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General Assembly Update

August 20, 2014


Yesterday,  three special elections (two House of Delegates and one for the State Senate), were held in the Commonwealth to fill the unexpired terms of retiring legislators. 

The special election with the most substantive political consequences is the battle for the 38th Senate District—and the battle for control of the State Senate.  This Southwest Virginia-based seat was held by long-time Senator Philip Puckett (D-Russell County).  Senator Puckett’s unexpected resignation several months ago ignited a political firestorm that abruptly ceded control of the 40-member Senate back to the Republicans (the circumstances under which Senator Puckett chose to resign are the subject of a continuing federal investigation).  Republican Ben Chafin, a first term member of the House of Delegates and lawyer, soundly defeated Democrat Mike Hymes, a member of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors and a third generation coal miner, and Independent Rick Mullins.  Chafin’s vote tally, over 60%—was higher than many observers had predicted.  Democrat Hymes has secured only 33% with Independent candidate Mullins capturing a surprising 7%—votes presumably drained from the Democrat.

Chafin’s victory secures Republican control of the chamber and gives the GOP a significant advantage heading into November 2015 elections where all 140 seats of the General Assembly are on the ballot.  Although another Senate special election will be held this November for the seat vacated by Senator Henry Marsh (D-Richmond), it’s a foregone conclusion that now-Delegate Roslyn Dance, who won the Democratic primary this past Saturday, will succeed Marsh.  Nevertheless, the Republican victory by Chafin renders the Marsh seat election irrelevant in terms of Senate control. 

Hymes enjoyed an advantage in terms of fundraising from Party sources. The Virginia Democratic Party and the Senate Democratic Caucus, both fueled with significant resources from Governor McAuliffe, poured over $850,000 into the Hymes campaign, while Republican Party sources accounted for only about $500,000 for Chafin (although Chafin appears to have raised more in the aggregate due in large part to strong support from the business community).  The Chafin campaign was successful in its efforts to make this race a referendum on President Obama.  The President is deeply unpopular in Southwest Virginia, and Chafin effectively tied Hymes to Obama (calling him a “rubber stamp” for Obama’s unpopular initiatives on coal and healthcare). Hymes tried to define Chafin as a multimillionaire lawyer who is out of touch with the community (Hymes attacked Chafin, for example, by his having voted for a new office building for General Assembly members, but the attacks obviously did not stick).  Chafin’s victory will result in another special election to fill the House Seat he currently occupies.  Given the conservative nature of the district, it is likely that this House seat will remain in the Republican column.

The political dynamics that played out in this Senate race may very well serve as a roadmap for the 2015 General Assembly races.  Democratic candidates (particularly those vying for a seat in the closely divided Senate) will benefit from the exceptional fundraising ability of Governor McAuliffe, while Republicans in many areas of the Commonwealth will continue to connect their Democratic opponents to the policies and the name of an unpopular president. 

The partisan split in the House of Delegates (68 Republicans and 32 Democrats) remains unchanged as a result of the two special elections in that chamber.

In Northern Virginia’ s 48th District, Democrat Richard “Rip” Sullivan defeated Republican David Foster by a margin of 59% to 41%.  The District is a Democratic stronghold based in Arlington and includes portions of McLean.  The seat was held for nearly 18 years by Bob Brink (D-Arlington).  Brink resigned his seat to become Deputy Commissioner for Aging Services in Governor McAuliffe’s administration.  Foster, who like Sullivan is an attorney, is a former member of the Arlington County School Board and campaigned on his opposition to local funding for a street car, a parochial Arlington issue that helped get a Republican elected to the Democratically-controlled Arlington County Board of Supervisors several months ago.  A number of observers had predicted that Foster’s Arlington centric campaign would keep the margin closer than appears to be the case, but the strong Democratic slant of the district prevailed. 

The Norfolk-based 90th District held no electoral drama at all.  Democrat attorney Joe Lindsey demolished Republican small business owner Marcus Calabrese to fill the unexpired term of Delegate Algie Howell (D-Norfolk) who resigned last month to take a seat on the Parole Board.  Lindsey overwhelmed his Republican challenger in every facet of the campaign, from organization to fundraising (Lindsey raised $58,000 compared to just $2,000 for Calabrese). 

So, the big story is that the Senate Republicans have solidified their grip in that chamber, giving them certain control over chairmanships and committee assignments through the November 2015 elections.  Governor McAuliffe will no doubt recognize the absolute necessity to find common ground with a sufficient number of Republican legislators in order to achieve any of the priorities he articulated during his gubernatorial campaign last year.