Tuesday's too-close-to-call special election in Norfolk appears to put Democrats on the precipice of taking effective control of the state Senate, but a possible recount could delay things for weeks — leaving incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe facing a General Assembly dominated by the GOP for the beginning of his term.
With all precincts reporting, Democrat Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. leads Republican B. Wayne Coleman by 10 votes out of approximately 20,400 cast, according to unofficial results from the State Board of Elections on Wednesday. The election was held to fill the seat of Lt. Gov.-elect Ralph S. Northam, Norfolk Democrat, who resigned his seat effective Saturday. Such a small margin would be well within the threshold to prompt a taxpayer-funded recount once official canvassing ends.
The State Board of Elections is scheduled to meet Friday morning to certify the results, at which point the loser can request a recount if the margin is less than 1 percent.
Sen. Mark R. Herring, Loudoun Democrat and the state's attorney general-elect, also resigned his seat effective Saturday — just before he's sworn in. He defeated state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, in a race that went to a recount, pushing a special election to fill that seat to Jan. 21 and handing the GOP at least a 20-18 advantage after Saturday's inaugural events until the two seats are officially filled.
In the evenly-divided 40-member chamber, Republicans used Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote to organize as an effective majority in 2012, and Democrats had hoped to use Mr. Northam's vote to regain some of the power they'd ceded after holding a 22-18 edge prior to the 2011 elections.
But the recount in the attorney general's race and a possible recount in the special election in Mr. Northam's district will put off those plans — at least for now.
The logistics will also mean Mr. McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who has never before held elected office, will face two Republican-controlled chambers immediately after he is sworn in Saturday.
Mr. McAuliffe made clear during last year's campaign that his No. 1 focus will be jobs and the economy and that expanding Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor, elderly and disabled, to up to 400,000 Virginians would be a key part of his agenda.
House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, said Wednesday after the legislature officially gaveled in the session that the chamber's priorities include initiatives involving workforce development, K-12 education and mental health, and that the biggest issue to come before the assembly will be passing a new two-year state budget.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell outlined a nearly $96 billion budget blueprint last month, which will be amended by the House and Senate and signed by Mr. McAuliffe, and he urged the legislature to embrace the new administration.
"Work [when] you can with Governor Terry McAuliffe, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, and Attorney General Mark Herring to continue to make Virginia a great commonwealth of opportunity for all of our people," Mr. McDonnell said in his fourth and final State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night.
Mr. Howell said he hopes to find common ground with Mr. McAuliffe and Democrats on big issues, but reiterated that expanding Medicaid without first examining the consequences would be "costly."
He called for increasing access to health care without growing government or getting entangled with President Obama's health care overhaul — which allows for the expansion — and chuckled when his lines on Medicaid were greeted with a round of applause Wednesday in the Republican-controlled House.
Last year, the legislature set up a task force on the issue that includes five members of the House and five members of the Senate. It was structured so that a majority of both groups of five must sign off on the expansion.
Mr. McAuliffe says expanding the program would net the state $500 million in general fund savings, return $21 billion of federal tax dollars paid in the state to Virginia and create about 33,000 jobs. The federal government will pick up the cost of people newly eligible for Medicaid from 2014-2016 and gradually wind down the subsidy to 90 percent of those costs.
But Republican leaders — particularly in the House — say the program needs major reforms.
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