Democrats are hoping to flip a special state Senate seat in Virginia on Tuesday amid a burst of momentum following the midterms and a chaotic week in Republican politics.
The special election for the seventh state senate district, which encompasses a portion of the greater Virginia Beach area, was previously held by GOP Rep. Jen Kiggans.
While Kiggans defeated former Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) in the second congressional district, which encompasses the seventh state senate district, Democrats point to other victories across the state last cycle as signs the party has a genuine chance of turning the seat blue.
“This is really Republicans’ race to lose,” said Christina Polizzi, communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “If they are not able to hold onto this seat heading into Virginia in 2023, that certainly is kind of an alarm bell that the GOP brand in Virginia has taken some hits under Gov. Youngkin’s leadership, under the Republican control of the House, and as abortion rights have become a bigger issue post the Dobbs decision.”
Virginia Beach Councilman Aaron Rouse (D) is facing off against former Navy veteran and Republican Kevin Adams in Tuesday’s contest. The district is considered a toss-up, with both Republicans and Democrats winning it narrowly in the past.
Kiggans won the seat by just less than a point in 2019, while Biden won the district by 10 points in 2020. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) won the seat during the state’s 2021 gubernatorial campaign. And in 2022, Kiggans trailed Luria by four points in precincts within the state Senate district, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The special election comes after Republicans underperformed across the country and in various federal races in Virginia, losing two of the three contested congressional districts they were targeting in the commonwealth. On top of that, Republicans are emerging from a nationally embarrassing week that saw the party divided over who would win the House Speaker’s race in Congress. Eventually, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) clinched the gavel, but only after 15 rounds of voting.
Still, Kiggans ousted Luria in the congressional district that includes her former state Senate district, giving hope to the GOP.
“It is still a Republican seat,” said Gianni Snidle, communications director for the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus. “So flipping a special seat like that is difficult, but I think tomorrow we’re going to be on top, hopefully.”
Rouse’s campaign told The Hill they were feeling optimistic on Monday, pointing to the early vote turnout. If Rouse wins, Democrats will expand their majority in the state Senate to 22 seats.
Adams’s campaign did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) declined to comment.
Rouse and Adams have both raised $1 million ahead of the election, underscoring the stakes of the race.
Regardless of who wins Tuesday’s special election, Democrats will still retain a majority in Virginia’s state Senate. But Democrats argue that a Republican victory could impact the future of abortion access legislation in the state. Youngkin has proposed a 15-week abortion ban in Virginia, with the exceptions of rape, incest and life of the mother. A vote from state Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey, who has voiced support for a ban after 15 weeks, combined with Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears’s (R) tie-breaking vote, theoretically could play in Youngkin’s favor.
On top of that, Democrats could temporarily be without a seat in the state Senate if state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.) wins the special election to replace the late Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.) in Virginia’s 4th congressional district. That election is slated to take place on Feb. 23.
“It is the biggest issue because of the layout of the Senate,” said Gianni Snidle, communications director for the Virginia Democratic Senate Caucus. “Electing Aaron Rouse ensures that no abortion ban or restrictions will ever come to Gov. Youngkin’s desk this year.”
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia echoed this sentiment in a memo sent out last week, saying Rouse is “crucial in the fight to keep abortion legal in Virginia.”
“With Governor Youngkin pursuing an abortion ban with the support of extreme legislators, we cannot afford to have Kevin Adams, who said he would support this ban, in the Senate,” the memo read.
The group invested $100,00 in Rouse’s campaign ahead of the race, including a $25,000 digital media advertising buy that began running last Tuesday.
And after seeing national Democrats win on the issue of abortion rights last November, Virginia Democrats are seeking to make the issue a top priority for the next general election.
“This race has fallen into what I think the entire year will fall into which is a referendum on reproductive rights,” Snidle said.
A new political action committee, Roe Your Vote Virginia, has pledged to spend $1 million in competitive House of Delegates and state Senate races next year.
On Wednesday, the day after the special election, the General Assembly will convene for a 30 day legislative period, which will set the table for the year to come Virginia politics.
“We’ll see on the legislative side Democrats and Republicans battling out, and we’ll probably see a lot of bills just to get certain members on the record so when campaign season comes around we have some material to work with,” Snidle said.