First published in The Hill.
In just a few days, the first votes will be cast in elections that face intense scrutiny every time — and never more so than this year.
Early voting in Virginia’s off-year statewide elections starts Friday. The races are the curtain-raiser for national elections the following year, and analysts will be all over them trying to gauge the political mood — especially ahead of a presidential election year.
Four years ago in 2019, Democrats flipped the Virginia legislature, and Joe Biden went on to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. Four years earlier than that, with control of the Virginia Senate described as “on a knife’s edge,” the GOP rallied to keep both chambers — and the following year Trump won the presidency.
So it’s no surprise that this year the heat is on. Throw a few more ingredients into the mix — including the national ambitions of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) — and you’ve got high stakes and high drama combined.
Pundits are putting it bluntly: Youngkin’s political star will shoot much higher if he can nail down GOP control of both the Virginia Senate and House and enact a statewide 15-week abortion ban, which he has signaled he would do. Youngkin is not on the Virginia ballot himself, and there’s debate over whether he would still have time to jump into the 2024 GOP primary if he waits until after Virginia’s Nov. 7 elections. But even if he doesn’t run for president this time, he is campaigning hard for a Republican legislature and hankering after all the opportunities that it would afford him.
He says he would “happily and gleefully” sign a bill restricting abortion. There’s little question that gun safety laws would be swept aside. Criminal justice reform, including steps to decriminalize cannabis possession, would halt or be rolled back. Newly expanded voting rights would be at risk.
As for education, far-right book banners and censors have already gotten enormous encouragement from Youngkin, which started during his campaign. And who could forget the “tip line” he installed in his first days as governor so parents could inform on teachers who taught “divisive” topics?
Meanwhile, the national GOP, including former President Donald Trump, will be watching everything that happens in Virginia. They want to know if the commonwealth’s GOP can “crack the code” for winning over suburban swing voters in a post-Roe world. If the Virginians are successful, they will be emulated.
The race will also be a nail-biter because the Virginia legislature is so closely divided and could swing either way. Right now, Democrats narrowly hold the Senate while Republicans hold the House, and analysts predict that the race will hinge on just four Senate seats and seven House seats that are tossups.
All of this guarantees that this race will be riveting for the political class. And as a former politician, I get it; elections are exciting. At the same time, we can’t let the drama overshadow what’s really on the line for ordinary Virginians, whose lives will be profoundly affected by what happens at the polls this fall.
Many Virginians will be living very different lives, very soon, if Youngkin and the GOP get the chance to impose crackdowns, restrictions and rollbacks on their freedoms. We’ve seen the agony of people living in states with freshly enacted abortion bans. The humiliation and confusion of formerly incarcerated people who believed their voting rights had been restored but were arrested when they tried to exercise them. The damage to kids’ educations and futures when a radical-right state starts eliminating Advanced Placement courses and emptying library shelves.
That’s what could lie ahead for Virginians. It could lie ahead for all Americans if extremists, including those masquerading as moderates, manage to get themselves into the majority.
So yes, America will be watching Virginia, starting right now.