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Virginia Republicans Mull Over New House Leadership

By Jeff Raines, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- After Democrats seized control of the General Assembly on Election Day and proceeded to vote on key leadership positions, Republicans began meeting behind closed doors and mulling over who will steer their party forward.

As the minority party, Republican power in the House has been severely reduced, according to Bob Holsworth, a political analyst and managing partner at DecideSmart.

“The new minority leader will be the spokesperson for the opposition and have the additional job of recruiting candidates who can help the GOP regain power in future elections,” Holsworth said in an email.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, House majority leader since 2018, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, are likely contenders for the minority leader position, according to the Washington Post. They are both influential figures in the Virginia House of Delegates Republican Caucus, Holsworth said. 

Gilbert has already served as majority leader and has not broken from more conservative values of the caucus, whereas Kilgore has supported Medicaid expansion. 

Holsworth said “it will be interesting to see whether Kilgore’s support for Medicaid expansion, a policy that provided significant benefits to his constituents, is seen as a negative by the majority of Republican members who opposed it.”

Del. Kirk Cox has served as speaker of the House since 2018 and prior to that served as House majority leader since 2010. He has held the House District 66 seat for 29 years, since 1990. 

The Republican Party is meeting to decide who will be the new minority leader in the House and will announce their decision aftward, which is a normal proceeding according to Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

“The question is, does the majority leader become the minority leader or does the caucus move in a different direction,” Farnsworth said.

Cox has announced he will not pursue a leadership position. He held onto his seat in slimmest margin he has ever won by in a hard fought Election Day victory against Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman.

 House District 66 was redistricted in 2018 and now leans Democratic by 32 percentage points, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Cox won with 51.7%, against Bynum-Coleman’s 47% of the vote -- or close to a 1,300 vote margin. The Independent candidate, Linnard Harris Sr., picked up a little over 1% of votes.

Cox and members of the caucus have not responded to multiple requests for comment on minority leadership proceedings, which Farnsworth said was common.

“Republicans on ballots tend to be more reticent in terms of dealing with the media,” he said. “But that reticence is certainly intensified in the age of Trump.”

Farnsworth offered insight into the proceedings. 

Party leaders tend to hold districts they will not lose in an election, Farnsworth said. “If you are representing a vulnerable district, you would be less interested in leadership responsibilities.”

Republicans are increasingly losing ground in urban and suburban districts. Moderate Republicans in these areas are the most likely to lose their seats, according to Farnsworth, and the party is becoming increasingly conservative as they lose ground to Democrats.

  The Republicans took over the House in the late 1990s and have held it since. Republicans and Democrats have grappled over the Senate and there hasn't been consistent Republican control. 

Democrats now hold a 55 to 45 majority over Republicans in the House, and a 21 to 19 majority in the Senate.

The key factor according to Farnsworth, is the consolidation of power in state government, with a Democratic governor leading Virginia. 

“The last time the Democrats controlled the Governor's office and the House and the Senate was 1994, the end of Douglas Wilder's term as governor,” he said. 

Democrats voted Eileen Filler-Corn the speaker of the House four days after the election. Del. Charniele Herring was tapped as majority leader, and Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr. will serve as caucus chairman.

 Filler-Corn is the first female and Jewish speaker of the House and Herring is the first woman and African American to serve as majority leader.

No change in Senate leadership is expected, according to Senate Democrats. Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, will assume the majority leader position currently held by Thomas Norment, R-James City.

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