In 2014, when newly elected Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe tried to get the state Legislature to approve Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, he ran into a bright-red wall in the House of Delegates. Even though 100 percent of the initial cost was to be paid by the federal government, 66 of the chamber’s 67 Republican Delegates voted against the measure. Later that year, in a special session, McAuliffe tried and failed again. A 2017 effort died as well, once again on a party-line vote. As a result, almost 400,000 low-income Virginians went without health insurance, even as Medicaid enrollment grew by some 16 million nationwide.
Then, last November, Democrats pulled off a massive upset at the polls: 15 challengers, 11 of them women, captured GOP-held seats in the House of Delegates. A 16th victory, and control of the chamber, vaporized when a tie vote was settled, quaintly, by drawing lots from a ceramic bowl, allowing Republican David Yancey to retain his seat. Still, Democrats shifted the balance from 66–34 to 51–49. And this February, a budget that included Medicaid expansion passed the House of Delegates 68–32, with 19 Republicans in support, including Yancey.
“Elections have consequences,” Republican Delegate Glenn R. Davis Jr. told his colleagues a little mournfully, as he flipped from opposing the Medicaid expansion to supporting it. Davis, for what it’s worth, had survived a challenge from Democrat Veronica Coleman, an African-American pastor, by less than four points.
“The only reason it happened was: We are 49 now!” said a jubilant Jennifer Carroll Foy, the newly elected Democratic delegate from Woodbridge, when I spoke with her by phone. While the measure is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled State Senate this year, Carroll Foy says the progress on Medicaid expansion is just the beginning of the effort to bring Virginia’s policies in line with the state’s increasingly liberal electorate, which has been woefully underrepresented in Richmond for years, especially after Republicans gerrymandered the state map in the wake of the 2010 election.
When I first wrote about the amazing crop of women running for the Virginia House of Delegates last year, I quoted Daily Kos’s Carolyn Fiddler, a noted expert on state politics, on “the Trump effect”—the ferocious feminist rage over the election of an admitted pussy-grabber that inspired so many women to enter politics for the first time. “If that fucking schlub can be president, I can run for office,” Fiddler memorably told me.
But as we head into the first national elections since Trump’s inauguration, Democrats are talking less about “the Trump effect” than they are about “the Virginia effect”—the unprecedented surge of women, minority, and millennial candidates running for seats in their state legislatures, many in deep-red districts long written off by the Democratic Party establishment. These candidates have been buoyed by a raft of outside and resistance groups, including Indivisible, Emily’s List, Run for Something, Forward Majority, Sister District, and BlackPAC, among many others. But party leaders have also taken note of this wave and are finally beginning to invest meaningfully and systematically in local candidates.