Democrats gain control of Virginia state legislature in blow to Republican plans

<span>Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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Democrats have secured full control of the Virginia state legislature, winning a majority in the house of delegates and depriving the Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, of the opportunity to enact a 15-week abortion ban.

Democrats maintained their majority in the state senate and flipped control of the house of delegates, where Republicans previously held a narrow advantage. Democrats’ victories quashed Youngkin’s hopes of securing a Republican-controlled legislature that would be able to advance his policy agenda, casting doubt upon his prospects as a potential presidential candidate.

“Governor Youngkin and Virginia Republicans did everything they could to take total control of state government, but the people of the Commonwealth rejected them,” Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic party of Virginia, said in a statement. “Virginians won’t go backwards. Instead of extremism and culture wars, people voted for commonsense leadership and problem solvers.”

Related: Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear re-elected in win for abortion rights

As one of the only states holding off-year elections, the Virginia results could serve as a bellwether for the presidential race next year. Democrats also secured key victories on Tuesday in Kentucky, where the incumbent governor, Andy Beshear, won re-election, and Ohio, where voters approved a measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

Virginia Democrats’ success will spell doom for Youngkin’s proposed 15-week “limit” on abortion, which would ban the procedure after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and medical emergencies. Democratic legislators in Virginia have previously used their senate majority to block bills restricting abortion access and they had promised to do so again if they maintained control of the chamber.

The possibility of curtailing access to abortion had become a galvanizing issue in Virginia, which is now the last remaining state in the US south without severe restrictions on the procedure. Virginia Democrats correctly predicted that voters’ continued displeasure with the reversal of Roe v Wade would help them flip control of the house of delegates.

“[Republicans] called their plan to ban abortion in Virginia a plan to keep abortion legal in the state and claimed it was just a ‘limit’,” Mini Timmaraju, president and CEO of Reproductive Freedom for All, said in a statement. “Well, tonight, Virginians showed the GOP and Glenn Youngkin exactly what voters have to say about it: we don’t want abortion bans, and we don’t want leaders who do.”

The Virginia results may serve as an indication of where swing voters in battleground states stand ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Virginia has been trending toward Democrats in recent years, as Joe Biden carried the state by 10 points in 2020. But Youngkin’s victory in 2021 proved Virginia remains a battleground state, and Republicans had hoped the governor’s success would deliver them a legislative trifecta in Richmond, but that failed to materialize.

The Biden campaign reveled in Democrats’ wins on Tuesday, pointing to them as evidence that the president would similarly succeed when he is on the ballot again next year.

“Voters across the political spectrum once again showed up and voted for our agenda and rejected the dangerous Maga extremism that has come to define today’s Republican Party at every level,” said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager. “That same choice will be before voters again next November and we are confident the American people will send President Biden and Vice-President Harris back to the White House to keep working for them.”

Republicans’ failure to take full control of the legislature may throw cold water on speculation over Youngkin’s national ambitions, as the governor had been named as a potential presidential candidate for 2024. As polls closed on Tuesday, Youngkin deflected questions over his future plans.

“I’ve been asked this so much, so many times over the course of the last year,” Youngkin told CNN. “I’m humbled by it. I’m focused on Virginia; we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

With Democrats in control of the state senate and able to block much of Youngkin’s agenda, it will be much harder for the governor to make a pitch for the White House. Given that Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms, Democrats’ victories on Tuesday guarantee that Youngkin will not have the opportunity to govern with a Republican-controlled legislature before he leaves office in 2026.

Youngkin’s critics celebrated his party’s defeats, suggesting the disappointing performance would bring an end to any presidential aspirations.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, joked on X: “CLEARANCE SALE: all ‘Youngkin for President 2024’ merchandise.”

• This article was amended on 8 November 2023. A previous version said that Virginia governors are limited to serving a single term. In fact, governors may serve more than one term, but they cannot serve consecutive terms.