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, while also serving as referendums 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.
One of only four states having legislative elections this year, Virginia is the only one with control of the statehouse up for grabs. Republicans currently have a slim majority in both the state House and Senate.
Virginia has been trending blue for years thanks to the growth of more diverse and liberal suburbs and cities as population declines in more rural, conservative areas.
Democrats are looking to cement control of the state by taking 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 that powered 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 turnout 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, a higher minimum wage and ratification of 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 have accused Democrats of trying to use the tragedy for political gain while focusing heavily on past Democratic efforts to loosen restrictions for third-trimester abortion.
Republicans have 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.