By Karen Shanton

The Virginia House of Delegates held scheduled elections in 2013 but the real news this year is in the state Senate.

With many chambers across the country dominated by supersized majorities, a shift of one or two seats often has little impact on party control. To take a close-to-home example, as of today, Republicans could give up 14 seats in the Virginia House without losing their grip on the chamber.

Herring and Obenshain_blog
Attorney General candidates Sens. Mark Herring, left, and Mark Obenshain (The Washington Post)

But the Virginia Senate is a different story. Before the 2013 elections, the Senate was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling casting the tiebreaking vote. With that setup, a change in just one seat would swing control of the chamber to one party or the other.

Though the Virginia Senate didn’t have scheduled elections in November, the 2013 election put two of its seats in play. Democratic state Senator Ralph Northam defeated Republican candidate E.W. Jackson to become the state’s new lieutenant governor. And, on Monday, the State Board of Elections certified Democratic Senator Mark Herring as the winner of the closely-contested attorney general race. The tight margin in that race has prompted a request for a recount but a Senate seat will open up either way. Senator Herring’s Republican opponent, Mark Obenshain, is also a member of the state Senate.

That means that control of the Virginia Senate will be decided by a pair of special elections—in Senator Northam’s District 6 and either Senator Herring’s District 33 or Senator Obenshain’s District 26.

Election results compiled for the Daily Kos suggest that these seats are all reasonably safe for their parties. In 2012, President Barack Obama won 57 percent of the vote in District 6 and 59 percent of District 33 while Republican candidate Mitt Romney took 60 percent of District 26. Similarly, in the U.S. Senate race, Democratic candidate (and now-Senator) Tim Kaine won 58 percent of District 6 and 60 percent of District 33 while his Republican opponent, George Allen, took 61 percent of District 26.

So a likely scenario is that the two departing senators will be replaced by members of their own parties, the Senate will remain evenly divided and ties will be broken by Democrat Northam, in his new role as lieutenant governor.

No matter what the likely outcome, though, we can expect there to be a fair amount of attention on Virginia in the coming months. With control of the state Senate up for grabs, neither party will take these special elections lightly.

Karen Shanton is a legislative studies specialist and American Council of Learned Societies public fellow at NCSL.

Posted in: NCSL, Elections
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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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