Virginia is One Election Away from Becoming North Carolina
Many Virginia citizens are actively engaged in the 2016 presidential race and Congressional races down-ticket from the Clinton/Trump contest. But as we focus intensely on the national races, we should not ignore the state gubernatorial and legislative races, including those which will occur in Virginia next year.
The conservative movement in this country recognized a long time ago what many of us who seek common-sense solutions to everyday problems in an atmosphere of civility and genuine political exchange have neglected at our peril, and that is that states matter!
The statistics clearly bear this out. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans have been very successful in electing their candidates to state legislatures in the last decade. The GOP gained 721 state legislative seats in 2010 and has continued to build their margins in the succeeding years. In 2009, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers in 14 states; by 2015, they had 30. They now control 70 of 99 legislative chambers. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) is committed to spending in excess of $100 million to expand their margins.
Our Southern Neighbor
Where Republicans have taken over, the results have been dramatic. Witness our close neighbor, North Carolina. In 2008, the state chose Obama for president, but by 2011, both the House and the Senate in the state had flipped to Republican control. With Republicans in control of redistricting, they drew new lines that further solidified their election victories, and began their “conservative revolution.” In August 2012, North Carolina banned the state from basing coastal policies on scientific predictions of sea level rise. A Republican governor was elected in 2012 and the state took a dramatic turn to the right.
In February 2013, North Carolina cut maximum weekly unemployment benefits by 40 percent, from $530 per week to $350 per week, and shortened the period of time when workers could receive the benefits, at a time when North Carolina’s unemployment levels were approaching 10 percent.
Under the guise of “tax reform,” the state imposed a greater tax burden on the middle class. It repealed “teacher tenure” for any teacher hired after July 2013, invested more taxpayer dollars in “private school vouchers,” and repealed many of the measures previous legislatures had passed to increase voter participation throughout the state.
In 2015, North Carolina reduced a fine on Duke Energy from $25 million to $7 million in the aftermath of 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater being spilled into the Dan River from the company’s defunct coal plant. In 2015, the legislature abolished a wildly successful solar investment tax credit, which had generated substantial revenue for the state and created thousands of jobs. The legislature and Governor approved the termination of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, a program hailed by Ronald Reagan as the most effective anti-poverty program that we have in this country. Almost one million low-income North Carolinians were affected. The president of the University of North Carolina was ousted and replaced by a former Bush appointee, Margaret Spellings.
Then, in late March 2016, the conservative turn became national news when, in a Special Session that took less than 12 hours, the state passed a bill that not only prevented localities from enacting anti-LGBT discrimination measures, but made it more difficult for any person to enforce claims of discrimination in state courts. The publicity from its so-called “bathroom bill” has generated protests around the nation and has prompted many businesses to stop expansion plans in the state or consider relocating.
While our state elections are another 17 months away, the actions of our neighbor to the south show what can happen in the absence of the checks and balances of divided government. And we are not even talking about the next regular redistricting process, which will occur under the scrutiny, and potential veto, of the next governor. Clearly, a lot is at stake.
The “Virginia Way”
In Virginia, we celebrate the so-called “Virginia Way.” The Virginia Way implies a civil approach that embraces moderate changes focusing on core services of government and supporting a good business climate. For years, Virginia had “divided government;” Democrats and Republicans each controlled either the House, Senate, or Governorship. In addition, there was a group of moderate Republican Senators who would stop some of the most socially regressive legislation passed by the Virginia House of Delegates from ever getting to the Governor’s desk. Unfortunately, most of those moderates are now gone from the Virginia Senate and all that stands between Virginia and North Carolina is a Governor who is willing to exercise his or her veto pen in the service of moderation. If you look at the vetoes in Virginia’s last General Assembly session, you can see this in full force. The Governor successfully vetoed efforts by the Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood, prevent the state from producing a state-initiated clean power plan, allow discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, continue inefficient and special tax benefits for coal companies and utilities, and place further restrictions on Virginians’ ability to register and vote.
Our ability to influence state races is dramatically affected by voter turnout. Although it is unlikely that voter participation in the presidential race will reach the historic levels of the 2008 Obama campaign, the percentage of registered voters who will make it to the polls this fall is likely to exceed 70 percent. Contrast that to the last Virginia gubernatorial race when only 43 percent of registered voters appeared at the polls, and state delegate races which often produce participation numbers even lower (under 30 percent in 2015).
Virginia’s Elections Matter
So as we rightfully focus on the Presidential election, we should not lose track that in Virginia we could be only one election away from our state adopting the politics of North Carolina and producing a new redistricting plan that will put the checks and balances of divided government at further risk for the next decade. The stakes could not be higher.