With Republicans poised to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives and key Senate races either too close to call or headed to a runoff, the November 8, 2022, election appears to be more of a “red ripple” than a “red wave” as many pundits predicted. Indeed, of the three competitive House districts in Virginia, just one flipped from Democratic control to Republican control – the Second Congressional District, where GOP State Senator Jen Kiggans defeated incumbent sophomore Democrat Elaine Luria. With this single flip and no open congressional seats in the Commonwealth this year, 10 out of 11 Virginia members of Congress will return to the U.S. Capitol next January for another term.
Issues in Play
Nationally, the economy and inflation emerged as the most dominant issues for Americans this fall, with 79% of registered voters in the U.S. saying that the economy is “very important” when making their decision about whom to vote for in the 2022 congressional elections, according to the Pew Research Center. This marks a shift from the summer of 2022 when abortion was said to be the deciding factor for many registered voters (56%) following the Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022, decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
In Virginia, however, issue salience now largely depends on party affiliation, according to a poll by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership. Among Virginia Republicans, the top issues were said to be the economy/inflation (53%), immigration (11%), and crime (7%), while Virginia Democrats prioritized climate change (17%), racial inequality (16%), and abortion (15%).
Polling in the Commonwealth also revealed that voters are fairly nuanced about political preferences. For example, President Joe Biden’s approval rating in Virginia hangs around just 39% as of October 12, yet the same poll indicated that Democrats were slightly favored on the generic ballot over Republicans by a 46 to 40% margin. This implies that while President Biden remains underwater in the state, Virginia voters differentiate between his performance and that of congressional candidates and political parties at large.
Virginia as a Bellwether
This last statistic proved to be good news for Democrats, as voters made enough of a distinction to enable two endangered Democratic Congresswomen – Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton – to hold their seats. Echoing Virginia Republicans’ single pickup in the Second District, the GOP will likely gain just enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives again. For keen observers, the results were not surprising – Virginia’s off-year, state-level elections have long been seen as a bellwether of looming federal shifts.
For example, after state-level Democratic candidates made historic pick-ups in the House of Delegates in November 2017 following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, federal-level Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the fall of 2018. At the heart of 2018’s “blue wave” were three new Democratic faces in Congress from the Commonwealth – the aforementioned Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton. Likewise, Virginia Democrats narrowly flipped the State House and State Senate in 2019, a preview of national Democrats’ razor-thin 2020 gains.
Thus, the narrow 2021 election of Republicans Glenn Youngkin for Governor, Winsome Sears for Lieutenant Governor, and Jason Miyares for Attorney General, paired with the Virginia GOP simultaneously wresting back control of the House of Delegates, signaled growing – but not overwhelming – dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party in Virginia after the election of President Joe Biden in 2020.
It appears that prognosticators who typically view Virginia as the “canary in the coal mine” are once again correct as Republicans in the Commonwealth broadcasted their tight 2022 successes back in November 2021.
This November marks the first time that Virginians cast their ballots in districts drawn based on the new bipartisan redistricting constitutional amendment adopted in the 2020 November election. The amendment established a bipartisan redistricting commission, composed of state legislators and other politically appointed citizens of the Commonwealth, tasked with drafting and approving state and federal district maps.
The commission, however, failed to reach consensus on either state or federal maps, thereby punting responsibility to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Supreme Court appointed two “special masters,” or experts in the field of redistricting, from both the Republican Party of Virginia and the Democratic Party of Virginia to redraw the maps after a contentious period of public comment. Ultimately, the Supreme Court unanimously approved three final maps – for the State House, State Senate, and U.S. Congress – in late December 2021, thus setting the stage for the next decade of political battles in Virginia.
The final maps notably did not include any consideration for incumbent residency, and as a result drew three incumbents – Congresswoman Luria, Congresswoman Spanberger, and Congressman Morgan Griffith – out of their districts, leaving no incumbent residing in the new boundaries. Congresswoman Luria moved from her home in Norfolk to Virginia Beach as she was drawn in with Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott of the Third District. Congresswoman Spanberger similarly moved from the Richmond area to Northern Virginia to adjust her residency to the newly drawn Seventh District. Congressman Griffith’s residence was redistricted into the Sixth District, represented by Republican Congressman Ben Cline, and he opted to move into the open Ninth District.
According to election data from the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), several new districts’ partisan makeups shifted by slight margins that proved to have consequential electoral repercussions. Congresswomen Luria and Wexton saw their seats become 2.8 points more Republican, making them frontline targets for Republicans – as previously mentioned, Luria was ultimately defeated. On the other hand, Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s district, which has always been extremely competitive, became about 5.5 points bluer, though it remained a targeted race. Incumbent Republicans Morgan Griffith’s, Ben Cline’s, and Bob Good’s districts became redder and incumbent Democrats Donald McEachin’s and Bobby Scott’s districts became bluer. Republican Rob Wittman’s, Democrat Don Beyer’s, and Democrat Gerry Connolly’s districts became slightly more favorable to the opposing party but are still considered safe seats for the incumbents.
Safe Republican Seats
Four of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts are safely red: the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Districts.
The First District, which stretches from Poquoson up to Colonial Beach near Fredericksburg, has been represented by Republican Rob Wittman since he won a special election in 2007. Wittman raised $2,029,481.14 this cycle, and as of the most recent reporting period, has $849,564.91 on hand.
Wittman faced Democrat Herb Jones and third-party candidate David Foster. Jones raised $318,866.01 and has $289,539.32 on hand, while Foster has not raised enough money to necessarily file with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Wittman was reelected with 56.76% of the vote.
The Fifth District is represented by freshman Congressman Bob Good, who ousted his predecessor Denver Riggleman in a controversial Republican nominating convention in 2020. The district includes counties in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge Region stretching vertically across the Commonwealth from the Virginia-North Carolina border, all the way up to Fauquier County in Northern Virginia.
Good outraised his Democratic opponent, newcomer Joshua Throneburg, $1,093,891.10 to $818,647.92.
Good won on Tuesday with 57.85% of the vote.
The Sixth District, which stretches from Roanoke to the northern Shenandoah Valley, featured a rematch between sophomore Republican Congressman Ben Cline and Democrat Jennifer Lewis, who ran also against Cline in 2018.
Cline outraised Lewis $914,697.49 to $140,587.90 and has $261,763.51 on hand compared to her $29,950.60.
Cline was reelected with 64.55% of the vote.
Congressman Morgan Griffith represented the Ninth District, which encompasses much of Southwest Virginia and parts of the Alleghany Highlands and Southside Virginia. Griffith, who has represented the district since 2011, ran unopposed in 2020, but this year faced newcomer Democrat Taysha DeVaughan.
Griffith substantially outraised his opponent, $754,831.35 to $55,893.15, and has much more cash on hand, $589,628.59 to $17,727.18.
Griffith was reelected on Tuesday with 73.44% of the vote.
Safe Democratic Seats
Four of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts are safely blue: the Third, Fourth, Eighth, and Eleventh Districts.
The Third District, which encompasses Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, and Portsmouth, has been represented by Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott since 1993. Congressman Scott faced first-time candidate Terry Namkung, a Republican, who raised $172,255.02 to Scotts’ $799,146.60. The Congressman also has significantly more cash on hand, with $306,255.99 to Namkung’s $15,673.87.
Scott was reelected with 67.02% of the vote.
Democratic Congressman Don McEachin faced Republican Leon Benjamin for the second cycle in a row in the Fourth District, having beat him by over 90,000 votes in 2020. McEachin has represented the district, which stretches from Richmond south to Brunswick, Greensville, and Southampton Counties, since 2016.
McEachin raised $867,998.62 and has $126,904.45 on hand, compared to Benjamin’s haul of $308,822.99 with $22,123.61 on hand.
McEachin won on Tuesday with 63.86% of the vote.
The Eighth District, which comprises all of Arlington County, portions of Fairfax County and all of the independent cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, has been represented by Democrat Don Beyer since 2014. Congressman Beyer had two opponents this November: Republican newcomer Karina Lipsman and Independent candidate Theodore “Teddy” Fikre.
Beyer raised $2,002,215.34 compared to Lipsman’s $271,432.89, and has $598,966.83 compared to her $116,432.91 on hand. Fikre did not raise enough money to need to report to the FEC.
Beyer was reelected with 73.25% of the vote.
Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly has held the Eleventh District, a compact Northern Virginia seat that includes Fairfax City and a large part of Fairfax County, since 2009. He faced Republican Jim Myles, whom he outraised $2,015,880.81 to $195,701.89. Connolly ends the cycle with a stunning $3,402,142.70 on hand compared to Myles’ $36,251.67.
Connolly won Tuesday’s matchup with 66.19% of the vote.
Virginia’s Second District
In the Second District, incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Elaine Luria faced GOP State Senator Jen Kiggans in what would become Republicans’ sole pickup in Virginia. Luria, a retired Navy commander, was first elected in the “blue wave” of 2018 and recently served on the U.S. House panel investigating the January 6, 2021, riots at the Capitol. Kiggans, a fellow Navy veteran and a geriatric nurse practitioner, has served in the State Senate since she won a swing Hampton Roads seat by approximately 500 votes in November 2019.
The race proved the second most expensive in Virginia this year, with Luria having raised $9,904,532.63 with $2,696,317.55 cash on hand as of the last reporting period, and Kiggans having raised $3,001,439.98 with $263,465.64 on hand. There was also significant outside spending in this frontline match-up, with the Congressional Leadership Fund (a super PAC dedicated to electing Republicans to the House of Representatives) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spending millions in ads against Luria. The House Majority PAC (a Democratic super PAC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), VoteVets, and the Center Forward Committee likewise spent millions against Kiggans.
In a nod to Virginia being the path through which national majorities run, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, likely the next Speaker of the U.S. House, spent the evening before the election campaigning in the Second District alongside Governor Youngkin and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. There he presciently commented, “This is the number one race I’m gonna watch tomorrow night, because when Jen wins, we win the majority.”
Kiggans ultimately won this closely watched seat with 51.97% of the vote. A special election will be held to replace her before the General Assembly reconvenes on January 11, 2023. As of Wednesday, two candidates have announced that they are running for the open seat: Republican Kevin Adams and Democrat Aaron Rouse.
Virginia’s Seventh District
Sophomore Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger took on Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega, a Republican who would have been the first Latina to win a federal election in Virginia. Spanberger campaigned on a moderate platform and abortion rights, running ads that highlighted Vega’s comments expressing doubt about whether women could become pregnant from rape, while Vega used her experience in law enforcement to underscore fears about rising crime. The race gained nationwide attention as former President Trump endorsed Vega and Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney endorsed Spanberger.
Spanberger raised $8,427,042.17 and had $597,712.76 cash on hand as of the last reporting period, whereas Vega raised $2,989,604.98 and had $259,974.16 cash on hand. According to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), over $24 million in independent expenditures was spent on this race – approximately double the amount spent in the next most expensive race in the Second District. The NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund spent the most against Spanberger, while the House Majority PAC, DCCC, and the Environmental Defense Action Fund spent millions against Vega.
Spanberger won with 51.81% of the vote to Vega’s 47.96%.
Virginia’s Tenth District
The Tenth District of Virginia featured a race between sophomore Democratic Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton and newcomer Republican Hung Cao. Wexton, a former state legislator and prosecutor, had her toughest congressional race yet against Cao, a retired Navy captain and Vietnamese immigrant – she won her closest race previously by a decisive 12.4 points in 2018 against then-incumbent GOP Congresswoman Barbara Comstock.
Wexton raised $3,658,853.85 and had $2,082,732.52 cash on hand, while Cao raised $2,820,552.84 and had $628,947.28 cash on hand. There was little outside spending in this race, with the largest single independent expenditure being a $58,802 contribution to Cao from Governor Youngkin’s Empowering Virginia Parents PAC.
Wexton prevailed on Tuesday night with 52.86% of the vote.
With all 140 members of the State House and State Senate up on November 7, 2023, Virginia Democrats and Republicans will have little time to reflect on Tuesday’s results. Like this year’s federal elections, next year’s races will take place in completely new state-level districts; many of the districts have no incumbent Senator or Delegates in residence, while others include matchups between sitting lawmakers. Virginia will continue to be a focus of national attention; after all, no other state will hold elections next fall in which the political makeup of the legislature is in play.