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Graphic: VA House Dems’ “Contested Floor Votes” Unity Score Soared in 2020, While VA House GOP’s Plummeted. Why?


See below for a new graphic from VPAP looking at “divergent party unity” in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017 through 2020 – “Republicans and Democrats had operated within a relatively narrow band of unity until this year, when Democratic unity soared and Republican unity fell.” Note that the graphic defines “contested floor votes” as “[m]otions on the House floor with at least one dissenting vote and where at least two-thirds of a caucus took the same position.” Also note: “The numbers in the chart…show the percentage of caucus members who were unified with their caucus on 90 percent or more of contested floor votes.” So…this doesn’t look at committee votes or subcommittee votes, or *uncontested* votes, only “contested floor votes” in the House of Delegates. With that…here’s the graphic, followed by a few thoughts as to why it might look the way it does.

So…why the divergence in 2020? I asked a couple smart Virginia politicos, and basically got the following responses:

  • With Democrats holding a governing “trifecta” for the first time in ages – and also, arguably, for the first time ever, if you consider that today’s Democratic Party is comprised of *real* Democrats, not at all like the old, conservative, “Massive Resistance” Democratic/”Dixiecrat” southern “Byrd machine” – the liberal floodgates opened suddenly, with a *ton* of pent-up energy, desire, and arguably need for progressive legislation unleashed.  So this year’s bills needed – and largely received – high degrees of Democratic unity, at least on the House floor.
  • It’s important to note that a *lot* of highly progressive, more “left”-leaning legislation ended up dying in subcommittee or committee, thus never making it to the House floor to be voted on. For instance, on energy policy, the more “left”-leaning “Green New Deal” never made it out of committee, while the more middle-of-the-road (albeit still, on balance,  positive) “Virginia Clean Economy Act” *did* make it to the House floor, where it won…albeit not by a large margin. Same thing with a bunch of criminal justice reform bills, such as marijuana decriminalization passing but full legailzation *not* making it to the House floor; or death penalty abolition – even in cases of severe mental illness – going nowhere; etc.  We also didn’t see any major legislation on campaign finance and/or ethics reform, such as banning donations from state-regulated monopolies like Dominion, or really cracking down on the slimy “Virginia Way” make it to the House floor, where it quite possibly would have divided the House Democratic caucus.
  • In the end, basically, what we saw make it to the House floor was moderately progressive/”pragmatic progressive”, but not much (if anything) particularly “wild” or far to the “left,” which presumably made it a LOT easier for House Dems to maintain high degrees of unity on the House floor. [NOTE: for once, a Washington Post headline actually made some sense – Virginia Democrats push liberal agenda – with a dose of caution]
  • Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, it’s possible that Republicans already passed a ton of their hard-right things over the last twenty years and didn’t have much left to make Virginia even *more* conservative. More to the point, Democrats are now in charge, so presumably the vast majority of Republicans’ right-wing bills were killed in subcommittees and committees, thus not ever making it to the House floor for a vote.
  • There’s some indication here that many House Republicans either aren’t actually as right-wing as they like to act, or they’re scared of losing next time, because their unity in the face of this torrent of progressive legislation really plummeted. I particularly enjoyed watching Del. Terry Kilgore (R), who for years has been all about fossil fuel/coal interests, vote *for* the Virginia Clean Economy Act on the House floor. That was remarkable, even jarring.
  • Finally, it’s interesting to consider the role of leadership – or lack thereof – with House Democrats holding together *very* strongly under its leadership team (Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, Majority Leader Charniele Herring, House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan, House Majority Whip Alfonso Lopez, etc.), while House Republicans didn’t fare so well under their leadership team (House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, House Caucus Chair Kathy Byron, House Minority Whip Jay Leftwich). So…nice job by the House Democratic leadership team, which had a unified agenda and, apparently, only brought bills to the floor which they knew *would pass*! As for the House Republicans, actually I’m surprised they didn’t put up more of a struggle – really try to slow things down – than they did. But presumably, they knew that would be futile and self-defeating? Plus, they knew that the bills brought to the floor would pass, so they had to decide…yes or no? Maybe work to “improve” (from their perspective, that is) the legislation?
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