Republicans in Virginia’s House began the session Wednesday with a 51-49 majority after winning a two-month recount battle in one district and staving off legal challenges from voters over ballot problems in another.
The House of Delegates seated two Republicans after a federal appeals court in Richmond refused to halt the swearing-in of Republican Bob Thomas, and Democrat Shelly Simonds conceded a hotly contested race to Republican incumbent David Yancey.
Republicans appear to have held onto the chamber despite the wave of resentment against President Donald Trump that swept through many House districts in November.
The party’s commanding 66-34 majority in the House plummeted to a 51-49 edge on election night. Ensuing recount votes and legal filings have so far failed to alter that margin.
The last two months were filled with uncertainty and high drama, including the drawing of names from a bowl last week to break a tie between Simonds and Yancey.
Simonds initially appeared to lose November’s election by 10 votes, then appeared to win a recount by one vote. A court declared a tie after an uncounted ballot was contested, and then Simonds lost in the name drawing.
Simonds could have petitioned for a second recount. She didn’t concede until the morning Yancey was scheduled to be sworn in for another term.
She said on Twitter that she didn’t “see any legal pathways forward and I want representation for the 94th district today.” She said she “tried to make a personal phone call to (Yancey) and would like to ask him to vote for Medicaid expansion.”
Simonds also says she intends to run again for the Newport News district.
“I’m going to start fundraising immediately and try to create a positive ending to the story,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s not over for me.”
The only remaining threat to Republican control in the House is the ongoing voters’ lawsuit, backed by Democrats, over some voters receiving the wrong ballots in Thomas’ Fredericksburg-area district. But the legal efforts have so far failed.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond on Wednesday denied the Democrats’ request for an injunction and a new election in the 28th District, where Thomas beat Democrat Joshua Cole by 73 votes after 147 voters received the wrong ballots.
The appellate ruling enabled Thomas to be sworn in, but the lawsuit is proceeding in Alexandria before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III. He initially declined to block Thomas’ swearing-in and said he’ll need to see a lot more evidence to justify a new election. He compared the ballot mistakes to “garden-variety irregularities” that, under federal case law, do not merit judicial intrusion.
Democrats have argued that the mistakes, which theoretically could have affected the outcome of the race and control of the House along with it, were more significant and systemic.
But this year’s shift in partisan makeup could still make things more interesting for Democrats than they’ve been in the past.
The state will continue to have a Democratic governor after Ralph Northam is sworn in on Saturday, replacing Terry McAuliffe. In the Senate, where no member was up for re-election, Republicans enjoy a 21-19 advantage.
With razor-thin GOP majorities in both chambers and Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax serving as a Senate tie-breaker, bills sponsored by Democrats won’t face quite the same uphill climb as in the past. Democrats also will have greater representation on committees, making some priorities more likely to advance to the full chambers.
Perhaps the biggest test for Northam will be convincing the General Assembly to expand Medicaid eligibility to low-income, able-bodied adults.
Medicaid expansion is a key part of former President Barack Obama’s health care law and a long-sought Democratic priority that Virginia Republicans blocked throughout McAuliffe’s tenure.
-MATTHEW BARAKAT and BEN FINLEY, Associated Press. AP reporter Sarah Rankin contributed to this story from Richmond.