A single vote may spell the end of Republican control in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
A Democratic challenger seems to have won a recount Tuesday by one vote, putting the partisan balance in the House at a tie. It would mean a rare power-sharing agreement may have to be brokered.
Shelly Simonds beat three-term incumbent Republican Del. David Yancey in the 94th District in Newport News, 11,608 to 11,607, in a dramatic hourslong recount that ended only after the precinct ballots were exhausted and provisional ballots were examined.
The recounted votes still must be certified by a court Wednesday, although officials said they expected that no ballots would be challenged.
Simonds, a school board member, had initially appeared to lose November’s election by just 10 votes.
Simonds’ recount victory in this mostly blue collar district is an aftershock to the Democratic quake that shook more affluent areas in Virginia’s elections. The Republicans’ commanding 66-34 majority in the House plummeted to a 51-49 edge. It’s now split 50-50 with Simonds’ apparent win.
The recount was one of four scheduled for House races that ended with extremely tight margins. The 94th District had by far the slimmest vote difference and the biggest chance of flipping.
Last week, Republican Del. Tim Hugo held onto his seat in Fairfax County after a recount had a marginal impact on his 100-plus vote lead. Two more recounts are set to take place Wednesday and Thursday for districts in and around Richmond and in the Fredericksburg area.
“We’re now 50-50,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The Associated Press. “And we won it by one vote. Don’t tell me that every vote doesn’t count.”
The governor added that Democrats could gain control of the House in case another recount flips another district.
“This is the biggest win since the 1880s,” he said.
But if Democrats and Republicans ultimately find themselves evenly split, a messy dynamic could develop. The parties may have to compromise just to elect a speaker and assign committee chairmanships.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the House Republican leadership congratulated Simonds and appeared ready to compromise. The GOP has controlled the House for 17 years.
“We stand ready to establish a bipartisan framework under which the House can operate efficiently and effectively over the next two years,” the statement said.
House Democratic leader David Toscano was optimistic in a phone interview. He said the House has an “unprecedented opportunity to do some creative things in an era of toxic politics and to do something special.”
But Toscano said many questions remained about how a split House will lead, including how committees will be picked.
The last time Virginia’s House was evenly divided was 20 years ago, when the parties reached a power-sharing agreement. But if no agreement can be reached, prolonged chaos could ensue.
“Politics is a lot more partisan today than the last time we were in a comparable situation,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “It’s probably a recipe for gridlock.”
Simonds said she was optimistic that lawmakers could find compromise and get things done in Richmond despite a split chamber.
“I’m an optimistic person,” she said. “We can work with Republicans.”
She cited common ground such as increasing teacher pay, expanding maternity leave for state employees and criminal justice reform that would lead to fewer people being in prison.
The recount is the first to flip the results of a Virginia House race in at least 20 years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, said the district was far less affected than northern Virginia by the wave of sentiment against President Donald Trump.
That wave swept through some northern Virginia districts and galvanized college-educated voters, particularly women, who often skip off-year elections. But the watermark was lower here.
“What is the root of the wave? Trump and women,” Kidd said. “If you think about the typical working class voter in this district, they may not be as excited about that intersection.”
In the meantime, two more recounts are scheduled in Virginia.
The Democratic challenger leads by 336 votes in the 68th House District in and around Richmond, where ballot counting begins Wednesday.
Ballots will be recounted in the Fredericksburg area’s 28th District on Thursday. The Republican candidate there has an 82-vote lead. But Democrats have already asked a judge to call for a new election after at least 147 ballots were found to be assigned to the wrong districts.