When I first got involved in Virginia politics back in 2015, Republicans held majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and were gearing up to take back the governor’s mansion in 2017. Over the last three years, Democrats have retained control of the executive branch while taking the majority in both houses. Much of this change can be attributed to Republican failings in the suburbs.
Virginia’s growth in the last decade has been centered around the suburbs around Richmond, Northern Virginia, and Hampton Roads. These suburbs are often more diverse and college-educated compared to other parts of the state. As the 2021 Virginia elections draw near, Democrats will try to expand their majority by increasing their support in these formerly GOP-friendly suburbs. Meanwhile, Republicans will try to reverse their suburban decline and take back several of their former strongholds. Here are some of the candidates and races you should keep your eye on.
The big prize in the 2021 Virginia elections will be the governor’s mansion. Virginia prohibits their Governor from running for a second consecutive term. This usually leaves the Lieutenant Governor or Attorney General in a strong position to run for Governor. However, the current executive branch is in a uniquely weak position where all three of their top officials have been embroiled in scandals. Seeing an opportunity, several Democrats have already declared with others rumored to be contemplating a run for governor.
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax
Fairfield be the likely frontrunner if not for the sexual assault allegations against him. Vanessa C. Tyson accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her at the 2004 Democratic National convention. These accusations led to condemnation from several of his fellow Democrats. However, he has managed to remain in office despite the calls for his impeachment. Any run at governor would require him to quash any doubt about these allegations.
Allegations aside, Fairfax maintains a progressive record. He campaigned in 2017 on progressive issues like raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour and pursuing renewable energy. His opposition to Dominion Energy’s Atlantic pipeline caused some rifts between him and the more blue-collar section of his party. In 2017, some unions in Northern Virginia excluded him from their campaign literature because of his opposition to the pipeline. His nomination could leave the GOP an opening with traditionally Democratic blue-collar workers.
Jennifer Carroll Foy
Foy a delegate from the 2nd House district in eastern Prince William County and Stafford County. She has made a name for herself in progressive circles for her support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She was the chief patron on HJ 579, which seeks to amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens, regardless of sex.
Of the declared candidates, she currently leads in fundraising, with over 750K raised according to VPAP. A Carroll Foy-led ticket could be a formidable opponent for the VAGOP as her base would be in the must-win Northern Virginia area. If elected, she would be the first African American woman elected governor in Virginia.
Attorney General Mark Herring
Herring has also declared he is running for governor in the 2021 Virginia elections. Unlike Northam and Fairfax, Herring has managed to come out of his controversy in a relatively strong position. Similar to Northam, he admitted to wearing “blackface” in college. His open admittance may have bought him some goodwill with his party, as he didn’t receive the level of condemnation as Northam did. His scandal could still prove to be a hurdle in a nomination contest, but one that could be overcome.
Herring has been the AG since he was elected in 2013, where he narrowly beat Republican Mark Obenshain. Herring made waves immediately after being elected when he declined to defend the Virginia Marriage Amendment and joined a lawsuit to have it declared unconstitutional. Currently, he has taken the case to defend the Affordable Care Act from a challenge in the Supreme Court. Herring’s reputation as defender of social liberal values and his work as an attorney could play well in the affluent suburbs of Fairfax and Loudoun County.
McClellan is the last Democrat to have officially declared to be running. She’s a state senator from the Greater Richmond Region who has been in office since 2017 when she won a special election to replace now-congressman Don McEachin. Before that, she was a delegate from the 71st House District.
McClellan has only ever been elected to heavily Democratic seats, which means her campaigning skills aren’t as battle tested as other candidates. So far, she is the only Richmond-based candidate to declare. This could be used as an advantage if she can consolidate the vote in her home region.
McAuliffe has been rumored to be considering a second run for governor. Since his terms would not be consecutive, Virginia’s term limits would not apply. McAuliffe served as governor between 2013 and 2017. During the highly competitive 2013 gubernatorial campaign, he was able to raise over $38 million for his campaign. His strong ties to the Democratic Party and his relations with the Clintons make him a fundraising juggernaut. Currently, his leadership PAC Common Good VA has raised around $1.6 million in 2020. Whether or not he decides to run is yet to be seen, but McAuliffe’s fundraising ability would be hard for Republicans to match, especially after their recent string of losses.
Virginia Republicans currently do not have a crowded primary as the Democrats do. After the 2017 and 2019 elections, many of their strongest contenders have been knocked out of politics. As we get closer to the 2021 Virginia elections, Virginia Republicans need to up their game if they want to avoid another electoral rout.
Chase, a state senator from the 11th Senate District, is the only Republican who has declared to be running. Whether or not she actually is a Republican has been a matter of debate. Chase was kicked out of the Chesterfield GOP after supporting an independent candidate for Chesterfield County Sheriff. She also left the Republican Caucus after Sen. Thomas Norment was elected as senate minority leader. Chase has also been the subject of several controversies in recent years. In July of 2019, she faced backlash over a Facebook comment that many saw as insensitive to survivors of sexual assault. She also has been a vocal opponent of the removal of confederate monuments in Richmond. Chase has also signaled that she may run as a third-party candidate if she fails to secure the Republican nomination.
Despite the controversy, Chase has gained a sizable following among social conservatives. Moderate Republicans worry that nominating her will be a repeat of the 2018 Senate election, where controversial Republican Corey Stewart lost to incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine by 16 percentage points. No other candidate has officially entered the race to challenge her yet.
Cox is the former Speaker of the House of Delegates. He has said he’s considering a run for governor but has not made an official decision. Currently, he represents the 66th district, which includes Colonial Heights and parts of Chesterfield County.
Last year, judges ruled that Cox’s district was improperly drawn on the basis of race. This new map turned what was a Republican stronghold into a Democratic leaning district. Many observers were pessimistic about his re-election chances, but Cox managed to win re-election by over 1,000 votes. If this ability to win over Democratic-leaning voters can translate statewide, he could be a formidable opponent for Virginia Democrats. He would likely face criticism in the Republican primary for his support of Medicaid expansion when he was Speaker. Without Cox running in the 66th, the Democrats would be in a good position to pick up his old seat.
Snyder is an investor and entrepreneur. He isn’t a well-known name outside Republican circles, but it has long been rumored that he is preparing for a gubernatorial run. Despite never holding public office, Snyder has been involved in Republican politics for a long time. He served as the chairman for the VA Victory 2012 committee and later as the chairman of gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s campaign. In 2013 he ran for the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor, but lost to E.W. Jackson in a crowded convention.
Snyder’s appeal would be similar to that of Terry McAuliffe’s. He’s a businessman with party connections. This previous experience with Republican fundraising could prove valuable in a year where Democrats currently have a large fundraising advantage over Republicans. His success as an entrepreneur would allow his campaign to brand him as a self-made man. The big hurdle for him would be name-recognition. As the 2021 cycle gets closer, his window of opportunity for him to get his name out there is shrinking.
Riggleman is one of the latest potential Republicans to be considering a run for governor. Whether or not he will run as a Republican is yet to be seen. In an interview with Bloomberg Radio’s Sound On, he expressed interest in running as an independent candidate.
Riggleman is the congressman from Virginia’s 5th congressional district, but recently lost the nominating contest to Campbell County Supervisor Bob Good. Riggleman had previously faced backlash over officiating a same-sex marriage. While this upset many religious conservatives, more moderate Republicans see his willingness to accept same-sex marriage as proof that Riggleman can win over the more socially liberal swing voters that are a must win in a Virginia that is trending blue.
Riggleman could help Republicans win back some of the suburban voters that have been trending away from. However, an independent run would almost certainly sink Republican’s chances at the governor’s mansion by peeling off support from the more moderate and libertarian leaning Republicans.
House of Delegates
Only the lower house chamber is up for re-election in the 2021 Virginia elections. This means that a lot of local party units will be focusing on delegate races this cycle. Democrats will be looking to expand their majority; despite having control of both chambers in the General Assembly and executive branch, some of their more progressive policies have met opposition from more moderate members of their party. Expanding their majority would allow their party’s leadership more room to maneuver on more controversial pieces of legislation.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are looking to retake the majority in the House, which they lost in 2019. Republicans are likely to emphasize the need to balance out the more progressive wing of the Democrat party. If Republicans are able to retake the House, they will be able to block most high-budget items on the Democrat’s agenda. The slim Democratic lead in the Senate means if the Republicans were able to take the governorship as well, they’d be in a fairly good position to pass some of their less controversial pieces of legislation.
With all that being said, how the playing field will look into 2021 depends on whether or not Virginia’s constitutional amendment on redistricting is passed this November. Its passage would give an independent commission the task of drawing up new district maps based on the 2020 census results. These maps would then be voted up or down by the General Assembly. If the amendment were to fail, then the task of drawing new maps would fall on the legislature as it has in the past. Whether or not the new maps will be ready by the 2021 elections has been brought into question because of the delay in the 2020 census due to COVID-19. This makes it harder to predict how each seat will turnout, but assuming no radical changes to these districts, here are several seats to watch in the 2021 Virginia elections.
House District 27
The suburbs surrounding Richmond were once reliably Republican. When the current Republican incumbent Roxann Robinson ran in a special election in 2010, she won by around 17 points. But for the last two cycles, Robinson’s Democrat challenger, Larry Barnett has come within a of point of ousting her. This Chesterfield-based district might be one of the Democrats best pickup opportunities of the 2021 cycle. Unless the GOP can improve their image with suburban voters, the 27th may be the next seat to fall in their string of loses. Robinson has proven to be a resilient candidate up until now. She’s been able to reach voters that have fallen away from Republicans in recent years, but whether that will be enough to pull her across the finish line once again is yet to be seen.
House District 28
House District 28 is only going to get more competitive as Stafford County and Fredericksburg City continue to grow in population. The 28th was home to the Speaker of the House, Republican Bill Howell, until he decided not to run for re-election in 2017. His Republican successor, Bob Thomas, was only able to win this district by 82 votes against Democrat Joshua Cole. His tenure was short lived, as Thomas was primaried for his support of Medicaid expansion in 2019 by Chairman of the Stafford Board of Supervisors Paul Milde. Milde was supported by many of the more conservative members of the Republican Party. On the other hand, many of the moderate Republicans believed his prior drug convictions would hurt him in the general election which he went on to lose.
Democrat Joshua Cole was able to flip this district in 2019. Republicans are likely to push to flip back this seat in the 2021 Virginia elections, but Cole provides an interesting opportunity for Democrats to expand their current coalition. Similar to Del. Luke Torian in the 52nd House District, Cole is a clergyman. He served as an assistant pastor at the Union Bell Baptist Church and received his bachelor’s degree at Liberty University. Democrats have struggled with evangelical voters in recent years as the party takes on more progressive social views. Cole’s religious background could prove valuable in forming a coalition that can help him win his first re-election campaign.
House District 31
Encompassing parts of eastern Prince William County and Fauquier County is the 31st House District. The changes in this district over the last decade mirror the changes the state has undergone as a whole. It was a Republican-leaning district, with Republican Scott Lingamfelter holding it from 2001 to 2017. As the Prince William County portion gained population, Lingamfelter struggled to hold on to it until the current incumbent, Democrat Elizabeth Guzman defeated him in 2017.
In 2019, Republicans hoped to retake this district by running D.J Jordan, a party activist and former Prince William County Republican Committee Vice Chairman. While he managed to outperform his Republican predecessor, Jordan ultimately lost to the Democrat incumbent. A Republican victory in the 31st district would require them to run up the score in more rural Fauquier Country while making inroads into the Prince William County suburbs.
Currently, Del. Guzman is contemplating a run for Lieutenant Governor. If she were to receive the nomination, Democrats would have a harder time holding on to this district without an incumbent with name recognition.
House District 84
House District 84 is located in Virginia Beach City. It was once home to former Republican Bob McDonnell, who went on to be Virginia’s last Republican Governor in 2009. Since then Virginia Beach has only gotten more competitive. Despite voting for Northam in 2017 and Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018, Republican incumbent Glenn Davis has managed to hold on to the seat, despite being outraised by Democrat challenger Veronica Coleman.
One of the reasons Davis has been able to hold this seat is his moderate record. Davis has shown his willingness to compromise on issues like gun control and Medicaid. This hasn’t pleased everyone though. Davis has faced backlash from more conservative groups over some of his stances. Davis has also stated that he is looking into running for Lieutenant Governor. If he were to be nominated, his district would likely be a big target for Democrats in the 2021 Virginia elections.