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The General Assembly is up for grabs. Here are three local races to watch this Election Day

The race between Democrat Michael Feggans and Republican Karen Greenhalgh has made the 97th House of Delegates district the state’s most expensive House contest. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)
The race between Democrat Michael Feggans and Republican Karen Greenhalgh has made the 97th House of Delegates district the state’s most expensive House contest. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)

View our full voter guide for this year's election HERE.

Political watchers from around the nation are locked on Virginia this fall, looking for signs about voters’ attitudes heading into next year’s presidential election while some use the state as a 2024 strategy test bed.

Virginia occupies a special place as one of two states with statewide elections the year before the presidential contest. It’s also the last Southern state without major abortion restrictions. 

But that’s only the case because Democrats have kept a narrow margin in the state Senate, pushing back attempts from Republicans who control the House of Delegates and the Governor’s mansion.

Redistricting threatens that small majority, since it put a number of longtime senators and delegates into districts they weren’t eligible to run in or districts that were notably more competitive than the old ones. Several senators and delegates in both political parties stepped down or lost primaries.

Democrats are leaning heavily on abortion access to galvanize voters. But Republicans have seen a flood of money into key races and the Governor’s office, where Glenn Youngkin uses his bully pulpit to make the case for his party. If Republicans lose, Youngkin will struggle to make good on his agenda while he’s eyeing a potential 2024 presidential bid.

A statewide poll from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center indicates neither party has a clear edge among likely voters. Researchers found the economy and abortion are top issues for voters, with a vast majority saying they oppose more restrictive abortion laws.

Meanwhile, a survey by Old Dominion University specifically targeting Hampton Roads found a “striking advantage” for Democrats running in House of Delegates races here. 

Almost two-thirds of likely voters who had made up their mind said they plan to vote for the Democratic candidate. The report notes that’s a big jump from the percentage in the last House of Delegates election in 2021.

“Republicans may be headed for substantial trouble in the 2023 state legislative elections in Hampton Roads House of Delegates races,” the report says.

ODU Researchers also noted that those same voters disproportionately like Democratic candidates in the Senate, but the difference is less than it was in 2019. That means Republicans could gain some ground in local Senate races despite still trailing overall.

Virginia Beach’s House of Delegates District 97: Republican Karen Greenhalgh and Democrat Michael Feggans

This race for a notoriously swingy part of Virginia Beach has become the most expensive House race in the state this year.

First-term incumbent and Republican Karen Greenhalgh is squaring off against Air Force veteran Michael Feggans.

The district tilted heavily for Joe Biden in 2020, but Younkin prevailed there in 2021, a pattern common in swing districts.

“It's one of these (districts) that were Republican strongholds for so long, but over the years, we've seen some flips on the congressional level,” said Ben Melusky, a political scientist from Old Dominion University. 

“The Republicans want to kind of reclaim that territory and show that ‘it's still our base of support.’ But Democrats also want to say, ‘Hey, this is a place that we can go into and be competitive’ as well.”

The money pouring into the race shows the emphasis both parties are putting on this battleground in central Virginia Beach.

The campaigns are neck and neck on fundraising, with each side bringing in just over $1.8 million for this year’s race, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Greenhalgh and Feggans were the second- and third-highest fundraisers among House candidates in September.

“We can't overestimate the importance of these races in Virginia Beach … in terms of the composition of the House and quite frankly, the policies that come out of the General Assembly afterwards,” said Leslie Caughell, a political scientist at Virginia Wesleyan University.

“Where those swing districts go, the House goes.”

The Peninsula’s Senate District 24: Democrat Monty Mason and Republican Danny Diggs

The race for this Peninsula Senate seat illustrates the impact redistricting can have on a candidates’ political fortunes.

Democratic incumbent Monty Mason has represented the area since winning a special election in 2016.

Mason’s previous elections show a Senate district that was an easy win for Democrats. The district stretched from the southern tip of Newport News up to Williamsburg.

Mason dominated his special election in 2016, winning 58% of the vote and spending just $210,000.

In 2019, the Republicans didn’t field a candidate and Mason ran unopposed.

Since then, the district was redrawn and now Mason faces his first real contest against long-time York-Poquoson Sheriff Danny Diggs.

The new 24th Senate District includes Williamsburg and much of Newport News, plus York County and Poquoson — areas where a majority of voters chose Donald Trump in 2020.

The Virginia Public Access Project shows a very narrow split between Republicans and Democrats in the new district.

Last year’s Congressional election, for instance, saw a 50-49 split just barely favoring the Democratic candidate.

Mason is mounting a campaign that he’s never needed to before. He recently brought in former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords for an event and has gone on the offensive against his opponent, attempting to tie Republican Diggs to people involved in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“Both candidates are trying to present the other side as extreme, but they're also both running as moderates,” said Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, the research director for Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center.

This has also been one of the most expensive Senate contests in the state.

By the end of August, Mason had already raised $2 million — ten times as much as he’d spent on any previous campaign. In the month of September alone, he raised another $1.2 million.

Digg’s fundraising has lagged behind Mason’s, tallying $1.3 million through the end of August and another $725,000 in September.

Virginia Beach’s Senate District 22: Democrat Aaron Rouse and Republican Kevin Adams

This Virginia Beach contest is a rematch of a special election decided by just 700 votes last year.

Democrat Aaron Rouse, a former city council member and NFL player, narrowly beat Navy veteran and Republican Kevin Adams.

That election was critical for Senate Democrats to maintain the margin they needed to defeat abortion restrictions, including Gov. Youngkin’s preferred 15-week ban.

But the redrawn district lines are considerably more friendly for a Democratic candidate, according to previous election returns analyzed by VPAP. 

That, plus Rouse’s newfound status as an incumbent gives him an edge. Still, Republicans have funneled nearly $600,000 into Adams’ campaign to try to retake the seat and potentially the Senate.

“Sixteen of the 40 (Senate seats) are open seats, so that throws a monkey wrench into the mix,” Melusky said.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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