Republicans regained a bare majority in the House of Delegates on Wednesday, a day after losing a 32-seat advantage in a wave of Democratic victories that crashed from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Hampton Roads.
But the GOP’s 51-49 margin is far from secure, as both parties prepare for weeks of vote recounts in at least four closely contested races that ultimately will decide the balance of power in the House.
House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, faced with possibly losing his dream of becoming speaker of the House after Republicans anointed him earlier this year, said Wednesday that Republicans kept their majority. He cited voting canvasses by local elections officials that turned an apparent 68-vote loss into a 115-vote victory for House GOP Caucus Chair Timothy D. Hugo, R-Fairfax, over Democrat Donte Tanner in the 40th District.
Canvasses also confirmed a 12-vote victory for Del. David E. Yancey, R-Newport News, over Democrat Shelly Simonds in the 94th District, Cox said in a statement that vowed Republicans would maintain a conservative hold over the chamber, despite losing a nearly 2-1 majority.
“Our majority may be smaller, but our resolve and commitment to good governance on conservative principles remains strong and unwavering,” he said in a two-page statement that blamed Republican losses in statewide and House races on “millions of dollars of spending organized by dozens of outside groups.”
However, the fight is far from over for Democrats, who have retained a Washington, D.C., law firm to oversee recounts in four contested House districts, including those currently represented by Hugo and Yancey.
House Democratic spokeswoman Katie Baker called Yancey’s race “too close to call” and said late Wednesday, “We are exploring all our available options” in the race between Hugo and Tanner.
Recounts also are certain in elections for the 27th District seat held by Del. Roxann L. Robinson, R-Chesterfield, after a 124-vote victory over Democrat Larry V. Barnett, and the 28th District, won by Republican Robert M. “Bob” Thomas Jr. by 86 votes over Democrat Joshua G. Cole.
Thomas’ narrow margin carries symbolic weight in a Fredericksburg-area district that had been represented for 30 years by Del. William J. Howell, R-Stafford. He spent the last 15 years as speaker of the House building a seemingly impregnable majority that was all but swept away in a day.
“I’ve had better mornings,” Howell quipped Wednesday, before declining to comment on the reasons for the Republican losses.
Republicans have all but given up on regaining seats lost by Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, to Democrat Dawn M. Adams by 326 votes, or Del. N.D. “Rocky” Holcomb III, R-Virginia Beach, to Democrat Cheryl Turpin by 394 votes
Even if Republicans maintain a slight majority, their political stranglehold over legislation in the chamber will vanish when the General Assembly convenes in January, said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, who still has an outside chance of becoming speaker if Democrats can pick up two seats in the recount.
“There is no doubt the dynamic is going to change dramatically in January,” Toscano said in a jubilant, hourlong conference call with more than 30 media representatives on Wednesday morning.
Those changes include a proportional increase in Democrats on House committees that will be rearranged like a stream bed by the electoral flood. Republicans lost three committee chairmen on Tuesday night — Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, on Militia, Police and Public Safety; Del. Ronald A. Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, on Transportation; and Del. Richard L. Anderson, R-Prince William, on Science and Technology.
Two Republican committee chairmen already were retiring — Howell on Rules and Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, on Courts of Justice.
If Democrats were to regain even one seat, they could force power-sharing arrangements for committees, including shared chairmanships. On the powerful Appropriations Committee, for example, that likely would mean Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, would share leadership with Del. Luke E. Torian, D-Prince William, who already serves as a conferee in negotiating the final budget with the Senate.
Four members of Appropriations lost their seats on Tuesday, including two budget conferees: Del. John M. O’Bannon III, R-Henrico, and Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason, R-Loudoun. Lingamfelter and Anderson also serve on Appropriations, as does retiring Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, whose 72nd District seat was claimed by Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg.
Power-sharing would be harder in electing a speaker to succeed Howell, but Toscano sidestepped the question Wednesday.
“The first thing we need to do is count the votes,” he said.
Even if Republicans maintain a slight advantage, Democrats will gain significant leverage in blocking conservative social legislation they have counted on Gov. Terry McAuliffe to veto and in advancing progressive policies that have gone nowhere in a House with a 66-34 GOP majority.
“There is potential to create coalitions,” Toscano said.
Looming over the election is the prospect of another political showdown over expanding health care coverage for hundreds of thousands of uninsured Virginians through Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, should the federal law survive additional attacks by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans.
The election nearly dismantles the “firewall” that Howell had built against repeated attempts by McAuliffe to expand Medicaid, and the governor made clear Wednesday that he will try again with the parting budget he will propose next month.
McAuliffe told reporters he’s a little jealous that Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat who won decisively Tuesday, will have a much more evenly divided legislature than he had.
“All the folks who fought me on Medicaid expansion, they got blown out,” McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe said that when he presents his final budget, Republicans are “not going to have an option” because the Affordable Care Act is “here to stay.”
“Now they have to do it,” McAuliffe said.
Access to affordable health care was a dominant theme in Democratic bids to upset incumbents such as O’Bannon, a neurologist who had been a leading opponent of Medicaid expansion and a supporter of unsuccessful attempts at replacing the ACA.
House Democratic pollster Josh Ulibarri said the candidates recast their health care message “simply in terms of the value of getting more people affordable health care, period.”
It was an issue also exploited by Forward Majority, one of the outside groups mentioned by Cox, which poured $1 million into 16 House races, including Democrat Debra H. Rodman’s victory over O’Bannon.
The group, founded last year by a veteran of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008 and chaired by a grandson of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, widened the political battleground to include districts that Virginia Democrats rarely had contested, much less dreamed of winning.
“We were specifically focused on expanding the map beyond the most contested races with the goal of putting the entire House in play,” Forward Majority spokesman Ben Wexler-Waite said Wednesday.
Democrats fielded candidates in 54 of the 66 House Districts held by Republicans, and Toscano said he knew that each had a potential path to victory.
He added, “What surprised me is how many” found it.