Virginia is the home of the first English settlement in the Americas, the first representative legislative body in the western hemisphere, and the birthplace of many of our country’s founding fathers. Yet the Commonwealth is also the landing site of the first enslaved people in our country, and its capital city of Richmond was also infamously the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
But in recent decades, major demographic and economic shifts have meant the Commonwealth coming into its own as a contemporary and dynamic state with growing diversity in both population and culture. Indeed, from pro-voting reforms to ending the death penalty to legalizing cannabis, Virginia is now the clear frontrunner as the most progressive state in the South.
After many years of hard work by community-based organizers and the political establishment in Virginia, Democratic representation finally reached a tipping point. In 2017, longstanding organizations and brand new grassroots groups (including Sister District!) energized by the election of Donald Trump poured volunteer hours, dollars, and other resources into the Virginia general election.
The resulting 2017 “Blue Wave” ushered in a historic number of diverse new Democratic legislators to the Virginia House of Delegates. Unbelievably, Democrats came within just one vote of flipping the entire chamber blue.
With the House effectively a partisan tie in 2018, Democrats had enough leverage to pass much-needed voting reforms and healthcare expansion. But without a majority, Democrats could still be blocked from passing the most important pieces of legislation on their wishlist.
In 2019, Virginia again held a general election, this time for both the Senate and the House of Delegates. This time, Democrats flipped both the House of Delegates and the Senate.
In 2016, Virginia was ranked as the 49th most difficult state in which to vote. And in 2018, it was named by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy as the state with the worst partisan (GOP) state-legislative gerrymandering in the country.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has a bicameral legislature, with 100 members of the state house or the lower chamber, officially named the House of Delegates and 40 members in the Commonwealth’s upper chamber, the Senate. Democrats currently hold majorities in both chambers with 55 Democrats in the House and 21 Democrats in the Senate.
With hefty Democratic representation and the slew of progressive bills including marijuana legalization and capital punishment repeal recently signed into law, Virginia is emerging as a leader of a new style of progressivism in the South.
However, the tides of political control in Virginia are more delicate than perhaps any other state, with power shifting dramatically and frequently.
Just four years ago in 2017, Democrats only held 34 seats in the House of Delegates, putting them at dire risk of a veto-proof Republican supermajority. In four years, Democrats have seen an impressive and almost unprecedented swing to the majority, with more than 20 seats gained over two election cycles. With gains so recent, Republicans are eager to take advantage of this dynamic, where characteristically moderate “bellwether” districts ebb and flow to give way to national political trends, waiting for the pendulum to swing back in their favor. And 2021’s elections are sure to be a test of Democrats’ ability to hold Trump Era gains in a post-Trump climate.
Northern Virginia has leveraged its proximity to Washington DC to become a bastion of industry for business, tech and government contractors. Virginia leaders have made a concerted effort to be “business friendly” and welcome tech giants like Amazon, who recently named Northern Virginia as their next HQ location, with open arms. These sectors have attracted a highly educated and diverse population which continues to grow rapidly each year. Nearly 3 million people live in the cosmopolitan “NoVA” suburbs. These suburbs have trended more and more Democratic over the past several election cycles.
In the middle of the state, cities like Richmond and Charlottesville remain centers of history, culture and academia, and as such are progressive strongholds with bluing suburbs. These suburbs, along with Northern VA, are key battlegrounds for both parties, but have recently trended blue and were pivotal for Democrats in clenching majorities.
The picturesque eastern shore of VA maintains a tourism industry that is steady, but not as booming as neighboring states, partially due to much of VA’s coast being used for military operations.
Traditionally, VA’s coastal areas have been strongholds for Republicans, characterized by military culture and rural values, although Democrats have been able to make some inroads in these areas in recent years.
Connecting the urban, suburban and coastal worlds all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian mountains are expansive rural areas, some that Republicans hold with ease, although upcoming redistricting may put many of these districts back in play.
Virginia, like many other Southern states, has long faced the consequences of political gerrymandering. While a solution to this issue is overdue, the debate is complicated by quickly changing demographics across the state. This has led to vast cultural and political disparities across the state, which means that even without political gerrymandering, it is difficult to draw contiguous districts that do not heavily favor one party over another.
For example, Northern Virginia’s proximity to Washington D.C. has spurred rapid suburban growth over the past decade.
When the legislature failed to agree upon a process for drawing new maps after the 2020 Census, the decision was ultimately given to voters to approve a constitutional amendment to transfer redistricting power from the legislature to a bipartisan commission. The amendment was politically contentious for Democrats and progressive allies, with many leaders taking opposing stances on the issue. At issue was the fact that the commission was bipartisan, as opposed to nonpartisan, and would include both legislators themselves and citizens who were selected by legislators.
However, because delivery of the 2020 Census data was significantly delayed, the 2021 general election in Virginia is being run on the old maps. 2023 will see new maps for the Commonwealth, but a special election year in 2022 is also on the table, with the aim of correcting the delayed post-2020 Census maps. In other words, state legislative elections are likely to occur for three consecutive years in Virginia, an exhausting and costly endeavor for a state where unlimited campaign spending remains unlimited and far exceeds national averages.
Virginia Delegate Wendy Gooditis discussed COVID relief legislation in the Commonwealth, paying teachers a fair wage, and why we have to protect the Democratic majority to increase the minimum wage. Interview by Sister District Co-Founder Lyzz Schwegler.
With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, there is a very real possibility Roe v. Wade will be struck down. Learn what’s at stake for protecting access to reproductive healthcare in Virginia and throughout the country.
Read more about Virginia’s climate bills including the Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020, supported by Sister District Alumni.
Let’s take a closer look at what life under a blue trifecta looks like. Herewith, a non-exhaustive list of notable legislation passed by the Virginia legislature since 2020 — humane, life-saving measures that would’ve been unthinkable before the blue wave.