Virginia Democrats will be left wondering what more they could have done after a contest of chance determined control of the House of Delegates for the next two years.
Republican incumbent Del. David Yancey (R-Newport News) emerged victorious in the 94th District House race after his name was pulled out of a ceramic bowl on Thursday morning.
The state board of elections held a lottery draw to determine the winner, after Yancey and challenger Shelly Simonds tied with 11,608 votes apiece.
Democrats had initially declared victory after an automatic recount in December left Simonds leading Yancey by one vote. But even though recount observers from both parties had initially agreed that the recount was fair, the Yancey camp later reversed course and demanded that a single ballot had been unfairly invalidated because the person had marked circles by the names of both Simonds and Yancey, before drawing a slash through Simonds’ name.
The board of elections ruled that the voter’s intent was clear, and counted the ballot for Yancey, forcing the tie and necessitating a contest of chance, whether a coin flip or a drawing of names.
Simonds can still appeal the decision and ask for another recount, but even were she to be successful — something highly unlikely, given the deference the courts have historically given to the board of elections — the General Assembly would convene on Jan. 10, well before the case was resolved.
That means Republicans will hold a 50-49 edge over Democrats, and would elect a Speaker of the House, determine committee assignments and vote on committee rules for the next two years.
In fact, under Virginia General Assembly rules, Republicans would retain control for the next two years even if Democrats were to pick up a majority through GOP resignations or special elections over that period of time.
As such, whatever the outcome of Simonds’ appeal, Republicans will control the House of Delegates until the next election in November 2019, with Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) serving as Speaker of the House.
Amid a backlash against President Trump and Republican control of government, both at the federal level and in Virginia, Democrats picked up 15 seats, cutting a 66-34 majority that Republicans had cobbled together through gerrymandering down to a 51-49 edge. Some Democrats came close to knocking off incumbents in a handful of contested races in Virginia Beach, Fredericksburg, the Richmond suburbs, and Fairfax County, but the GOP eventually pulled away, leaving the Yancey-Simonds race to determine whether they would retain outright control or would be forced to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with Democrats.
With Yancey’s victory, the GOP can essentially halt any attempts to push through progressive or liberal-leaning legislation. For the LGBTQ community, that means that any pro-equality bills will likely be defeated, as Cox and his leadership team will be determining which delegates will sit on which committee.
In past sessions, under former Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford), the GOP often stacked committee membership — and particularly subcommittee membership — in a way that would ensure that any liberal priorities would be defeated by an off-the-record voice vote in subcommittees.
This has two benefits for Republicans: 1) it ensured that any pro-LGBTQ legislation never made it to the larger committees, where there were Republicans from more Democratic-leaning districts who might have felt pressured to “moderate” their image on social issues; and 2) to ensure that there was no on-the-record vote in the subcommittee, thus insulating Republicans from being held “responsible” for the defeat or passage of certain bills.
As a result, no single incumbent could be targeted or criticized, whether it was by pro-LGBTQ advocates upset over the failure of a nondiscrimination bill, or by conservative organizations, like the Family Foundation of Virginia, who were upset when the subcommittee rejected a “bathroom bill” that would restrict transgender people’s ability to access public restrooms.
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