Some of the many overlooked but critically important offices in the American political landscape are the ones held by state legislators and members of general assemblies. These are the people who are most like us, the ones who live in neighborhoods close to ours, sit in the pews on Sundays and attend the local high school football games with everyone else.
They are the elected officials who rarely have an entourage but have as much of a vested interest as you in ensuring that roads and bridges in your town are safe, because they have to drive those same roads.
When they are on the ballot, their elections often give us hints on the most granular level, either of how the electorate feels about each political party long before a big national election or of whether something is brewing that the press and politicians are missing.
Last November, when President Joe Biden narrowly defeated then-President Donald Trump, the blue (Democratic) wave predicted to happen down-ballot along with Biden defeating Trump in double digits never materialized. In fact, if you paid attention in down-ballot races in state legislative bodies across the country, there was indeed a red (Republican) wave instead.
In Pennsylvania, where Biden won, there were no Biden coattails down-ballot. Democrats lost five contested state Senate seats they were expected to win, along with two upset losses in statewide races.
In fact, despite having an excess amount of money from Democratic super PACs run by former Attorney General Eric Holder and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dumped into races across the country, Democrats actually lost ground in important state legislative races from the Rust Belt to the Arizona Sun Belt.
These were races they all bragged that they would win.
Those results were telling us something most didn’t pay attention to, in the same way that too few people paid attention here in Richmond four years ago, when Virginia Republicans’ 32-seat majority in the House of Delegates almost completely evaporated in 2017.
By the time the next off-year election rolled around in 2019, the Republicans’ by-then flimsy 51-49 seat majority turned into a 45-55 deficit, putting Democrats in the catbird seat.
The race here in 2017 told us that college-educated, center-right suburban voters wanted nothing to do with anything associated with Trump’s comportment. For them, it had infected any attachment they felt for conservative policies.
While much of the media is paying attention to the gubernatorial race here, it will be interesting to see if these same center-right suburban voters are telling us how they feel about the state of things in the world. In short, have the media and the Democrats been effective in still making everything and everyone that is a Republican a mini version of Trump that will storm the state capitol on any given day?
Or are center-right suburban voters unsatisfied with how the Democrats have handled the power voters gave them?
All 100 state House seats are on the ballot. Will voters tell Democrats they are seen not as a governing body but as a party with a bad overreach problem?
As in 2020 nationally, Democrats running for the Virginia House also have a sizable cash advantage over the Republicans, and they have had luminaries such as former President Barack Obama coming in to remind voters to vote straight Democratic. Then again, ask former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds how much that helped him in his run for governor in 2009, when voters were reacting to national Democrats’ supermajority (and superoverreach) in that election cycle.
There is a possibility the Republicans could win one of the five suburban House seats Democrats are defending; there is also the possibility that Democrats gain new seats.
If it is a real wave, though, Democrats could lose all five, and their counterparts in Washington could put the brakes on their overreach. But don’t count on it: Washington Democrats, to their own subsequent detriment, didn’t flinch in 2009 when their party lost the governors’ offices both here in Virginia and in New Jersey.
In short, the spending continued, and so did the growth of government—and within a year, House Democrats in Washington were handed the biggest loss for a party in a midterm election since 1938. And by 2014, Republicans won a record number of state legislative races, thus controlling state legislative bodies in 66 of the 99 state chambers nationwide.
By 2016, Trump won a presidency people somehow never saw coming despite all of the evidence from the ground up.
Sometimes, local elections tell us everything we need to know: A move by an inch here or there for the Republicans in this very blue state should tell Democrats a lot more than they appear willing to hear.