2019 Virginia: What Happened and Why

Election Day 2019 has come and gone, and Democrats can add two more chambers to the win column. Two years ago, Democrats faced an extreme deficit in the states, controlling only 30 state legislative chambers to Republicans’ 68 (the Connecticut State Senate was tie). Since then, Democrats have flipped ten state legislative chambers from red to blue, and control of the states stands at 39 chambers controlled by Democrats and 59 chambers controlled by Republicans (the Alaska State House is controlled by a power-sharing agreement).

Before the 2017 election, Democrats faced a 17-seat deficit in the Virginia House of Delegates and a chorus of detractors who didn’t believe it was possible to turn the Virginia legislature blue. Today, Democrats have a 21–19 majority in the Senate and a 55–45 majority in the House. Virginia is a fully blue state.

In 2017, Democrats’ 15-seat gain led to an important policy victory: Medicaid expansion that gave hundreds of thousands of Virginians access to health care. This year, with Democrats in the majority, the legislature can pass the Equal Rights Amendment, implement commonsense gun safety legislation, and make it easier for every Virginian to vote.

In today’s piece, we recap what happened on election night and what led to major Democratic gains. We’ll also examine where Democrats fell unexpectedly short, and what we can take from those misses.

Our message is this: While the tremendous gains Democrats have made over the past two cycles must be celebrated and offer some direction for the future, it will be harder to replicate this success in the challenging environment of 2020. Over the past two years, Democrats have won the “easy” seats, the seats that fundamentally lean blue. Where we’ve failed to make substantial gains is with seats that lean red. But, in order for Democrats to really make gains in the states in 2020, those are the seats we have to win.

We’re going to have to work harder and smarter or risk disappointment in the states. More on that to come.

What Happened: Virginia

At the outset of the 2019 cycle, EveryDistrict identified and endorsed candidates in 18 districts between the Senate and House that we anticipated to be competitive. We also kept an eye on nine districts Democrats flipped in 2017 that we knew Republicans would try to win back this cycle.

  1. Democrats held on to their 2017 gains

The first test for the Democratic strategy this year was holding onto the gains they made in 2017. Republicans poured millions into targeting “vulnerable” incumbents. At the outset, the two toughest holds were expected to be HD 73 and HD 85, where the one-term incumbents embarked on (unsuccessful) bids for the Senate. In an impressive show of strength, Democrats held on in both of those districts, and in every single district they won in 2017. Those results are shown below.

2. Big Gains in the House

In the House, Democrats flipped six of 12 competitive districts. Democrats came heartbreakingly close in two of those districts (HDs 27 and 84). With one exception, Democrats lost by less than 5%, demonstrating the competitiveness of these districts. The only district with a larger loss, HD 62, was substantially more conservative than the rest, with a Republican lean of R+6.

3. Squeaking by in the Senate

In the Senate, Democrats flipped two of six competitive districts. They lost the remaining four districts by less than 5%.

Why did Democrats win?

Candidate recruitment

Over the past two cycles, Virginia has seen extremely strong candidate recruitment, and it has paid dividends. Democrats have recruited strong candidates for all competitive districts, leaving nothing on the table. In doing so, Democrats have redefined what makes a strong candidate. Candidates of color and women can win in majority white districts, like Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman who became the first Latinas elected to the legislature in 2017 and Ghazala Hashmi who became the first Muslim-American woman elected to the legislature this year. What strong candidates must have is a deeply-rooted connection to the district.

In 2018 we saw recruitment misses, particularly in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida. Some competitive races saw no candidates or low-quality candidates. In 2020, there’s no room for error in these states that will see significant national money and attention.


In 2015, Democrats were on the defensive in Virginia. Republicans were flush with cash and invested seven figures in strongly-Democratic leaning districts. Democrats were forced to match their spending and had no money left to play offense. Over the past two cycles, Democrats have evened the money race, as the below totals show. Candidates in Virginia had plenty of cash to execute their campaign plans. The first table shows the money differential between successful Democratic challengers and their GOP opponents.

And this table shows the money differential between unsuccessful Democratic candidates and their GOP opponents.

As we turn to 2020, Virginia shows the benefits of investing in state legislative races. For a fraction of the cost of a presidential campaign, Democrats can have an outsized influence on the direction of policymaking in this country. For a little more than $50 million, Democrats can fully fund over 200 competitive state legislative campaigns in 2020. Failing to make this investment will leave winnable districts on the table, as we did in 2018. There, the unsuccessful candidates that we endorsed were outraised on average by $250,000. In 2020, we’ll be continuing our fundraising efforts, like our successful Impact Slates campaign, to make sure candidates in target districts can run competitive campaigns that can win.

Growth in the suburbs

The results in Virginia show that Democrats continue to make progress in the rapidly “blue-ifying” suburbs. As white college-educated voters continue to shift Democratic and the suburbs continue to diversify, Democrats are poised for big gains. As reported in our Purple States Report, there are 125 winnable districts in the most important 14 states with similar demographics as the places Democrats won in Virginia this November.

Where did Democrats come up short?

As discussed above, in 2018 missed candidate recruitment opportunities and a lack of investment in key districts prevented Democrats from making bigger gains in the states. In 2019 in Virginia, Democrats faced neither of those problems. So, what prevented Democrats from a bigger election night in Virginia? In the wake of the election, we identified a few troubling trend lines embedded in Democrats’ success.

Couldn’t break the red wall

The first limiting factor was the lack of success outside of relatively Democratic districts. The most Republican-leaning district that Democrats flipped was an R+1 and the median flipped district was a D+7. Meanwhile, Democrats left four Democratic-leaning districts on the table.

In 2020, the only other chamber that Democrats can win by only competing in Democratic-leaning territory is the Minnesota Senate. Everywhere else, Democrats have to make inroads in districts that lean much more Republican. In fact, the median key 2020 district has a partisan lean of R+4 and 75% of all must-win districts lean toward Republicans. If Democrats have a path to winning these places, they did not show it in Virginia.

Republicans are energized, too

High turnout in 2020 won’t unambiguously help Democrats. 2019 turnout in Virginia, at 40%, was the highest turnout for an off-year, non-gubernatorial election in some time. Traditionally, we have thought that high turnout benefits Democrats. Virginia showed that the GOP has used their spending to ramp up base excitement over issues like abortion and impeachment. Case in point: SD 12, where Debra Rodman lost against the incumbent Siobhan Dunnavant. High Republican turnout in rural Hanover County allowed the Republican to survive.

As a result of these dynamics, in 2020, Democrats are going to need new strategies to win in challenging places. The Virginia playbook won’t be enough.

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