Last week Virginia held primary elections for seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate, all of which are up for election this cycle. Currently, Democrats hold the majority in the state Senate, while Republicans hold the majority in the House of Delegates. This November both parties are seeking to gain legislative majorities in both chambers to aid – or thwart – Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s legislative agenda. Redistricting in 2023 brought a wave of retirements across both parties and chambers, and with them opportunities to fundamentally recast the membership of the Virginia General Assembly. With just one contest “too close to call,” there are three main takeaways of how gender is playing a significant role on the campaign trail in Virginia:
1. (Democratic) Women – particularly Black women candidates – won a majority of their party’s primaries in both chambers.
Virginia selects major-party nominees for the general election in multiple ways, including through party conventions, firehouse primaries, and traditional primary elections. Moreover, traditional primaries are bypassed in districts where candidates run contested, moving them straight to the general election. Regardless of path to November’s ballot, women will be 28 of 72 (38.9%) major-party nominees for state Senate in Virginia, including 22 of 38 (57.9%) Democrats and 6 of 34 (17.6%) Republicans. Women will be 58 of 157 (36.9%) major-party nominees selected for the House of Delegates in Virginia, including 47 of 90 (52.2%) Democrats and 11 of 67 (16.4%) Republicans.
Analyzing last week’s primaries provides more targeted insights into women’s success in contests competitive at the nomination stage. For Democrats, the Virginia Department of Elections identified 16 contested primaries in the House of Delegates and 15 contested primaries in the state Senate. On the House side, women candidates won 12 of the 16 primaries, including eight women who identify as either Black or multiracial. On the Senate side, women candidates won eight of the 15 primaries, including five women who identify as Black. And, as many of these contests are for open seats in Democratic- friendly districts in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, and Richmond, the women who won these primaries are favored to win their general election contests in November. Should Democrats regain majority party control of the House of Delegates and retain their majority in the state Senate in November they will have Black women to thank for their party’s good fortune.
The performance of Republican women candidates in contested primaries was decidedly mixed. The Virginia Department of Elections identified fewer contested primaries for Republicans. Republican women candidates for the state Senate won four of the seven contested primaries, however their counterparts in the House won none of the nine contested primaries. Combining these outcomes with women’s overall underrepresentation in the Republican nominee pool, any anticipated gains in membership by Republican women in the Virginia General Assembly will be more modest compared to those expected from Democratic women.
2. Abortion remains a salient issue for primary voters, especially Democrats.
When Democrats held a trifecta in Virginia state government in 2020 and 2021, the General Assembly passed several measures designed to protect abortion access in the Commonwealth, including the removal of waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, and regulations targeting facilities that perform abortions. Following the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to regulate abortion, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin endorsed a state ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and promised to sign “any bill…to protect life” passed by the General Assembly. The Democratic majority in the state Senate repeatedly blocked the passage of pro-life legislation in both the 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions. In a decisive state Senate primary (SD 13), former Delegate Lashresce Aird, who ran on a “Roe, not Joe” platform, soundly defeated incumbent and self-declared “pro-life Democrat” Senator Joe Morrissey. In a press release following Tuesday’s primaries, ReproRising Virginia, a pro-choice advocacy group, celebrated the election of 13 state Senate candidates and 11 House of Delegate candidates they either endorsed or recognized as “reproductive freedom champions.” Many of the endorsed candidates who were Democratic women were also endorsed by EMILY’s List, an organization that exclusively endorses pro-choice Democratic women candidates. Taken together, these endorsements ensure robust fundraising support from the group’s respective PACs and membership. They also ensure that Democratic campaigns will continue to emphasize the importance of voting for candidates who promise to protect abortion rights in the Virginia General Assembly.
3. The party gap in women’s representation will expand in the 2024 Virginia General Assembly
The Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) ranks Virginia in the top half – 24th – in women’s representation in state legislatures. However, the ranking obscures a yawning gap in women’s representation that is laid bare when unpacked by chamber and party. In 2023, Democratic women account for a majority of their party’s caucus in the House of Delegates, occupying 26 of 48 seats; in the state Senate they comprise about a third of their party’s caucus, holding seven of 22 seats. Moreover, in the Senate where Democrats retain party majority, senators Janet Howell, Mamie Locke, and Louise Lucas serve as chairs for Senate Committees on Finance, Rules, and Education and Health, respectively.
In contrast, Republican women are a smaller percentage of their party’s caucuses in each chamber. Republican women are about one-quarter of the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates, occupying 12 of 52 seats, whereas Republican women in the state Senate account for just over 15% of their party’s caucus, 3 of 18 seats.
These numbers matter when compared to the spate of legislator retirements announced at the end of the 2023 General Assembly session and when coupled with the results from this week’s party primaries. Both chambers saw a number of retirements from senior women in both parties. However, for Democrats, retirements will likely be offset by a new cohort of Democratic women favored to win in the House and the success of women in the party’s most competitive House and Senate primaries. Their wins in Democratic-friendly districts increase the likelihood of victory in the November general elections. The same cannot be said of Republican women. To be sure, primary nominations of Republican women Senate candidates, including two current House members who are seeking Senate seats, have likely offset losses in representation from retirements in the Senate but not in the House of Delegates where half of the Republican women’s delegation (six members) are departing (due to retirements, primary loss, or running for the Senate) and zero Republican women House candidates won in competitive primaries. As a result, the party gap in representation between women Democrats and Republicans in both chambers will continue, and likely expand, in the upcoming legislative session.
Gender played a central role in last week’s state legislative primaries in Virginia. An impressive number of Democratic women candidates – many of whom are Black women – recorded wins in party-friendly districts in both chambers and boosted their chances of winning seats come November. We can expect Democratic candidates to highlight their pro-choice credentials and promise voters that electing Democratic majorities will protect abortion access in the Commonwealth. Should Democrats win majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate, Democratic women legislators will again play key roles in their party’s caucuses within each chamber. Republican women candidates will likely increase their numbers in the state Senate but not in the House of Delegates. Their smaller numbers overall suggest a limited presence in their party’s caucus – and its legislative agenda – in the 2024 General Assembly.
Virginia’s elections offer some important insights into dynamics to watch beyond 2023. While the state is one of only a handful of sites for state legislative contests this year, the trends and outcomes observed may foreshadow more of what is to come in elections nationwide in 2024.
Rosalyn Cooperman is Professor of Political Science at the University of Mary Washington. Professor Cooperman earned a B.A. in Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a Ph.D. in Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on women's political participation, campaign finance, and the political behavior of party activists, and her work has been published in the American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, American Politics Research, and Social Science Quarterly. Since 2004, Cooperman has served as a Principal Investigator for the Convention Delegate Study (CDS), a survey of Democratic and Republican Party delegates. The CDS, initiated in 1972, is the longest standing survey of U.S. party activists. Professor Cooperman is presently working on a book manuscript, Pink and Blue Waves in Old Dominion: Women Legislators in the Virginia General Assembly.