia just performs as a more competitive state in these kinds of elections than in a presidential year.”
Democrats did underperform compared to four years ago, when they secured a larger majority in the House. The difference between then versus now, Kondik writes, is that Republicans won the super close races in Districts 82, 41, 89 and 57. In all four of those races, Republican candidates won by 2 percentage points or less. Four years ago, the parties split close races, of which there were also four.
But a lot changed from 2019 to 2023, as Kondik reminds. Biden became President, new maps were in place, Youngkin became Governor, and Roe. v. Wade was struck down.
On Biden becoming President, that should have boded well for Republicans, as historically the party in power tends to perform at a disadvantage. That’s especially true if the occupant of the White House is unpopular, as Biden is. In 2019, Donald Trump was still President and Republicans were the ones stuck with an unpopular President. That could explain the GOP’s slight overperformance as compared to 2019.
The new maps could also have played a role. In 2019, the maps were drawn by Democrats for the Senate, but by the GOP in the House, though those maps were ultimately court-modified.
Roe. v. Wade is also a big contingency, and an issue to watch heading into 2024. Democrats are optimistic about the abortion issue as an election-winner after largely defying odds in the 2022 Midterms, seeing abortion access win on the ballot in states like Ohio and Kentucky and eking out legislative majorities in Virginia.
But 2019 was before the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion protections, and yet Democrats comparatively underperformed in 2023, after the Dobbs decision, raising the question about whether it is still an effective strategy. One would be hard-pressed to convince the party it is not, given nationwide polling showing Americans largely favor safe access.
Nevertheless, Virginia, as a perennial swing state, often serves as a bellwether and now, it seems, the analysis could go either way.