Virginia voters across the state will pick three new members of the General Assembly in a special election next week that could determine the balance of power in the state Senate.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe set the election for Tuesday to replace the state lawmakers who were elected to Congress in November.
Republicans currently hold 20 of 40 seats in the Senate, and Democrats have 18. Democrats are expected to easily win one district Tuesday in which Republicans didn’t field a candidate, and if they can pick up a second, they would effectively gain control of the upper chamber because of Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s status as a tiebreaker.
Experts say turnout will likely be low, despite what’s at stake, so just a few hundred votes could determine the outcome.
“It could either fundamentally change the dynamics of the General Assembly this year or we could forget it happened,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University.
22nd SENATE DISTRICT
In the more closely watched Senate race, three candidates are sparring to represent the 22nd District, which stretches west from Goochland County to Amherst, Appomattox and part of Lynchburg.
Republican Lynchburg attorney Mark Peake and former Fluvanna County Sheriff Ryant Washington, a Democrat, will face Joe Hines, an executive at an economic development group and self-described independent conservative.
The district is typically Republican leaning but has the setup for a surprise Democratic win, Kidd said.
In rural Virginia, voters are usually loyal to local sheriffs, and Hines could peel off enough votes from Peake to make a difference, he said.
Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, echoed that sentiment, saying Washington’s fortunes depend on how strong a showing Hines makes.
Peake, whose campaign slogan is “more freedom and less government,” said he feels confident because he’s been campaigning for nearly a year, much longer than either of his opponents.
Hines, however, said Donald Trump’s election showed a strong anti-establishment sentiment that he thinks makes it a good time to run as an independent.
Washington, who currently serves as a law enforcement adviser to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, said he has a long history of public service and would be focused on education, public safety and jobs if elected.
Campaign finance records show Washington raised around $193,700 by Dec. 29, about $69,000 more than Peake’s $123,400. Hines raised around $10,700 during the same period and also took out a $50,000 loan.
9th SENATE DISTRICT
Longtime Democratic state Del. Jennifer McClellan is widely considered the favorite to win the heavily blue 9th Senate District, which encompasses Henrico, Hanover, Charles City counties and the city of Richmond.
A corporate attorney who lives in Richmond, McClellan will face Corey Fauconier, a Libertarian from Highland Springs. There is no Republican on the ballot.
McClellan has endorsements from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, the Democrat who vacated the seat she’s seeking to fill.
She had raised around $178,400 during the reporting period between July 1 and Dec. 29, compared with Fauconier’s approximately $3,800, according to campaign finance records.
“I don’t think that’s much of a race,” Kidd said.
The 85th House District, which covers the city of Virginia Beach, is open because Del. Scott Taylor is headed to Congress. Democrat Cheryl Turpin, a public school teacher, will face Republican N.D. “Rocky” Holcomb III, a captain in the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office, in the race for that seat.
Voters in the 85th have leaned toward Republican candidates by small margins in recent elections.
The race won’t affect Republicans’ solid majority in the House.