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A Rundown of the 2021 Virginia Elections: Early Lessons and Next Steps

Poligage is pleased to share the perspectives of Matt Benedetti, a member of the Poligage Experts Network who has long standing policy & government affairs experience in the Commonwealth of Virginia, on the recent statewide elections in Virginia and their expected impact in the weeks and months ahead. Scroll down to access the full interview with Matt, both via video and written transcript:

A Rundown of the 2021 Virginia Elections: Early Lessons and Next Steps
An Interview with Matt Benedetti

Matt Benedetti is an expert in business and government affairs and currently serves as the head of Matt Benedetti & Associates, a full-service government relations firm based in Richmond, VA. offering decades of experience helping clients navigate the state legislative and procurement processes. Matt has worked with non-profits, trade associations, and companies of all sizes in the areas of healthcare, education, retail, information technology, special education, energy, environment, and procurement across Virginia. Matt spent time earlier in his career working multi-state territories for one of the nation’s largest retailers. Matt graduated from James Madison University with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree.

NOTE: Transcript of the video interview has been edited for focus.

Q: Matt, big election in the Commonwealth of Virginia last week. What jumped out at you regarding the results?

MB: Yes, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and then all one hundred Members of the House of Delegates were up for election this year. No State Senate Members were up for election. One of the things that stood out to me was not only the fact that Glenn Youngkin the Republican candidate won, but by how much he won. There was actually a 25% higher turn out this election than two years ago, and Glenn Youngkin was able to generate a lot of that turnout in the reddest parts of Virginia, but he was also able to pick up some votes in the suburbs outside of Northern Virginia. Inside the beltway or the “DC suburbs,” was primarily blue like it always is, but outside the beltway and in the suburbs, there were more Independents and moderate Democrats that went for Youngkin.

And to that point, I think he got 1.6 million votes which was the top vote getter for the three Republican top of ticket candidates. Terry McAuliffe got 1.5 million votes or so, and I think it was a 70,000-74,000 vote difference between Youngkin and McAullife, but McAuliffe wasn’t the top vote getter of the three top ticket Democrats. That was Mark Herring, the two-time incumbent Attorney General who got the most votes of the three, and he only lost by 34,000 votes to Jason Miyares who was the Republican AG candidate. The big takeaway is that there wasn’t a lot of split ticket voting. And then certainly, if you look at what happened with the unexpectedly close governor race in New Jersey, I think it also was clear that national politics played into the turnout in both Virginia and New Jersey.

So going into Election Day, I thought based on the last couple of weeks that Youngkin had the momentum and a real chance to win, and so I thought all three at the top of the Republican ticket would win. I didn’t think, though, that the Republicans would actually take over the House of Delegates. I thought they might pick up a couple of seats, but not enough to flip the House, which is what they did. They actually picked up seven seats and they only needed five for control. Three of those — one of which was a Dem hold and two were Republican pickups — were so close that they are probably going to trigger a recount. So worst case scenario is that the two Republican pickups flip back to Dem, and then we have a 50/50 House, which is going to mean the challenge of power sharing.

Q: How do you see the regulatory and legislative agenda and priorities for the Commonwealth of Virginia adjusting under a Youngkin-Sears administration, and have there been any early signals over the last few days that we should be paying attention to?

MB: No early signals yet. Youngkin is going to name to a transition director and team to actually handle the transition. The current Governor, Ralph Northam, was Lieutenant Governor under Terry McAuliffe eight years ago. So we just finished basically eight years of McAuliffe-Northam. I would anticipate that Governor-elect Youngkin is going to come in and basically clean house. He’s probably going to clean everybody out of the cabinet level and the deputy positions. I always say all the policy people are going to go, so it will be all new people there.

The question is, as you roll down into specific agencies, what is his focus is going to be? I know that he talked a lot about education, so my guess is he’s going to give some serious focus to the Department of Education. I don’t know what that looks like. Dr. Lane, the current State Superintendent of Education, comes from Chesterfield County, which is a very moderate to conservative type county, and I don’t think the Department of Education has been that radical for lack of a better word. But I haven’t yet had conversations with the Governor-elect or his staff yet to find the specifics out.

Q: What are the pressure points that the Governor has at his disposal, and how will he need to work with the General Assembly to get things done?

MB: I should elaborate a little bit about the leadership in the House of Delegates. Right now, because of the uncertainty about who’s actually in control, it’s possible that we could have a split legislature or split 50/50 if it stays with Republicans. I do know that the current Minority Leader, Todd Gilbert from Shenandoah County, would like to be Speaker, but Delegate Terry Kilgore from far Southwest Virginia would also like to be Speaker. So, there’s going to be at least two people who have announced publicly that they would like to be Speaker, and they will have influence over the naming of committee chairs. Education policy and spending are in the purview of the General Assembly. The Senate hasn’t flipped but it is 20-20 Rs and Ds with Lieutenant Governor Sears as the tiebreaking vote – so not much cushion for votes.

The Governor-elect is thus going to have to work with the new Republican House (if the new numbers hold up) to figure out what kind of agenda that a close Democratic Senate can go along with because that’s going to be the bottleneck for any kind overreach or big items. My guess is that it’s going to be a very moderate legislative session come January. There won’t be a whole lot of big things. I know some of the items on the agenda, we talked about education, and specifically Governor-elect Youngkin had talked about fully funding historically black colleges and universities or HCBUs. He talked about charter schools. He talked about teacher pay raises, which they just did. With the budget that was just passed recently, [there] was a very large number for teacher pay raises. I would expect to see more of that as well. But the Governor can’t just on his own go out there and increase these sorts of things. He has to get legislative approval.

Q: Can you talk about how resources may change for counties and cities that rely on the Virginia General Assembly for at least part of their operating budgets?

MB: So there are a lot of states that are what are known as Home Rule states. Virginia is at Dillon Rule state. Basically if there’s anything a locality would like to do, they typically have to come to the General Assembly for permission to do it. Anything radical that a county would like to do, they have to come and get permission.

As far as funding goes, there are education funding formulas, there are transportation and infrastructure funding formulas, so all the federal and state tax dollars funnel through at the state-level, and they get allocated to the localities based on the funding formulas. You know, the standards of quality for education. There’s also a lot of federal dollars that come down for Medicaid and childcare and block grants and that sort of thing, and those get funneled through the health agencies into localities to fund that. So, localities are going to have to work very closely with this new majority in the House. For the last two years, it’s been a Democrat in the Governor’s office and Democrat majority in the House and the Senate, so it was easier for localities to work with that system because they were for the most part aligned. It’s going to be interesting to see how this changes in the months and years ahead, especially if the majority for the House holds up.

Q: Could could you describe the timeline look over the next year in terms of both political and governance decisions? I know it’s early days after the election, but what does the year ahead look like from a big picture perspective?

MB: I’ll give you the near term and then the midterm and then the long-term because there is a lot that is happening.

Friday, November 5th was the last day for the Department of Elections to count provisional ballots and mail in ballots. So, I anticipate hearing something very shortly about the final recounts on those three House races or the final vote tally that may or may not trigger recounts. That will dictate who’s actually the majority of the House of Delegates (NOTE: as of November 8, the seat count was 51 Republicans and thus majority control).

So, let’s presume that the numbers hold, and the Republicans have the majority. I do know that the Caucus is slated to meet on November 14th. They should have their internal leadership elections, which means Speaker, Majority Leader, Caucus Chair, Committee Chairs which are important to those in the audience that want to do business at the legislature to pay attention to who to talk to and what committee of jurisdiction their interests might lay in. The House Democrats will do the same thing. My guess is there’s going to be some arguments internally in that Caucus about who’s to blame for the Republicans winning and the Democrats losing. So, you might see some leadership changes there, we just have to wait and see. That’s the short term.

Next, the pandemic delayed the census and Virginia just in 2020 passed a constitutional amendment to create a Bipartisan Redistricting Commission. So the Redistricting Commission had a task of redrawing not only House maps and Senate maps, but also Congressional maps. They failed at their task and now the State Supreme Court has to hire a couple special map masters to redesign these districts. I say this because, at this point in time, I don’t know if the maps will be ready in time, so the House members may have to run again next year. And then constitutionally they run every two years, so they’ll run again in 2023. So, it could be 2021, next year 2022, and 2023. I know the House members are unhappy about that possibility because no one wants to be on campaign every single year.

2023 is also when we’re going to have all of the members of the State Senate up for election as well, so 2023 is going to be an interesting year. In between that, in 2022, you also have your Congressional races. So, depending upon what the maps look like, you could have two to four maybe five really competitive congressional races. There’s Congressional District 7 (CD7) and Congressional District 2 (CD2), which is down in Tidewater. I know there’s at least three declared candidates on the Republican side for the CD7 primary, so we’re going to have a very crowded primary there, and I’m sure we’re going to have much of the same down in Tidewater and in CD5. If the maps really get a little interesting, then you could see competitive races in CD 1, 5, and 10. CD1 being down way far down in Hampton Roads, CD5 is out in the middle part of Virginia where Congressman Riggleman lost primary to Bob Good, I would think that would be competitive. And then Jennifer Wexton’s seat in CD10 which is in Northern Virginia but it’s more of central Northern Virginia and not as inside the beltway. So as far as elections go, that’s the next time frame.

The Virginia General Assembly session will begin in January, which is only 60 days. I know there are states that have one-year or two-year sessions and you got all the time in the world to do stuff, but we have 60 days. That includes producing a full two-year budget. So Governor Northam is going to present his budget in December to a joint session or a joint committee of the “money committees” of the House and the Senate and then he leaves, and Governor-elect Youngkin gets to deal with a budget that Governor Northam is leaving on his way out the door. The legislature is going to have their crack at it in January and February, and then going into middle of March is when they’re supposed to adjourn. I say supposed to because the last couple of sessions have gone long and they’ve had to do special sessions partly because of the pandemic, but also because of the infighting between the House and the Senate members and subsequent legislative delays.

Then there’s 45 days until the reconvene session, which is what we call the “veto session,” so anything that the General Assembly does regarding budget actions, bills, and stuff that go to the Governor, this will be when the Governor has to take action like seeking to amend them, veto them, or just do nothing and send them back. The General Assembly Members then come back for a day and handle all the Governor’s actions. Now, in a regular year, they would be done until the following January, but with the pandemic and the example of the last couple of years, they’ve been meeting regularly. So we’ll see what happens in 2022.

Q: Can the Governor call the legislature back into session for any reason?

MB: The Governor has the ability to call the legislature back into special sessions, but he has to have valid reasons to do such. He did that for redistricting purposes last year, but also for the budget. They had passed a budget back in February of this year, but if you remember, the U.S. Congress passed the American Relief Package, the ARPA funds, so the Governor called the legislature back so they could deal with the additional funds coming in and how they were going to allocate that spending that came down from Congress.

Q: The last time we had a change in governorship from party to party would have been from Bob McDonnell to Terry McAuliffe, so that means Bob McDonnell offered a budget in December right before he was going out of office. What lessons have we learned from that process? Does the incoming Governor and the legislature just kind of ignore it and have to start from a new blueprint after inauguration?

MB: As an outgoing Governor, you’re going to throw anything in there that you can think of and try to make a statement. When Governor McAuliffe was leaving office, he had a Republican Senate and a Republican House; so now with Governor Northam leaving, he has a Democratic Senate and now an incoming Republican House. My guess is he will push to continue his expansion of broadband funding. There was a lot of money that came from the ARPA funds for broadband expansion. That is huge. Virginia is getting ready to spend about a billion dollars to make sure all citizens are connected to the Internet by 2024.

My guess is Governor Northam will also propose quite a bit of money in there for continuing Medicaid expansion, which is not traditionally a Republican issue. But again, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a step in the process. The House will introduce their budget bill, the Senate will introduce their budget bill, and these will go to conference to all be worked out.

Q: Let’s talk about the other two state-wide elected officials next. What sort of profile and focus do you expect to see Lieutenant Governor-elect Winsome Sears to have?

MB: The Lieutenant Governor position is an interesting one. Her primary duty is to step in if God forbid anything happens to the Governor, but other than that she will preside over the State Senate. She breaks ties on everything except budgets and judges. She can have a stated policy slate or focus, but it isn’t something she can actually implement because the only vote she has is a tie breaking vote. However, she can influence policy by working with the Governor and help him implement his education strategy, for example, which is part of what she ran on. I know that the Governor-elect also run on eliminating the grocery tax. They want to do a one-time tax refund, I think it’s $600 for joint couples and $300 for individuals, so it’s a one-time thing. So there are some things that she can advocate for, but not necessarily push an agenda.

Q: And what about Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares?

MB: The Attorney General can push a policy agenda since he runs the legal shop for the Commonwealth of Virginia. In fact, one of the first things that the Governor said he was going to do on day one was to abolish the Parole Board, and that’s something that Jason Miyares ran on and attacked the incumbent Mark Herring about was the handling of the parole board. Without getting into too much detail, there were some issues about certain requirements that the parole board was supposed to do that they did not do, so the Governor is going to replace the entire parole board. Miyares ran on “law and order,” so there are some things that he’s going to do within that office that in his words were not being done. He has an agenda that he can implement right away, and he’s already announced his transition team which is a slate of all former Republican Attorneys General, including Bob McDonnell, Jim Gilmore, and Jerry Kilgore.

Q: For companies and organizations that have a stake in the legislation and the regulation that’s coming out of Richmond, what is your counsel as they are looking to influence the emerging policy and regulatory agenda of a Youngkin Administration and the new General Assembly?

MB: Information and relationships are key. There’s no substitute for experience or having face-to-face contact with people — or camera-to-camera more so contact these days! Be sure you have somebody in your corner who understands the Commonwealth’s legislative and regulatory process, because the way things work in Virginia is different from the way things work in Maryland or in New Jersey or in Michigan. We are a sprint most of the time in Virginia and the windows are very small to get things done, so you need somebody on the ground who can be your eyes and ears.

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