Virginia’s legislative elections a test of anti-Trump fervor

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginians are deciding Tuesday which party should control the statehouse in a widely watched contest that will test how voters feel about President Donald Trump and his possible impeachment.

The Old Dominion’s legislative elections are serving as the marquee warm up for the 2020 election cycle, as well as a referendum on the state’s gun laws and abortion rights. Outside groups and political parties are test-driving expensive campaigns to win over and motivate voters in a state that was until recently considered a presidential battleground.

Virginia is one of only four states having legislative elections this year, and the only one with control of the statehouse up for grabs. Republicans currently have a slim majority in both the state House and Senate, but Virginia has been trending blue for years thanks to growth in more diverse and liberal suburbs and cities, and population declines in more rural, conservative areas.

Democrats are looking to take control of both the Executive Mansion and the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is not up for reelection Tuesday, but has been actively campaigning for his party’s candidates after bouncing back from a near politically fatal blackface scandal earlier this year.

Democrats are hoping voters send a message that the anti-Trump energy powering Northam’s victory two years ago is still robust.

Virginia Republicans, who have generally tried to keep Trump at an arm’s distance, are hoping the specter of Trump’s impeachment will motivate the GOP base to turn out in large numbers.

The local stakes are huge. If Democrats take over, they likely will be able to pass an agenda that Republicans have blocked for years, including stricter gun laws and a higher minimum wage. They’re also hoping to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, making Virginia the final state needed for possible passage of the gender equality measure.

Democrats have been keenly focused on gun issues, saying Republicans should be held accountable for failing to pass new restrictions after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach earlier this year.

Republicans, accusing Democrats of trying to use that tragedy for political gain, have sought to shift the discussion to past Democratic efforts to loosen restrictions for third-trimester abortions.

Republicans also warned of higher taxes and energy prices if they lose the majority.

Tuesday’s election could help determine which party rules for the next decade, as Election Day winners will decide who controls the next redistricting process. A tea party-fueled wave in state legislatures — including Virginia’s — a decade ago helped Republicans fortify their control of the U.S. House for years.

The federal courts recently redid Virginia’s maps, saying Republicans illegally packed too many black voters into certain districts to make surrounding districts friendlier to Republicans. The new map is friendly to Democrats and has put two top Republicans — Speaker Kirk Cox and House Appropriations Chairman Del. Chris Jones — at greater risk of losing their seats.