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This Week in Statehouse Action: Victory Lapping edition
Democrats had a really great Tuesday and I would like to talk about it
It was a good night!
But pretty much everywhere that wasn’t Mississippi (Democrats lost a House seat, no net change in the Senate), downballot Democrats had a really good night.
In New Jersey, Republicans made bold claims about their prospects in this year’s legislative elections, spent aggressively, and even claimed they might flip one chamber (a narrative some media outlets bought into for reasons beyond my understanding).
The results in New Hampshire’s special House election weren’t a surprise, but they were good news for Democrats: Democrat Paige Beauchemin swamped right-wing conspiracy theorist David Narkunas 61%-39%.
This win brings Granite State Democrats within one seat of tying the 400-member state House.
In Pennsylvania, Democrat Dan McCaffery defeated Republican Carolyn Carluccio 53-47 to secure Democrats’ 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court.
Both spending and turnout were record-breaking in this contest; it saw the highest turnout for an odd-year election in at least 25 years (over 35%, if you’re curious), and total spending in the race exceeded $22 million.
In Ohio, both Issue 1 and Issue 2 passed (both 57-43), so now yay, abortion rights are protected in the state constitution and recreational marijuana is legal in the Buckeye State.
… except don’t count those chickens just yet.
After resorting to all kinds of tricks to prevent Issue 1 from passing – everything from trying to raise the passage threshold to an arbitrary 60% to changing the ballot language itself to replace every mention of “fetus” with “unborn child” – it’s probably not a shock to you that Ohio Republicans are absolutely not done fucking around with women’s reproductive rights yet.
And they’re not even being coy about their intention to actively and aggressively undermine the expressed will of the majority of Ohio voters.
After the measure passed, House Speaker Jason Stephens proclaimed: “The legislature has multiple paths that we will explore to continue to protect innocent life. This is not the end of the conversation.”
So … how far could the GOP supermajorities go to gut this constitutional amendment?
Well, the new constitutional amendment is full of words, and the GOP could decide to create their own definitions of certain words to limit the rights the measure was intended to protect.
But that’s small potatoes.
Reportedly, Senate President Matt Huffman is talking with his GOP colleagues about maybe putting another constitutional amendment on the ballot next year – a year they hope presidential and other federal races will attract more Republicans to the voting booth – to repeal this reproductive rights-protecting amendment and replace it with a 15-week ban (these cats are SO HUNG UP on this 15-week ban business … is it, like, a numerology thing or something?).
But Ohio Republicans don’t appear likely to be content to chip away at the amendment around the edges or wait for a nullifying ballot measure to pass.
Their plan of attack: They’re going to “consider moving jurisdiction from the judiciary.”
Seriously, their words, not mine.
Essentially, this move would prevent Ohio courts from enforcing the reproductive rights guaranteed by Issue 1 and completely revoke the will of the voters expressed earlier this week.
Obviously there are some pretty huge separation of powers issues there, but any lawsuit aimed at correcting this would likely be heard by the Ohio Supreme Court.
… which, as erudite consumers of this missive know, has a 4-3 Republican majority.
This isn’t to say that they’ll definitely side with GOP lawmakers to usurp the authority of their own branch of government, but it’s absolutely a possibility.
By the by, Issue 1 officially goes into effect on Dec. 7, 2023.
Issue 2 – the one that legalized recreational marijuana – is also ripe for undemocratic GOP shenanigans.
Unlike Issue 1 – a constitutional amendment – Issue 2 is an “initiated statute,” or a new state law.
Long before the measure passed with that beefy 57% majority on Tuesday, GOP lawmakers had assembled whole lists of ideas for gutting it.
As written, the new law would use some of the tax revenue from weed sales to support programs that assist folks who’ve been convicted of marijuana-related offenses apply for licenses to sell cannabis legally.
Speaker Stephens would rather use that money to build more jails and hire more cops.
In theory, the Republican majorities in the legislature can do whatever the hell they want with this new law – it’s just a law, after all, and laws can be amended and repealed.
Totally repealing a measure comfortably approved by most Ohioans would be a bold move even for the GOP, but erudite readers of this missive know better than to put it past them.
What’s more likely to happen is that the legislature eliminates the provisions that allow commercial sales and cannabis production – effectively neutering the law without actually repealing it.
But with the growing popularity of weed legalization – even among some GOP lawmakers – it’s not clear how far Republicans in House and Senate leadership will actually be able to go in terms of actively overturning the will of voters.
Tuesday produced a whole slew of downballot election results that made Democrats and progressives extremely happy – from county commissions and commonwealth courts in Pennsylvania to school board races in Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and beyond.
By the by, Antonin Scalia’s daughter got stomped in a school board race in Albemarle County, bless.
Regardless of who her dad is, her loss seems right and proper, though – what’s a mom whose four kids are in private school trying to do on the board of a public school system, hm?
Winner Allison Spillman has five kids in Albemarle County public schools – one of whom she described on her campaign website as “a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Speaking of Virginia …
For sale: Red vest, never worn.
(Not my joke, but I’m still laughing at it days later.)
You absolutely do not need to be an erudite consumer of this missive to know that Virginia Democrats had a great night on Tuesday (and that Glenn Youngkin had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad one).
A few votes remain out there to be counted (ballot curing continues until noon Monday), but it’s sure looking like Democrats will begin the 2024 General Assembly session with a 21-19 majority in the Senate and a 51-49 majority in the House.
Slim, sure, but just ask any House Republican who was around in 2017: a majority is a majority.
[[quietly closes tab with What If House of Delegates Tied prewrite]]
Before midnight on Tuesday, it was clear that team blue both preserved majority control of the state Senate and flipped the House of Delegates.
In an election cycle where the top Republican in the state spent lavishly (if perhaps not terribly strategically) to support his party’s efforts to win full control of the legislature (and set himself up for a potential presidential run – a dalliance for almost every single occupant of the governor’s mansion from Chuck Robb to Bob McDonnell), Democrats’ ability secure majorities for themselves was no small feat.
In the wake of these elections, there are plenty of postmortems out there, some better than others, and all sorts of credit-taking from various progressive groups, some less earned than others. Victory has a thousand fathers and all that.
And if you’re wondering how the races I spotlighted last week shook out, here’s the rundown:
House of Delegates (District: D/R candidate, winner in bold):
HD-21: Josh Thomas/John Stirrup
HD-22: Travis Hembhard/Ian Lovejoy
HD-57: Susanna Gibson/David Owen
HD-58: Rodney Willet/Riley Shaia
HD-65: Joshua Cole/Lee Peters
HD-71: Jessica Anderson/Amanda Batten
HD-82: Kimberly Pope Adams/Kim Taylor (uncalled as of this writing)
HD-97: Michael Feggans/Karen Greenhalgh
State Senate (ditto):
HD-16: Schuyler VanValkenburg/Siobhan Dunnavant
SD-17: Clint Jenkins/Emily Brewer
SD-24: Monty Mason/Danny Diggs
SD:-27: Joel Griffin/Tara Durant
SD-31: Russet Perry/Juan Pablo Segura
As you can see, Democrats didn’t exactly run the table in competitive districts.
Which brings me to my Hot Take of 2023:
Virginia Democrats secured an incredibly important victory for themselves and for the Commonwealth on Tuesday. But they could have done better.
How much of this can be laid at Dems’ own feet remains to be seen.
If post-election campaign finance reports reveal that any candidate is still sitting on a big chunk of money … well, that’s bad and they should feel bad.
But the fact of the matter is that some shenanigans appeared afoot in Virginia, and when a race is decided by just a few hundred votes, that matters.
Last week, I laid out what appeared to maybe possibly be a voter suppression effort targeted at mail-in ballots.
It’s an indisputable fact that more Democrats vote by mail than Republicans. Like, a lot more.
In 2023, we’re talking a 69%-30% D-R ratio, which is actually the lowest percentage of Democratic mail-in ballots in three years.
By the by, since Youngkin is governor, all local election boards — the folks responsible for processing those mail-in ballots — have GOP majorities.
Based on a late-October analysis by the attorney who’s heading up the Democratic Party of Virginia’s voter protection effort, local election boards were not only rejecting a LOT of mail-in ballots, they were also rejecting the ballots of voters of color at a higher rate than white people’s ballots.
According to Aaron Mukerjee, Black voters’ mail-in ballots were being rejected at more than twice the rate of those of white voters: 5.2% of vs. 2.5% statewide as of Oct. 27.
Other non-white voters were also having their ballots rejected at a disproportionate rate; 3.4% of Latino voters’ absentee ballots and 3.2% of AAPI voters’ absentee ballots, specifically.
Because it’s a final rejection rate, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but an MIT study of Virginia absentee ballots cast in the 2020 election found that just .64% were rejected that year.
As of Oct. 27, 2.92% of all voters’ absentee ballots were rejected statewide.
Ballot curing will bring that percentage down, of course.
There’s no way to know why these disparities occurred, and hopefully Democratic efforts to cure these mail-in ballots will bring these rejection percentages in line both with each other and historic averages.
But … sus.
And taken by itself, it’d be easier to overlook the above as happenstance.
But we also know that Youngkin’s DOE – which just happens to be run by longtime Republican political operative Susan Beals, who attended a confidential Heritage Foundation conference for conservative state elections officials in April – also illegally disenfranchised several thousand voters who’d had their rights restored by previous governors.
So we’re past happenstance and on to coincidence … enemy action is just around the corner.
It’s also worth noting that Virginia Republicans effectively resorted to revenge porn to mitigate one Democrat’s chances of winning.
HD-57 was a tough one, though, so it’s impossible to know if this made any kind of actual difference.
Another wrinkle in this year’s General Assembly races was the fact that this was the first time these races were run on these district maps. Every candidate – Democrat and Republican – had new voters to introduce themselves to and engage with.
In two and four years, voters in those districts will fully know what their members are about, and if Republicans are still trying to restrict reproductive and other freedoms, that’s unlikely to play well in some of those swing districts they won this week.
But that’s a political eternity from now, so who knows which issues will be politically salient at that point?
Despite Youngkin’s very public commitment to a 15-week abortion ban, most Republicans running in competitive districts tried to talk about reproductive rights as little as possible.
And if victory has a thousand fathers, defeat has … well, a lot of spin and blame-shifting.
The Virginia GOP is Big Mad that the RNC didn’t shovel any money their way (the DNC gave Virginia Dems more than $1 million), but that’s nitpicky as hell – it’s not like they didn’t get any national money. It’s just that it pretty much all came from the RSLC (the DLCC’s quasi-counterpart) – more than $6.7 million, in fact.
And according to RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, Youngkin actually told her: “We don’t need you guys.”
Virginia Republicans are whining that Virginia Democrats far outspent them, which, if true (we won’t know for sure until post-election finance reports drop), is pretty funny in light of Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia McDuck money bin.
McDaniel countered Virginia GOP gripes with her own accusation that they failed to adequately communicate their position on abortion to voters in the commonwealth, which seems kinda unfair in light of how unpopular that position is.
And finally, while Virginia’s off-off year elections are somewhat insulated from the national political climate because of their timing, there’s just no such thing as federal politics having zero impact on state legislative elections — especially in a state so close to D.C.
A mid-October Virginia poll put Democratic President Joe Biden’s approval rating at 41%.
The same poll had Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s approval rating at 55%.
Imagine an election year with a more popular Democratic president or a less popular Republican one.
Anyway, post-election quarterbacking aside, the bottom line to all this is that
A. Virginia Democrats probably have room to grow their majorities in 2025 and 2027, and
B. The Virginia General Assembly will be fully controlled by Democrats next year.
Also, for the first time in its over 400 years of existence, the Virginia House is going to have its very first Black speaker.
Portsmouth Del. Don Scott is the House Minority Leader (and technically will remain so until the new legislature is sworn in in January), which puts him directly in line to assume the speakership.
Intraparty politics is a weird animal, so it’s conceivable that another member will fight him for the role, but the caucus itself has signaled that it’s done and dusted.
Thank you, as ever, for hanging in.
… not just for this edition, but for the cycle, and (hopefully) for the cycle and session season that’s already kicking off.
I hope your weekend is amazing – and if you’re a veteran, doubly so!
And take care of yourself.
We need you.