Virginia, and the nation as a whole, is likely to experience continued uncertainty on issues ranging from health care to sequestration, said George Mason University political professor Tony-Michelle Travis.
Speaking before the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 1, Travis said the incoming administration of president-elect Donald Trump is a relative unknown on what it will do on many key issues. She also predicted the Trump will have a difficult time working with Congress, even though both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans.
“We don’t know if President Trump will renege on his promises, or break and modify them,” Travis said. “We have uncertainty in the political realm and the financial realm.”
Travis said other key questions include Trump’s ability to interact with House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as his cabinet.
Of particularly large concern is sequestration, the across-the-board cuts in federal spending in 2013 that resulted from Congress’ inability to work out a budget agreement. Another round of cuts come in 2017 if there isn’t agreement. In recent months, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been among those warning Virginia lawmakers about this in an attempt to prevent the cuts.
Travis said that sequestration won’t affect Virginia as significantly as McAuliffe and others may fear, but a reduction in federal government spending here would still be a blow to a state that already has a more than a $1 billion budget shortfall.
She was joined on the Chamber’s panel by Richmond Times-Dispatch political columnist Jeff Schapiro, who expressed similar concerns about Virginia. He said the Virginia General Assembly is frequently even less willing than Congress to work on major issues such as health care and that it has become increasingly more tribal along party lines.
“Politics has become almost like a video game, particularly among younger people. And I think the more gratuitously violent, the better,” Schapiro said. “And I think that reinforces the tribalism.”
Schapiro said Virginia’s elected representatives tend to be more focused on stirring up the electorate during an election year than fixing major problems. All 100 members of the House of Delegates are up for re-election in 2017 following this year’s legislative session, which ends in February.
Looking to 2017
As in the past, Virginia’s 2017 elections are likely to play an outsized role in the national political landscape as it is one of two states, along with New Jersey, electing governors next year. The outcome is often perceived as a referendum on the public’s opinion on the first year of the new federal government.
Though the national media attention will be on a the election outcome, the lead up to the nomination is what many Virginians will be watching. Republicans have four candidates running: former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie; Prince William Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart; Virginia’s 1st Congressional District Rep. Rob Wittman; and Virginia State Sen. Frank Wagner of the 7th District.
Gillespie is considered the moderate candidate of the four, and the favorite, in large part because of his close loss to Sen. Mark Warner in the 2014 U.S. Senate race. But Schapiro warned that Gillespie’s distance from Trump could make him a target for vindictive, Trump-supporting Republicans.
Additionally, Republicans’ switch to a primary in 2017 from a convention in 2013 is expected to help moderates.
Schapiro said neither system would have disadvantaged last cycle’s gubernatorial candidate, conservative former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. This means more conservative candidates like Stewart, Trump’s former Virginia State Chairman, and Wittman, who spoke at events attended by Trump’s vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, are very much in the running.
Shapiro’s view is contrary to the longstanding political wisdom that Republican nominating conventions are more helpful to conservative candidates, whereas open primaries are more helpful to moderates.
The winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary next June will face incumbent Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. A former physician and state senator from Virginia’s 6th district, Northam won’t face the challenges of a primary, but he doesn’t have the outgoing personality of McAuliffe and that may hurt him in a general election.
Another key factor for the 2017 elections and beyond is the state’s changing demographics. Virginia has become increasingly blue after more than four decades of voting for Republicans in national elections. Barack Obama won Virginia in 2008 and 2012, becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Hillary Clinton won Virginia by a larger margin than Obama did in 2012.
There are also major changes outside of political affiliations. More than two-thirds of the Commonwealth’s population now lives in cities or suburbs. As people continue to relocate to Virginia, more than half of its residents are now from another state. Schapiro said this leads voters to more closely vote along party lines, as they may be less personally familiar with the candidates.
These changes may also disadvantage Democratic candidates in Virginia. Registered Democrats typically fail to turn out to the polls for off-year elections when compared to presidential contests. In 2016, with Trump and Clinton at the top of their respective tickets, 71 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In the 2013 gubernatorial race with no presidential candidate on the ballot, only about 40 percent of voters came to the polls, made up predominantly of white males, a demographic group that tends to vote more heavily for Republicans. Experts predict the turn out percentage to stay about the same in 2017.
That also helps explain why Sen. Mark Warner faced such a stiff re-election challenge in 2014 from Gillespie, who had never won elected office before. Still, Travis and Schapiro think Warner, who was recently placed in the democratic leadership as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will continue to play a large role in the Senate as a lawmaker who tries to govern from the center.
The panel thought Tim Kaine, Virginia’s other senator, would also continue to have a significant role in Congress. Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee in 2016, the national exposure could strengthen him in Washington. Travis said Kaine, a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, could provide an important moderate voice and counterbalance to the Trump administration.
“I think when the Republicans caucus and when the Democrats caucus, if they’re going to get things done — because they’re always looking to re-election — we can perhaps get more moderates coming through,” Travis said. “Otherwise, I see more gridlock in our State House and Congress.”