Of all the United States, Virginia is arguably the richest in American history in the sense of how many major historical events occurred there, their importance, and the political figures that came from the state. It is the birth state of four of the first five U.S. presidents as well as some future presidents. It was one of the premier colonies of the original 13 and arguably the most critical state for ratification of the United States Constitution. It is home to Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement of the United States (the Spanish were already in Florida in the 1500s). There are far, far too many other major occurrences and individuals to list.
The amount of history in Virginia is incredibly vast, but it is also still a very relevant state in the political landscape today. It’s one of the swing states in presidential elections, making it one of the prime targets in such campaigns. The electoral relevance is part of why Virginia is the second state that will be explored in the Political Profiles of the United States series.
A Very Brief History of Virginia
Before the Republic — From Roanoke and Jamestown to Major Colony
Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, but it wasn’t the first time the English had set foot on the continent. The colony of Roanoke had been established in 1587, but dwindling supplies forced Governor John White to sail back to England to load up on more. The outbreak of war between England and Spain delayed White’s return for several years, and when he finally came back the colonists at Roanoke mysteriously disappeared. The only clue they left behind was “Croatoan,” etched into a wooden post.¹ It is a mystery that is still unsolved.
Jamestown, however, would be established in 1607 and eventually come to sustain itself. Yet for some time it seemed that that would not happen. Various adversities such as hunger, illness, and tensions between the English settlers and several Native American tribes threatened the colony’s survival almost as soon as it was born. Over time, the overall colony of Virginia would rise up and expand, in large part due to the lucrative agriculture industry. A significant amount of food would be grown in the state, and it became one of the primary economic centers for England in the colonial era.
Independence and the Constitution
Virginia was a major player in the American Revolution and the foundation of the American government that still stands today. It was the site of many significant events during the war — not the least of which was the Battle of Yorktown, the conflict that effectively won the war for the Americans. Many Founding Fathers and their contemporaries also came from the state. Four of the first five U.S. presidents (the exception being Massachusetts-born John Adams) were born in the state: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Other major figures of the time period were born there as well, such as Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton, and George Mason.
It was also arguably the most critical state for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The failures of the Articles of Confederation, the first document that was the supreme law of the new nation, prompted calls for revision. However, some of those participating in the Constitutional Convention had intended to completely scrap the Articles and replace it with a new document that would invest more power into the federal government while still giving state governments some level of autonomy (such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton).
Yet it would be blatantly false to say that everyone saw the need for a complete overhaul. Those who did see the need for a complete overhaul could barely agree on any specific measures, which threatened to end the Convention multiple times and led to the Constitution being a series of compromises at its core. Many states were skeptical of the new Constitution, fearing or outright alleging that it would be a redux of the British government that the nation just shed itself from.
Virginia would become the most crucial battleground for the Constitution’s ratification, primarily pitting James Madison (one of the most important figures in even getting the Constitutional Convention together, let alone crafting the Consitution) against the fiercely anti-Constitution and pro-Articles Patrick Henry. Madison would win the debate, leading to Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution and influencing several other states to follow suit. (A great book to read on the whole process of the Constitution is The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution by Joseph Ellis).
The Civil War and its Aftermath
Sharp divides in Virginian politics would not only be present during the Revolution or in today’s politics (which will be discussed more in-depth later in this article). But the Civil War was certainly the most intense of the state’s political discords. Virginia found itself right in the middle of the conflict geographically between the Union and Confederacy. It was so divided that there were actually two state governments during the Civil War. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. Wheeling and then (following the inception of West Virginia as a state in 1863) Alexandria was the capital of the Union.²
During Reconstruction, the period that followed the Civil War, Virginia was still a point of concern for the restored government. Elections in the state would be watched closely by the federal government for some time. Despite federal occupation, many of the same people in government in Richmond before and during the Civil War were in the government after the Civil War as well. Slavery also dissolved more rapidly in Virginia compared to the other former Confederate states due to the state’s proximity to the Union.³
The 20th Century Onward
After Reconstruction and into the 20th century, many state and national political changes had a significant impact on Virginia. As with other states, the abolition of the poll tax with the 24th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the decrease of the voting age to 18 with the 26th Amendment led to sharp increases in the number of Virginia voters.⁴
The various changes in the political landscape of Virginia were most beneficial to African-Americans, women, and the Republican Party. African-Americans and women began capturing various local and state offices, culminating in two particularly notable election victories. Mary Sue Terry became the first woman to win statewide office in Virginia history in 1985, and L. Douglas Wilder became the first African-American governor of any state in U.S. history in 1989.⁴
The Republican Party, weak and dormant in the state for a long period of time, started to surge in the late 20th century. Their rise eventually led to them capturing all three state statewide offices in the 1990s for the first time in Virginia history,⁴ and in 1999 they finally won majorities in the General Assembly (the name for Virginia’s state legislature).⁵
The Politics of Virginia Today
One of the odd aspects of Virginia politics is that state-level elections are held in odd-numbered years (the other three states like this are Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Jersey). Such has been the case for quite some time.
There are 12 state executive offices in Virginia: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, commissioner of insurance, secretary of agriculture and forestry, secretary of natural resources, commissioner of labor and industry, comptroller, corporation commission, superintendent of public instruction, and treasurer.⁶ The governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general are the only elected offices, with all of them controlled by Democrats. The other positions are appointed and designated as nonpartisan offices.
The current governor of Virginia is Democrat Ralph Northam. Northam handily won the election in 2017 over Republican candidate Ed Gillespie — in part due to anti-Trump sentiment — with a vote share of 53.93% compared to Gillespie’s 45.00%.
Although Democrats hold all of the elected state executive offices, Republicans have majority control of both the state senate and the state house of delegates. They are razor-thin majorities, however.
The Virginia House of Delegates has 100 seats. Republicans hold 50 of these seats while Democrats hold 49 of them, a slim majority that was significantly whittled down from the previously large advantage that Republicans had prior to the 2017 election. (District 8 is a vacant seat at the time of this writing.) Yet even that doesn’t fully paint the picture of just how narrowly divided the chamber is. A coin-flip literally determined the winner of the state house district 94 race in 2017, which gave Republican David Yancey a win over Democrat Shelley Simonds to break the tie in votes both candidates received. House members serve terms of two years but are not subject to term limits (Virginia is one of the 35 states that do not have term limits). The current speaker of the house is Kirk Cox (R), the majority leader is C. Todd Gilbert (R), and the minority leader is David Toscano (D).⁷
The Virginia State Senate has 40 members and all members are up for election at the same time. Republicans hold 21 seats while Democrats hold 19 of them. This was the same divide prior to 2015, which was the last year the state senate elections were held. Senate members serve terms of four years and, as aforementioned, are not subject to term limits. The current senate president is Justin Fairfax (D), the majority leader is Thomas Norment, Jr. (R), and the minority leader is Dick Saslaw (D).⁸
You may have noticed that the senate president is a Democrat despite the chamber being controlled by Republicans. This is because Virginia is one of the states where the lieutenant governor serves as the senate president, which in this case is Justin Fairfax.
The overall legislative body is known as the Virginia General Assembly. You can find more information on their website here.
The Supreme Court of Virginia is composed of seven justices who serve 12-year terms. They are selected through election by the state legislature. The current chief justice is Donald Lemons.⁹ The other state-level courts are the Virginia Court of Appeals, Virginia Circuit Courts, Virginia District Courts, and Virginia Magistrates.
Virginia, along with many other states, do not actually register voters with a political party. (However, the Virginia Department of Elections has a wide variety of ways that they divide registration counts by, such as age/gender, town, and by state house and senate districts). As a result, gauging the partisan divide amongst the voting population requires different methods.
The most common and easily accessible ways to gauge voter partisan leanings is through election results and the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index. The Partisan Voting Index (abbreviated to PVI) is a statistic developed by election ratings guru Charlie Cook that measures a congressional district’s partisan leaning compared to the nation as a whole. For example, a district’s PVI of R+15 means that the district voted Republican 15 points higher the nation did overall (such as the district voting Republican at 66% while the nation voted Republican at 51%).
The 2017 Cook PVI is the latest available, as 2018 data has yet to wrap up. Following are each congressional district and their respective PVIs in parentheses:¹⁰
- Virginia 1st: R+8
- Virginia 2nd: R+3
- Virginia 3rd: D+16
- Virginia 4th: D+10
- Virginia 5th: R+6
- Virginia 6th: R+13
- Virginia 7th: R+6
- Virginia 8th: D+21
- Virginia 9th: R+19
- Virginia 10th: D+1
- Virginia 11th: D+15
While some of these congressional districts lean heavily one way or the other, the Virginia electorate as a whole is pretty evenly divided between the two major parties whichever way you cut it. The two legislative chambers have razor-thin majorities belonging to the Republican Party while the Democratic Party has all of the elected state executive positions. The current congressional delegation is also pretty evenly divided. There are four Democratic U.S. House Representatives and seven Republican ones, but the two U.S. Senators are both Democrats.
Presidential elections are somewhat of an exception. George W. Bush in 2004 was the last Republican presidential candidate to win the state but Democratic presidential candidates have won Virginia’s electoral votes since then. Although they have not been blowouts, Democrats won the state fairly comfortably in 2008, 2012, and 2016 with around 4–5 point margins of victory.
Nevertheless, Virginia is one of the swing states in presidential elections, and its state legislature and congressional delegation are very closely even in terms of the number of Republicans and Democrats in each. While its hard to definitively say whether there are more voters that would call themselves Democrats or more that would call themselves Republicans (remember that voters are not explicitly registered under a party), it's pretty safe to say that whichever party would have the voter registration advantage doesn’t have that much of one.
What Does the Future Hold for Virginia?
Given the recent history of Virginia, it’s reasonable to think that the number of Republicans and Democrats in the electorate and the government in the state will stay closely the same for some time. That being said, the large net losses for state house Republicans in the 2017 election coupled with growing anti-Trump sentiment may turn that chamber blue in 2019 (and possibly the state senate as well, which will also be up for election in 2019). Anti-Trump voters may propel Democratic presidential candidates to a fourth straight victory in the state in the 2020 election.
The 2020 election, however, is still too far away to come up with any solid predictions. The same could be said for 2019 even though the election is less than a year away. But this is politics, after all, and in an evenly divided state at that. Plenty of surprises may be in store in Virginia in the next couple of years.
- History. “What happened to the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke?” https://www.history.com/news/what-happened-to-the-lost-colony-of-roanoke (accessed December 27, 2018).
- Encyclopedia Virginia. “Governors of Virginia.” https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Governors_of_Virginia (accessed December 27, 2018).
- Reconstructing Virginia. “The Story of Virginia’s Reconstruction.” https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Governors_of_Virginia (accessed December 27, 2018).
- The Library of Virginia. “Twentieth Century.” http://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/political/twentieth.htm (accessed December 27, 2018).
- The Library of Virginia. “Political Life in Virginia.” http://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/political/index.htm (accessed December 27, 2018).
- Ballotpedia. “Virginia state executive offices.” https://ballotpedia.org/Virginia_state_executive_offices (accessed December 26, 2018).
- Ballotpedia. “Virginia House of Delegates.” https://ballotpedia.org/Virginia_House_of_Delegates (accessed December 26, 2018).
- Ballotpedia. “Virginia State Senate.” https://ballotpedia.org/Virginia_State_Senate (accessed December 26, 2018).
- Ballotpedia. “Supreme Court of Virginia.” https://ballotpedia.org/Supreme_Court_of_Virginia (accessed December 27, 2018).
- Data from the list comes from the following source: The Cook Political Report. “PVI Map and District List.” https://www.cookpolitical.com/pvi-map-and-district-list (accessed December 27, 2018).