There’s an old saying about Virginia politics: “As goes Virginia, so goes the nation.” While in recent years this has become the exception rather than the rule (at least when it comes to presidential elections), the baby blue Commonwealth appears to be the first set of competitive elections during Joe Biden’s presidency. If the margins of victory in the statewide races and the outcome of the state legislature are any indication, these races promise to be an augury for the upcoming midterm, echoing the 2017 election in which the Democrats flooded in on a blue tsunami.
But even zealous Democrats in Virginia can admit that there will not be a repeat of the fortune they enjoyed in the 2017 elections, where they won 15 of the 18 House of Delegates seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. No, the 2021 elections are another beast entirely: nary a Republican in the legislature which represented a Clinton district was guaranteed re-election in 2017. This time, half of the Republicans representing a Biden-won seat in 2020 have a safe re-election bid: Rob Bloxom of HD-100, Carrie Coyner of HD-62, and Barry Knight of HD-81.
The 2017 tsunami can be credited to the fervent contempt towards then-President Donald Trump, who was facing one of the lowest dips in his approval rating following his press conference addressing the deadly Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
This, coupled with the many missteps of the Ed Gillespie campaign, led to the biggest Democratic wave Virginia has seen in over a hundred years.
Now, Democrats find themselves with an unpopular President of their own and a Republican opponent for Governor, Glenn Youngkin, who learned from Gillespie’s missteps. The stakes couldn’t be higher for a state party that only two years ago had created a trifecta.
Our final rating for the race for Governor is Tilt Republican. We are expecting this race to be the best performance for Republicans in the statewide elections given that Youngkin has run the best campaign out of all three statewide contests. He’s been able to hold his own with the McAuliffe campaign in the money race, he has sky-high name recognition, and has done the best job out of all of the Republicans on messaging— especially on education, where he’s beaten McAuliffe like a drum on the issue. With the momentum in the final stretch being on the side of Mr. Youngkin in such a tight race, a gut decision has led to us having him as a slight favorite.
This was an incredibly tough pick, so if it goes the other way with a McAuliffe win, I won’t be surprised in the slightest. Virginia is, after all, a leftward-trending state where Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. A very narrow race is still expected; should Youngkin win, a margin of victory for him by more than 1 point would be surprising.
In Virginia elections, the statewide election results have one party winning all three contests, but we don’t think that is going to be the case this year. The Winsome Sears campaign has done a poor job of elevating the former Delegate’s name recognition and is expected to lag behind Youngkin as a result. Delegate Hala Ayala will likely win this race, but we see the odds of this race as a foil to the race for Governor, with a 60% chance of Ayala winning and a 40% chance of a Sears upset. This yields a rating of Tilt Democrat. If there is an upset here, then Glenn Youngkin has almost certainly won the race for Governor. In terms of a margin, a 2 point Ayala win would match our expectations for the elections tomorrow.
The race that Democrats are most likely to win is the one for Attorney General, where two-term incumbent Democrat Mark Herring is running for a third term against Virginia Beach Republican Jason Miyares, Delegate from the 82nd district. Republicans have been quite bullish on this race, which is odd considering that polling has shown this to be the most likely race Democrats win. We’ve got this one as Lean Democrat, and a 3 point win by Mark Herring would be in line with our expectations.
House of Delegates
As noted at the beginning of this piece, Democrats are only competitive in 3 of the 6 seats with Republicans occupying a seat that Joe Biden carried. Given Virginia’s tendency to favor Republicans in state legislative elections over federal elections, as well as a more friendly environment for them expected in 2021 than 2020, it’s nearly impossible for Democrats to win any of the 39 seats in the House of Delegates that Donald Trump carried in 2020. We start with the few offensive opportunities Democrats have first, then move onto the plethora of competitive seats Democrats are struggling to defend.
Democrats’ best pickup opportunity is in District 66 in Chesterfield, a double-digit Biden seat. Republicans held by 4 points in 2019 when longtime incumbent and then-Speaker Kirk Cox won re-election. Cox opted out of re-election to run for Governor, where he placed 4th in the Republican convention.
Still, we have this seat as Tilt Republican in our final projections, with about a 4-in-10 chance of an upset. This is because of the poor candidate recruitment in Democratic nominee Katie Sponsler, who ran a respectable campaign but is a poor fit for a district where enough African-American and Hispanic turnout is needed for a Democratic victory. We have Cox’s chosen successor, Republican Mike Cherry, as a slight favorite to keep this seat.
The next most likely district for a Democratic pickup is District 27, adjacent to the 66th in Chesterfield. Democrats landed their best recruit here, Debra Gardner, to try and flip a seat that Democrats lost by a hair in both 2017 and 2019. Gardner has run a strong campaign, but it’s unlikely that a Trump-Biden seat that Democrats lost in two blue wave elections could flip in a year where Democrats are fighting for their lives. We expect a relatively close race, but not as close as 2017 or 2019 when the margin of victory was less than 1%. Our final rating is Lean Republican, with a 3-in-10 chance of a Debra Gardner upset against incumbent Republican Roxann Robinson.
Democrats barely lifted a finger in this district in 2017 when Democrat Veronica Coleman, who spent less than $50K in her bid, lost to incumbent Republican Glenn Davis by 3.5%. Democrats decided to actually make an effort against Davis in the 2019 elections but still came up short, albeit by a closer margin of 2.4%. Democrats aren’t trying as hard here as they did in 2019, given that they have vulnerable incumbents they need to defend. We’re giving a final rating of Likely Republican for this seat, with an 8-in-10 chance of Glenn Davis winning re-election. We also expect him to outpace his narrow wins in both 2017 and 2019.
Out of all of the Democrats running for re-election trying to defend their seat, the most likely to lose theirs is Roz Tyler of the 75th district in Southside. This rightward-trending majority-Black district came extremely close to flipping to Republicans in 2019 when Republican Otto Waschmann came within 3 points of winning, despite a lackluster campaign operation.
This time around, House Republicans have invested in Waschmann, landing Tyler in trouble as a result. In a region that traditionally drifts rightward in its Republican nominees for Governor after their presidential nominee counterparts a year prior, Republicans are slight favorites in this seat. Tilt Republican, a flip.
The narrowest margin of victory for Democrats in a House of Delegates seat in 2019 was District 83 in Virginia Beach. Democrat Nancy Guy beat Republican incumbent Chris Stolle by a razor-thin margin of only 27 votes. Stolle tried to make a comeback bid this year but lost to Republican attorney Tim Anderson, who won the primary by 24 votes. Anderson ran to Stolle’s right and created an October surprise for himself when it was revealed that he impersonated a judge over the phone to test his staff.
Had Stolle won the primary, we’d have had this seat as Lean Republican throughout the entire campaign. We’re still picking a Republican win here, though this is one of the 5 seats that were previously in our Toss-Up column. Despite the negative news for Anderson in the final hour, it’s too late for enough of the electorate to learn about it. Ours is a heavily polarized climate and scandals like these are becoming less…well, scandalous. Our final rating for this seat is Tilt Republican, another flip.
The next most likely district to flip to Republicans is the only Trump/Biden district in the Virginia House that Democrats hold, the 28th in parts of Stafford County and Fredericksburg City. Democrats lost this seat in 2017 by 73 votes in an open race between Republican Bob Thomas and Democrat Joshua Cole. Cole made another run in 2019 and flipped it after Thomas lost his primary to a challenge from Paul Milde in a very divisive contest.
In order to avoid the mistakes of 2019, Republicans from both the Thomas and Milde factions united behind Republican Tara Durant. Though this seat, as well as Stafford County as a whole, has moved sharply leftward in the Trump years, we believe Youngkin will win Stafford County. Like Gillespie in 2017, the lack of Republican division will probably be enough to flip this seat back into their column. There’s still plenty of room for an “upset” by Cole, as this was in our Toss-Up column before. Our final rating is now Tilt Republican, another flip.
Republicans landed their best recruit of the 2021 cycle here in Nick Clemente, who has been a prolific fundraiser. Clemente is going up against two-term Democratic incumbent Wendy Gooditis, who flipped the seat in 2017 by 3.89%, unseating Republican Randy Minchew. Minchew tried making a comeback bid in 2019 only to lose by an even larger 4.69%.
We’re expecting this race to be even tighter than 2017 and 2019. Clemente was the smart option for Republicans, who stood a better chance with a newcomer rather than pouring money into another Minchew run. Recent frustrations with Democratic officials in Loudoun County have undoubtedly bolstered Clemente’s chances. This is a tough pick, but we’re going with Tilt Republican, another flip.
One of McAuliffe’s weakest demographics in the Democratic primary earlier this year was college students. A candidate who will struggle to turn out that demographic sitting at the top of the ticket is not good news for Delegate Chris Hurst of District 12, located in the student-heavy New River Valley. For a deeper dive into the district, you can read our profile here.
Hurst flipped this seat in 2017 in what was then the most expensive race for a seat in the House of Delegates in Virginia history. He was also one of two Democrats who flipped a district in the chamber to simultaneously outrun Ralph Northam. In 2019, he won by a narrower margin despite having a comparatively weak opponent. Now, Hurst is set to have his closest race yet. Republican nominee Jason Ballard, a Giles County native, will give Hurst his worst margin there yet. However, Ballard also needs poor turnout in Montgomery to win.
While Hurst has won the money race for his seat, we think that, forced to pick, he will probably lose re-election in District 12. Tilt Republican, a flip.
Democrat Rodney Willett exceeded our expectations in the 2019 elections when he won this open seat in suburban Henrico County by nearly 5 points over Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg, who was considered one of the strongest Republican recruits of the 2019 cycle. Democrats only won this seat by 3 points in the 2017 blue wave when Democrat Debra Rodman unseated incumbent Republican John O’Bannon in an upset.
Willett and Kastelberg find themselves in a rematch in 2021, but this time Willett has an even larger financial advantage than last time. In 2019, Willett spent $1,246,000 while Kastelberg spent $1,067,000. This time around, Willett’s raised $1,768,000 while Kastelberg has raised $815,000. However, given the environment that Willett is running in, we think he’s a slight underdog in his re-election bid. It would not be surprising in the least if he won re-election given that we’ve underestimated him before. Tilt Republican is our final rating, a flip.
Here we have another seat that was previously in our Toss-Up column, District 85 in Virginia Beach. This seat flipped in the 2017 blue wave and Democrats held it again when it became an open race, running Democratic candidate Alex Askew against Republican Rocky Holcomb, who had lost the seat in 2017. Now, Askew faces Republican Karen Greenhalgh, a COVID vaccine skeptic whose own words have been used against her in an Askew ad.
Even Republicans we’ve spoken with agree that Askew has run a strong campaign: he’s raised $2.1M while Greenhalgh has raised $825K. Askew may not have as long of an incumbency advantage as the class of 2017, but he’s proven to be an excellent campaigner. We believe that Greenhalgh is a slight favorite in this contest due to the electorate, which will be less Democratic than the one in 2019 when Askew pulled off his narrow win. Tilt Republican is our final rating, another flip.
If someone had told me that Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg would win by more than 5 points in 2017 in this district, I would have laughed like the Joker. But that’s how it played out: VanValkenburg beat Republican Eddie Whitlock by almost 6 points that year, and then beat Republican GayDonna Vandergriff by nearly 7 after his district was slightly redrawn to include more African-American voters.
Both of these Republican candidates spent about half a million dollars in their bids to win the seat, but that isn’t the case this time around. The 2021 nominee, Chris Holmes, has raised just $335K to VanValkenburg’s $1.2 million. Republicans haven’t put much effort into this seat and it shows. As a result, we see VanValkenburg as a slight favorite in this seat despite the difficult environment Democrats face. Tilt Democratic is our final rating.
Republicans found a strong candidate in Tanya Gould to challenge incumbent Democrat Kelly Fowler. Fowler flipped this seat from incumbent Republican Ron Villanueva by 5 points in 2017, and then beat Republican Shannon Kane by 9 in 2019.
Republicans have sent a lot of late money here, likely indicating that recent poll numbers show an opening in this district for them. The demographics may be useful for them here too given the 2020 results: Filipinos and African-Americans are two large minority communities here. Both groups swung rightward in 2020, with Filipinos racking up 20-30 point swings toward Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, due to Virginia not allocating early votes to election day precincts, we don’t know how Filipinos in Virginia Beach swung this time around.
Given Fowler’s margin in 2019, as well as the spending here likely being too late to count, our final rating for this seat is Lean Democratic.
While this race looked like it was firmly in Toss-Up territory not too long ago, Republicans appear to have put District 40 in Fairfax and Prince William counties on the backburner. After incumbent Republican Tim Hugo lost to former Democratic Congressional candidate Dan Helmer by 5 points in 2019, it’s difficult to blame them. Now that Helmer has an incumbency advantage, he’s a moderate favorite over Republican nominee Harold Pyon, who hasn’t raised even one-third of what Helmer has. Our final rating for this seat is Lean Democratic.
In one most rapidly leftward-trending district in the Richmond area, Republicans are hoping that the name recognition of Republican nominee Mark Earley Jr., son of former Attorney General Mark Earley, will be able to help them pull off an upset against incumbent Democrat Dawn Adams. Adams flipped this seat in an upset against then-incumbent Republican Manoli Loupassi back in 2017.
After Adams narrowly flipped the seat, she went on to win re-election by 9 points despite an ethics scandal haunting her campaign as she ran against Republican nominee Garrison Coward. Like 2019, Adams only has a slight advantage in the money race over her opponent, unlike other Democratic incumbents in competitive races who have rather large leads. We don’t expect Adams to repeat her 9 point win in 2019, but she’s still a moderate favorite in a district that went to Biden by 20 points— especially now that she has 4 years of incumbency under her belt. Lean Democratic is our final rating here.
Incumbent Democratic Delegate Elizabeth Guzman made a smart decision when she dropped out of the race for Lieutenant Governor to focus on her re-election for District 31. Having the incumbency advantage in a district like this helps Democrats’ odds of holding onto a seat they won by 5 points in 2019. That being said, Republicans recruited a strong challenger in DJ Jordan that year. The same cannot be said for Republican nominee Ben Baldwin.
Not only has the Baldwin camp raised less than Jordan spent, but Guzman has also raised more than she spent in 2019. In a double-digit Biden district in Prince William County, where Republicans have pretty much ceded all of the competitive races, it’s unlikely that Guzman will lose unless there happens to be a red tsunami in the works. Likely Democratic is our final rating.
Redrawn in 2019, District 63 has parts of Chesterfield County, as well as the entirety of Dinwiddie County and Petersburg City. Petersburg makes this district majority-Black, though Biden only won this seat by single digits in 2020. A single-digit race is expected here again, both in the margin for the statewide contests and in the race for Delegate.
However, the odds of the race for Delegate resulting in a single-digit win for Republican candidate Kim Taylor over incumbent Democrat Lashrecse Aird are slim. Taylor has only raised $239K for her campaign while Aird has raised $1.4 million. While this district is moving to the right, this doesn’t look like a year where a district like this will flip, but in a large enough Republican wave with low turnout from Black voters, it might. Our final rating is Likely Democratic.
There are two Delegates who won in 2019 that outperformed Joe Biden’s margin in their district: Chris Hurst and Martha Mugler. Hurst exceeding Biden’s margin of victory could be credited to a lack of residential students at Virginia Tech in 2020, but Mugler doesn’t have a large college town in her district. To put it plainly, she is just that strong of a candidate.
Mugler handily beat Republican attorney Colleen Holcomb in 2019, who only spent $133K in her bid to keep this seat for her party. Now, she faces an even weaker campaign in AC Cordoza, who has only raised $51K. Given the finances and Mugler’s new incumbency advantage, she should be fine despite running in a district that only went to Biden by single digits. Likely Democratic is our final prediction.
When Hala Ayala opted out of re-election to make a bid for Lieutenant Governor, Democrats had a stellar candidate to replace her in Briana Sewell, who has miraculously raised over a million dollars despite being a first-time candidate. Meanwhile, her Republican opponent, Tim Cox, has only raised $51K.
Republicans lost this seat by 6 points in 2017 when Ayala unseated then-incumbent Republican Rich Anderson, who tried making a comeback bid two years later only to lose to Ayala by 9. It’s very, very unlikely they’ll be able to win this seat back given the weak campaign effort from Tim Cox. Very Likely Democratic is our final rating.
The only Democratic incumbent who won by double digits in 2019 who has even the slightest chance of losing is Mike Mullin of the 93rd district, located on the Peninsula. He ran against and beat Republican Heather Cordasco 3 times: once in a special election in 2016, again in 2017, and again in 2019. Cordasco finally decided to opt out of running for this seat again, and as a result, Republicans landed themselves a nominee with little name recognition in the district, Jordan Gray. Gray’s obscurity coupled with the fact that Mullin’s been the incumbent here for 5 years now makes a loss unlikely, but not impossible.
Gray is expected to give Mullin his tightest race yet, but it’s still very unlikely that Gray can pull off an upset. His lack of name recognition, as well as a campaign that has only managed to raise $78K, will be his undoing. Very Likely Democratic is our final rating here.
There are 9 seats in a “Tilt” column in our final forecast, with 8 being Tilt Republican and 1 being Tilt Democratic. 7 of these seats are held by Democrats. We have Republicans as the slight favorites to earn a net gain of 7 seats in the House of Delegates. That being said, many of these were tough calls, and that figure could reasonably be smaller than expected. Regardless, a GOP net gain is expected.
Our final rating for the House of Delegates is Toss-Up; neither party crosses the 55% threshold for a “Tilt” rating in our oddsmaking when these ratings were plugged in. The House of Delegates can go either way: there’s a 47.6% chance of a GOP majority, a 46.7% chance of a DEM majority, a 0.04% chance of a GOP supermajority, and a 5.68% chance of a tie, which would result in a power-sharing agreement between both parties.
We would like to thank the campaigns of Glenn Youngkin, Hala Ayala, and Mark Herring for the images used in our graphic.