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by Brandon Jarvis

474 votes on Tuesday decided the fate of a lawmaking body that represents every resident in Virginia. Those 474 votes, split between two races, ended up providing Virginia Republicans control of the House of Delegates after being in the minority for the last two years. 

After flipping seven seats in total while running on a platform of education throughout this cycle, Republicans will now be expected to turn their focus in that direction. Democrats, who have often been the party known for a focus on education, will have to decide if they want to try and stall the Republican agenda in the House with their 48 votes, or work with Republicans to try and find a compromise on legislation.

The House has been in Republican control for the majority of the last few decades, but Democrats made huge gains in 2017 and then again in 2019 to take the majority. During the last two years, nder the leadership of Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, House Democrats passed hundreds of pieces of new progressive legislation that eventually became law. 

Now the unofficial results indicate that the Republicans will likely have a 52-48 majority in the House after flipping seven seats on Tuesday night. In addition to the gains in the House, Republicans won all three statewide seats, a feat they haven’t achieved since 2009. 

While it might not have been a wave, it is clear the momentum for Republicans was statewide. 

Henrico County, a locality that turned blue with the wave of seats Democrats flipped in 2017, didn’t follow the trend of turning Tuesday night, however. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a public school teacher, and Rodney Willett (D-Henrico) both represent districts in the west end of Henrico that turned blue in 2017. They were both competitive this year with Republicans eying them as a good opportunity for a flip. 

VanValkenburg and Willett were able to successfully defend their seats. 

“One thing that Democrats and western Henrico candidates in the party have done since 2017 is just worked hard, show up, and talk to people,” VanValkenburg said in an interview Thursday. 

VanValkenburg ended up winning by nearly 2,000 votes and Willett won by a few more than 1,300. He credited the messaging and involvement in the community from Henrico candidates for their success. 

“Focusing on the nut and bolt issues that the people of western Henrico are concerned about — things like education and healthcare costs,” VanValkenburg said. “We just went out there and we kept doing what we have been doing, which is showing up and talking to folks about issues that they care about.” 

South of Richmond, a district that on paper should be Democratic even though it has been held by a Republican for three decades will remain red for two more years. Mike Cherry (R-Colonial Heights) defeated Katie Sponsler (D-Colonial Heights) to keep Kirk Cox’s former seat in Republican control for at least one more term. Cox represented the district for more than 30 years and eventually reached the role of Speaker of the House. He retired this year. 

Cox’s district was redrawn in 2019 by the courts to make it much friendlier to Democrats. Cox used his sway within Colonial Heights to drive turnout and win the district after the redraw. Cherry was able to repeat that feat Tuesday on a night when Republicans had clear momentum. 

In an interview with Virginia Scope Thursday, Cherry, a private Christian school administrator, said he is looking forward to sharing a new perspective in Richmond. “I want to share that same new perspective with those in Richmond where you can kind of get into a rut, if you will, sometimes as a legislator,” Cherry said. “I am never someone who really likes to readily accept the status quo.” 

Cherry said the voters in his district want his focus to be on education. “What we are going to be advocating on from the beginning are the same things I ran on,” Cherry said. “Trying to fix education has got to be number one.” 

VanValkenburg and Cherry say they both want to focus on education —however, their priorities might not always align.

During Cherry’s’ campaign, school choice led in his platform for education. “During the COVID shutdown, he saw firsthand the disparity for people that did not have school choice,” his campaign website reads. “If we are going to have true educational equity and equality, school choice is the only way.” 

School choice is the concept of providing options for families outside of public education. Youngkin and the Republicans in Virginia ran on providing parents with more school choice options. Democrats have historically opposed school choice, saying it will divert money away from public schools, but Cherry says he has never voted against fully funding schools while serving on Colonial Heights City Council. 

VanValkenburg, on the other hand, wants to focus on investing in public education and making different changes throughout the system. He said he is open to working with Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin on revamping the public education system. “To the extent how Youngkin has talked about creating a robust education system, I’m game, let’s do this,” he said. “I would love to be at the table — I would love to do the work.”

“I hope we keep this priority on education funding,” VanValkenburg said. “[Democrats] got the state back in the game for education. I hope we start from that foundation.” 

Carrie Coyner, a Republican from Chesterfield that was elected to a second term Tuesday night was able to pass a long list of bills while Democrats were in power. She says she plans to continue doing the same work moving forward. “I am going to continue bringing forward legislation focused on strengthening public education, improving lives of those suffering from the disease of addiction, veterans issues, and supporting small businesses,” she said in a statement to Virginia Scope. “I look forward to getting things done to make life easier for every person in our community.”

It is still unclear who will be in charge of the Republican House Caucus during the next session. Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) has been leading the caucus while in the minority during the last two years, but longtime Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott) announced this week that he will also be seeking to become the Speaker of the House. 

The current Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn has not conceded yet citing the close vote totals in multiple races that wild decide the outcome. 

The state Senate remains in Democratic control as they sit with a 21-19 majority for the next two years. That only leaves them with one vote to spare due to the new lieutenant governor, Republican Winsome Sears, who will be casting any tie-breaking votes as she presides over the chamber. 

Youngkin is tasked with staffing the entire Executive Branch between now and inauguration day on Jan. 15. A spokesperson for the governor-elect said “stay tuned.”

Either way, Virginia is pretty evenly divided. 474 votes out of 3.2 million in total prevented Republicans from having to share power with Democrats in the House. 

Virginia Scope is an independent news publication that is funded largely by donations and subscribers. As local newsrooms are losing writers each day, we are trying to fill the void to ensure that the public is informed and that leaders are held accountable for their actions. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to our newsletter or making a donation through Paypal below so we can continue to work in Virginia. 

By vascope