The most surprising thing about the Virginia Senate race is that there was no surprise. The race was called as soon as polls closed, and Tim Kaine, the incumbent Democratic senator, won handily. This was not a competitive race: Stewart struggled to make ground in a state that broke hard for Democrats in 2016 for Hillary Clinton and in 2017 for Gov. Ralph Northam.
Virginia Republicans still hold a narrow majority in the House of Delegates, but they’ve been shut out of statewide offices, and have been since 2013, when Democrats swept out the Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general.
This gets to the actual story of the Virginia Senate race: The virtual collapse of the GOP in statewide elections since 2009, when it last held a statewide office. After 2009, Republicans looked poised for dominance, led by Gov. Bob McDonnell, who won a comfortable victory with strong margins in the state’s rural and suburban counties. Even as the party lost its hold on the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, and the attorney generalship in the 2013 elections, Republican Ed Gillespie nearly defeated incumbent Mark Warner in the 2014 race for Senate, on a coalition similar to McDonnell’s.
Since then, suburban voters in the state have turned hard against the Republican Party. The GOP voters that remained enabled hard-right candidates like Corey Stewart, who almost unseated Gillespie for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The more Virginia Republicans have become associated with candidates like Stewart, the more those suburban voters have turned against the party.
Republicans still hold much of the congressional map, and may even hold on in close races in the state’s 7th and 2nd Congressional Districts, where Republican incumbents faced a surge of Democratic enthusiasm. But the state as a whole is looking increasingly inhospitable for the party, a much more dramatic reversal than it may seem at first glance.