- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2019

They won all three top state offices in 2017, captured three House seats and held a Senate seat in 2018 — and now Virginia Democrats say they’re poised to gain control of the state legislature for the first time in two decades.

That likely will be a dominant issue this year as the state General Assembly convenes for its short annual session, which is scheduled to run Jan. 9 to Feb. 23.

A state that little more than a decade ago was as reliably red as any in the country has sped through the purple and into the blue, leaving Republicans wondering what happened.

Now they’re determined to preserve what little power they have, saying the future as a low-tax, business-friendly state depends on them maintaining their slim House and Senate majorities.

“Whether it’s on business issues, tax issues, social issues, we’re one heart attack away from a leftist liberal takeover of the General Assembly,” said Del. Tim Hugo, a Fairfax Republican who heads the House GOP caucus. “This ain’t your granddaddy’s Democratic Party.”

Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the House and a 21-19 majority in the Senate, and all seats in both chambers are up for election in November.

An early test for Republicans will be what they try to do with an anticipated $500 million revenue boost the state is expecting from changes in the federal tax law.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam says he wants to use about $250 million to expand the earned income tax credit for lower-income individuals.

“I would like to level the playing field,” he said on last month’s “Ask the Governor” program on WRVA radio. “The federal changes have helped corporations and high-earners, and I think that what we’re trying to do is give those that make less than $54,000 a year, make the earned income tax credit totally refundable for them.”

But Mr. Hugo said the governor’s plan would amount to a massive transfer of wealth from Northern Virginia to other parts of the state and would end up benefiting many people who pay no federal income taxes.

“Everybody gets wound up watching cable news — I think Republicans need to get wound up working on the potholes in front of people’s houses and working to make sure that we hold the line on taxes,” Mr. Hugo said.

Other issues expected to make a splash in the legislative session are guns, school safety and health care.

Officials recently estimated that the state is facing about $460 million in unanticipated costs for Medicaid.

“They miscalculated,” Mr. Hugo said, adding, “$460-some million is not an insignificant number, and that’s one of those things we’re going to have to deal with also.”

Republicans hope to use those issues to establish a record to run on, hoping to avoid the sort of environment that cost them a net of 15 House seats and lost them the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general races in 2017.

“We’re going to run focused campaigns,” Mr. Hugo said. “We’re going to talk about the issues, whether it’s potholes or your schools or protecting your children, where they’re talking about national issues.”

Democrats counter that the energy is on their side.

“If turnout is up because of what’s going on nationally right now and the concern people have over the Trump administration — if that continues to create larger turnout, then it’s pretty easy to see the way this is going to go,” said state Sen. Dave W. Marsden, Fairfax Democrat.

Complicating matters is a recent ruling by a federal judge invalidating district lines for the House of Delegates. The court ruled the legislature improperly packed black voters into a handful of districts.

House Republicans have asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay in the case. A “special master” assigned to the case recently released suggestions for how the districts could be changed.

Mr. Marsden said a new map could effectively net Democrats a few House seats depending on how the lines are drawn.

“But you never know in politics — you can think that, but things intervene in the meantime,” he said.

Virginia Republicans concede that the state has been trending blue for some time. The last time the GOP won a statewide race was in 2009, and the state has gone Democratic in the presidential race three straight times, after decades of voting Republican.

Hoping to reverse the trend, GOP activist Mike Ginsberg helped form the “Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition” after the 2017 elections to try to figure out why the party was losing support in the population-rich areas.

The group recommended more digital engagement, a focus on hyper-local issues such as transportation, and better outreach to rank-and-file activists and party members.

Mr. Ginsberg pointed to recent local “green shoots” of successes in the state, such as the 2016 defeat of a meals tax in Fairfax County and conservative Sang Yi’s victory for a seat on the Fairfax City Council last year.

“Given the fact that these green shoots exist, I don’t think we can write off Virginia as a blue state,” he said. “I don’t think we’re a blue state, but obviously we have to figure out a little bit more, revise our approach to the state based on the changing circumstances.”

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