“Virginia is the big game in town.”  

That’s how William & Mary Government Professor John McGlennon characterizes the Commonwealth’s elections in 2023. With Election Day approaching Nov. 7, McGlennon spoke with W&M News about the hotly contested races for seats in the state legislature and his view on how these battles may provide a glimpse into how Virginia will lean in next year’s presidential election.  

John McGlennon
John McGlennon

McGlennon specializes in United States politics with a focus on the South and Virginia. His research interests include state and local government.  

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Q: A lot of eyes are on Virginia elections, and that always seems to be the case. Why are this year’s races so important?  

A: Virginia has attracted a lot of interest recently because it is undergoing some significant changes in terms of electoral outcomes. It has shifted from a reliably Republican state at the end of the 20th century into one that was moving strongly toward the Democrats. But recently, with the election of Governor Glenn Youngkin, Virginia has again been seen as a state that is more purple, more contested. Furthermore, our state legislature is closely divided, with only a handful of seats in both houses determining which party is in control. In fact, Virginia is one of only two states in the nation with different parties each controlling one house of the legislature (Pennsylvania is the other).  So that has caused a lot of people to pay attention, especially since when the Democrats had majorities in the legislature and the governorship, they made a lot of changes in Virginia policies, some of which the current governor has been trying to reverse. At this point, his party controls the House of Delegates, and they are two seats short of a majority in the Senate, and so the question of whether he can get that so-called trifecta of control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship is really what this election is all about.  

Q: What might Virginia’s elections tell us about how the presidential election may go next year?  

A: Governor Youngkin has found a path for Republicans to regain some appeal among suburban voters. Those suburban voters had been shifting sharply to the Democrats. The major force driving political polarization between the parties today is education level, and the more highly educated voters in suburbs who tended to lean more toward the Republicans in the past have been crucial to Democratic success. The governor’s advisers have suggested that although he may not have totally reversed the trend, he may at least have put an end to the shift toward the Democrats, and that was part of what got him elected. It’s not clear whether that is the case. The governor really depended an awful lot on overwhelming support among rural voters who had lower levels of college completion, for instance.  

I think the Democrats have increasingly been reliant upon building majorities in suburbs, and if that has been blunted by Governor Youngkin or the Republicans here in Virginia, I think you’ll see the Republicans looking for ways to emulate that strategy in other suburban districts.

Virginia is one of only a handful of significant contests around the country. Mississippi is electing a governor, as is Louisiana and Kentucky, but those states are viewed generally as much more likely in presidential politics to be Republican anyway.

Virginia is a state that is seen more as a bellwether of what might happen in the next presidential election. It’s also important to note that Governor Youngkin has been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. Whether it’s for this upcoming presidential election cycle or the next one, I think you can see the governor positioning himself to be a contender for president or vice president.  

Q: What issues are being played up this year?  

A: People will be looking at the power of the abortion rights advocates in this election. That’s going to be a big issue, and you can see since the governor has felt it necessary to put out a proposal to try to reassure voters that he won’t try to ban abortion entirely. Campaign ads reflect the idea that both parties see abortion as a powerful force driving the electorate. Frankly, I think the idea that the governor finds it necessary to raise the issue suggests that it is a very powerful one motivating suburban women especially to turn out for Democrats, so the governor has been trying to undercut that. But the more he talks about it, the more central that issue is to the electorate at large.

The other issue that tends to pop up a lot in the polling that’s been done so far is inflation, and rising costs have been on the minds of voters across the country. Inflation by national statistics seems to be moderating quite a bit. The most recent report said that inflation for the year is about 3.7% at an annual rate, and that’s way down from where it had been when it was approaching 9% earlier in the year, so it’s not clear what impact that will have next year. Certainly this year it does seem to be on the minds of Virginia voters.  

Q: What else are you paying close attention to this election season?  

A: It’s an issue that Governor Youngkin tried to stress in his successful election campaign two years ago, and that’s the role of parents in education. There’s a lively debate over the question. On one side is the argument that parents don’t have enough say over the education their children are receiving. That’s the argument that the governor is making. On the Democratic side, it’s more a case of asking if individual parents have the right to prevent other people’s children from having access to literature, to books that are viewed as classics or standards that are now being challenged in a number of localities.  

I think the other thing that I would point to is just the explosion of money in this election campaign. Right here in Williamsburg, we’re going to see two of the most hotly contested races in the Commonwealth.

The seat that’s represented by Monty Mason currently, or at least the new district that he’s running in, is thought to be very close in terms of Democratic and Republican support, and both parties are really pushing hard on that district. Governor Youngkin said that the district is key to the Republicans’ chances of winning a majority, and so he’s put a lot of money from his own political action committee into the support for the Republican candidate, Danny Diggs.  

Senator Mason has raised a lot of money for his campaign. He had already raised by the end of August $2 million for that race.

My guess is that by the time everything is finished, by the time all the money raised by the candidates and by various political action committees and advocacy groups gets tallied up, that this is going to be an election that will cost close to $10 million.  

That’s partly because Virginia is the big game in town, so without a lot of elections for state offices out there, Virginia is really a magnet for money right now. It’s a good chance for the parties to test themes and techniques, and so they’re investing heavily in it, knowing that they will spend much, much more next year during the presidential and congressional races, and this is a good chance for them to see what is more likely to work in those races. 

Editor’s note: Democracy is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.

, Communications Specialist