A series of pickups by energized and well-funded Democrats left a flagging Republican caucus unable to hold onto its majority in the Virginia House of Delegates Tuesday night.
Few Republicans in competitive races were found celebrating as ballots were tallied, save House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who managed to hold onto his delegate seat but will lose his speakership in January, two years after taking hold of the gavel.
Republicans entered the night with 51 seats to Democrats’ 48 with one seat in the chamber vacant.
Key races in the Richmond suburbs found Democrats holding onto House seats they picked up in 2017 in Henrico County, as Republicans defended long-held seats anchored in Chesterfield. (The race between Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and Democrat Larry Barnett was too close to call at press time.)
Court-mandated redistricting made vulnerable some of the party’s most powerful lawmakers, and widened the doors for Democrats in places where Republicans had just barely clinched victory in prior elections.
House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, lost to real estate agent Clint Jenkins after redistricting tilted his district in Democrats’ favor.
Democrat Shelly Simonds, aided by redistricting, defeated Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News in a rematch of their 2017 contest that ended in a tie and was settled by the drawing of his name from a bowl.
That winning dynamic compounded by the copious amounts of campaign cash that rained down on Virginia — and heavier on Democrats. Fundraising among House Republicans topped $25.84 million, far from House Democrats’ $34.19 million. Ultimately, the fight for control of the House of Delegates was the most expensive in Virginia’s history.
One of the most expensive House races was fought just outside of Richmond, where Cox defeated Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman, a business owner and property manager.
The speaker was made vulnerable by court-ordered redistricting which gave Democrats better odds. As Cox fought to defend his seat with more than $1 million in campaign spending, the House’s most powerful fundraiser was hamstrung in his ability to help less-experienced candidates.
“I’ve been at this 30 years, and this was a difficult election,” Cox said at an election night party at the Keystone Truck and Tractor Museum in Colonial Heights. “We won strictly because of grass roots.”
Cox slipped away quickly from the party, long before control of the House was called in Democrats’ favor.
“Voters will have the opportunity soon to judge those elected based on their policies and results, not just promises and rhetoric of campaign season,” Cox said later in a statement on Democrats’ control of the House.
Cox rose to the speakership in 2018 — making his tenure as speaker short-lived. He avoided Tuesday becoming the first speaker in record to lose a re-election bid.
“This was clearly not the result we wanted or expected, but I respect the will of the people of Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights,” Bynum-Coleman said in a statement.
While holding the gavel, Cox crossed the aisle to work with Democrats on issues like Medicaid expansion — after opposing it for five years — and the cleanup of the state’s legacy coal ash pits. The Republican was also seen as the leader behind efforts to quash legislation on gun control and LGBTQ worker discrimination protections.
With strong fundraising, Bynum-Coleman focused on gun control — her daughter was shot at a party, and recovered — health care, worker protections and education.
Aside from Cox, Republicans also held onto a long-held Chesterfield district with Chesterfield School Board member Carrie Coyner’s victory over Democrat Lindsey Dougherty.
“We’re really excited,” Coyner said. “We worked really hard as a team to get the vote out. … I’m looking forward to really bringing a strong voice to support public education, small business, and ensuring we have great and affordable health care in our community.”
“I’m so appreciative to all the volunteers and the supporters who voted for me,” Dougherty said. “It shows the real desire for a brighter future in Chesterfield and I congratulate Carrie Coyner on her victory.”
To the extent that the Richmond area was a heated battleground for the House and Senate, western Henrico was the epicenter.
There, House Republicans sought unsuccessfully to retake two seats that were long in the Republican fold, but lost to Democrats in the “blue wave” of 2017.
Democrat Rodney Willett, a technology consultant, defeated Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg, a financial services adviser, in a high-dollar battle for the 73rd District seat.
Democrats rarely had even contested the seat until Democrat Debra Rodman upset Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico in 2017. Rodman gave up the seat this year to challenge Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, who shared campaign headquarters with Kastelberg.
Willett called the elections “change for Virginia, and I’m glad to be part of it.”
“Again at the end of the day we did it the right way and I couldn’t be more proud,” Kastelberg said.
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a high school civics and history teacher, successfully defended his seat in the 72nd District against a challenge from Republican GayDonna Vandergriff, a community leader whose only previous political experience was an unsuccessful bid for the Henrico County School Board 12 years ago.
“It was a good night,” VanValkenburg said. “People were responding to the fact that they want a legislature that will respond to them.”
He said that he looks forward to passing laws on gun reform, anti-discrimination for the LGBT community and that promote public school budgets.
In Richmond, Del. Dawn Adams fought off a challenge from Republican Garrison Coward. Republicans sought to take back a Richmond-area House of Delegates seat they lost in 2017, running a centrist, African American millennial.
“It was through love and compassion and caring that I won,” Adams said.
Adams, a nurse practitioner and health care consultant, was narrowly elected to the House with 2017’s “blue wave,” in a district that leaned in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest. Adams became the first openly lesbian member of the Virginia General Assembly.
Coward, who works for a predictive analytics firm in Richmond, had been touted by Republicans as a conservative alternative for suburban voters in that district. He ran on a Republican “pro-business” agenda, and on issues like bringing more charter schools to the area.
“We ran a great race. I’m proud that the folks decided to give me 44 percent of the vote,” Coward said. “I thank Dawn Adams for her service. … I look forward to continuing to fight the good fight.”