Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Virginia Dems look good on paper, but data shows conflicting predictors for 2023 races

Virginia Republicans are trying to pull off the remarkable this year, a GOP trifecta in state politics that puts the party in charge of both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion despite Democrats winning the state in the 2020 Presidential Election.

Only two states currently have such a trifecta — Georgia and New Hampshire. Both have GOP Governors and Legislatures, but went for Joe Biden in 2020.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball author and analyst Kyle Kondik covers the possibility in a two-part series entitled “The Battle for the Virginia State Legislature.”

In it, Kondik states that “the stakes for this November’s state legislative elections in Virginia are probably the highest of any state-level election being conducted this year, because the election has the potential to create something that is relatively unusual in today’s nationalized politics: A one-party state government that is different from the party that won the state in the most recent presidential election.”

Virginia is the only state with elections this year that could ostensibly join Georgia and New Hampshire. Only three other states have legislative races this year — Louisiana, New Jersey and Mississippi. Of those, Louisiana and Mississippi could land or maintain a trifecta, but both states are already red at the top of the ticket.

There’s not much the GOP needs to control the state at the executive and legislative levels. The party already controls the house, 52-48, so the GOP must protect the seats it already has. In the Senate, the GOP needs just one seat to tie the chamber, with Republican Lieutenant Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears being the tie-breaking vote, or two seats for an outright majority that would fare better for budget planning purposes on which Earle-Sears’ vote wouldn’t help.

On paper, it looks easy for Democrats to scoop up both legislative chambers. Under new legislative district maps, Biden would have won 59 of the 100 House districts in the state and 24 of the 40 Senate districts, according to the Crystal Ball analysis.

But history shows that Republicans tend to fare better at the ballot box than their party’s performance in presidential contests, while Democrats fare worse. Or simply, Republican legislative candidates performed better in 2020 than former President Donald Trump, while Democratic candidates performed worse than Biden.

The Sabato’s Crystal Ball report highlights 2015 and 2019 races in the state Senate and 2015-2021 races in the House to emphasize that trend.

In 2015, Democrats in contested House races ran well behind the 2016 Democratic nominee for President, Hillary Clinton, with an average underperformance of 22 points. In the Senate, they ran 13-points behind Clinton.

In 2019, compared to the 2020 presidential race, Democrats in contested legislative races ran about 7 points behind Biden in House races and trailed by about 8 in the Senate.

In 2021, Democrats ran about 12 points behind Biden in House races.

Turnout could also be a factor.

In 2019, the most recent comparable election, turnout was just over 42%. That was considered high because only legislative races were on the ballot, like this year. But it was behind the most recent Midterm turnout in 2022, which landed at just over 49%. It was also well behind the most recent gubernatorial race in 2021, nearly 55%, and the 2020 presidential race at 75%.

Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats perform best in higher turnout races, while Republicans benefit from lower turnout. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

As an example, 2021 turnout was good and Republicans did well. But in 2019, when turnout in legislative races was the highest since the state implemented the national motor voter law, which made it easier to register to vote and eliminated purges of non-voters, Democrats won both chambers.

The races this year will be interesting. Of the 16 races Sabato’s Crystal Ball will be looking at in the Part 2 of its series — 10 in the House and six in the Senate — Biden won every single one. That would seem to suggest good odds for liberals. But Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won roughly two-thirds of those seats in his 2021 election.

And Youngkin could play heavily in this year’s races. His Spirit of Virginia PAC has raised more than $16 million since its inception in 2021.

The numbers suggest Republicans may have a heavier lift in flipping the Senate than in holding the House, the report posits.

Also at issue is the overall political environment. Biden’s disapproval rating is slightly worse now than it was when Youngkin was elected in 2021, though by just 1 percentage point, according to the FiveThirtyEight average.

But abortion, like it was in the 2022 Midterms, could be a swing issue in Virginia. And Democrats this election cycle have the benefit of national politics to bash local Republicans, with the GOP-controlled house driving a potential federal government shutdown.

Part 2 of Sabato’s Crystal Ball series will take a closer look at the most important races in Virginia’s 2023 legislative races, which will likely decide control of each legislative chamber.

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