Special election timing could impact 'blue wall' blocking Youngkin priorities

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Two special elections currently underway in Virginia could cause a domino effect that shifts the balance of power in the General Assembly. The results could lower or build up the main barrier blocking GOP priorities, including abortion restrictions.

A razor thin Democratic majority in the state Senate has stood in the way of some of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s most controversial proposals in the last year but those numbers could change at a critical time in the 2023 legislation session.

“We’re at this very fragile point where every single election, decision and vacancy matters,” said Political Analyst Rich Meagher.

The first test is a special election scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 10 in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Democrats are hoping to flip a state Senate seat previously held by Republican Jen Kiggans, who is now heading to the U.S. Congress after defeating Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in District 2 last month.

A win in Virginia Beach would give Democrats a buffer in the state Senate. A loss means they’ll stay at a 21-19 majority as another battle plays out in Richmond.

Two Democratic state Senators, Jennifer McClellan and Joe Morrissey, have emerged as leading candidates vying to fill the 4th District Congressional seat left vacant by the recent death of Rep. Donald McEachin. Democratic voters will choose their nominee in a firehouse primary on Tuesday, Dec. 20.

If either candidate wins the nomination in the historically blue district, Democrats could temporarily lose one vote during a critical time in the General Assembly, when many of the most divisive decisions are made.

“Every single Senator becomes a flip vote on any particular issue. That’s not necessarily going to happen but it’s a recipe for chaos,” Meagher said.

Governor Youngkin scheduled the special election for Feb. 21. The last scheduled day of the 2023 regular session is Feb. 25.

Liam Watson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the timing is no accident.

“The governor purposely picked February 21 because it’s clear that he is unable to work across party lines. Because of his allergy to bipartisanship, he hoped that a member of the State Senate would ascend to the U.S. House, narrowing the Democratic majority,” Watson said in a statement.

Youngkin denied that while speaking to reporters after an event on Wednesday.

“There are people who might think I’m more clever than I am and, at the end of the day, we were trying to have an accelerated time frame so that the people of the fourth congressional district will have representation in Washington,” Youngkin said.

At an event on Friday, McClellan accused Youngkin of intentionally rushing the primary process but downplayed fears that her departure could give the GOP a brief opening in the General Assembly. She expects Democrats to pick up a seat in Virginia Beach and says it will take a few days to certify the election.

“The session will be pretty much over by then so no, I am not concerned,” McClellan said.

But Democrats could potentially be down a seat when lawmakers return to Richmond to consider Youngkin’s vetoes and budget amendments. They’re expected to reconvene on April 5th or April 12th. The question is how quickly can the caucus fill the vacant seat?

“After the Senate seat is vacated, Senator Louise Lucas, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, will call a special election to fill the vacated seat. To our understanding that special election will take place at least 45 days after to include ample time for early voting,” said Gianni Snidle, communications director for the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus.

Abortion rights advocates fear Youngkin could take advantage of the situation and sneak new restrictions into the budget if his legislative efforts fail.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia Executive Director Jamie Lockhart said Youngkin tried and failed to do so last session. She said the budget proposal he released on Thursday attempts to ban the use of state dollars for abortions stemming from severe fetal diagnoses. She said the language also confirms Youngkin’s plans to introduce a 15-week abortion ban.

Asked about those efforts, McClellan said, “It was defeated before. It will be defeated again.”

In an interview on Friday, Morrissey, a self-described pro-life Democrat, didn’t rule out supporting a 15-week abortion ban if Youngkin attempts to pass restrictions through the budget.

“I will look at it. I believe if a fetus can feel pain that that is something we have to consider as legislators,” Morrissey said. “Some have said it is 20 weeks or 20 plus weeks.”

Morrissey said, if voters decide to send him to Congress, he’ll finish the regular General Assembly session before being sworn in to make sure Democrats don’t lose a vote. He said he would be “prepared and happy” to work through the veto session too.

“I determine when I’m going to get sworn in and my first duty is finish my term as a state Senator. I hope Jennifer does the same thing but I can’t speak for her,” Morrissey said.