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Virginia elections offer the most important test for both parties heading into 2024

Analysis by Harry Enten, CNN

(CNN) — If you’re like most Americans, you couldn’t care less about elections held the year before a presidential contest.

Only a few states – all with relatively small populations – have statewide contests for elective offices this year. Virginia and New Jersey are holding elections for their state legislatures. Ohio voters will decide on two ballot initiatives. And several cities will be electing mayors.

But before you dismiss Tuesday’s elections out of hand, I want to draw your attention to what will be perhaps the last best test for both parties heading into 2024.

Election results for the Virginia Legislature over the past few cycles have been shown to correlate with what happens in the following year’s national elections. So a good showing for either party Tuesday would bode well for that party next year.

Consider what happened in 2019. Democrats were able to flip both chambers of the Virginia Legislature. The following year Democrat Joe Biden won the presidency.

In 2021, Republicans retook the Virginia House. That was followed by the GOP winning back the US House of Representatives in 2022.

The Virginia Senate wasn’t up in 2021 – state senators face their voters every four years. Still, the party that controls the Virginia Senate going into the presidential election has gone on to win the presidency every year but once since 1999. That one time was in 2011, when the two parties ended up tied in the state Senate, with the Republican lieutenant governor serving as the tie-breaker.

This year, both parties are in position to win control of either one or both legislative bodies in Virginia. Democrats hold the thinnest of majorities in the state Senate, while Republicans narrowly control the state House.

An October Washington Post-Schar poll found Democrats with a 2-point advantage – well within the margin of error – on the generic House ballot in Virginia. (The generic ballot usually asks respondents some form of the following question: “If the elections for the Legislature were held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican party?)

That 2-point edge is a far cry from 2019, when Democrats easily won the popular vote for both the Virginia House and Senate. Still, it’s better than Democrats’ 2021 performance in the state House popular vote. And it makes sense given what we’re seeing in national surveys. The two front-runners for their party nominations – Biden and former President Donald Trump – are close in the 2024 polls.

Special election trendlines

The electoral landscape in Virginia appears to be very different from what we’ve seen in the legislative and congressional special elections so far in 2023. In those elections, Democrats have been greatly outperforming the Democratic baseline (measured by comparing their candidates’ performances with Biden’s in 2020).

It’s an open question, though, as to why the typically low-turnout special elections have been favorable to Democrats. Is it just because Democrats have been very revved up to vote following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but that voters who will cast ballots in higher-turnout elections will be more favorable to Republicans?

If that’s the case, then these special election results likely don’t tell us much about next year’s electoral outcome. The 2020 presidential election had the highest turnout most of us have seen in our lifetimes, and 2024 probably won’t be too different.

Virginia likely won’t experience the problem of low turnout this year to the same degree as these special elections. Both parties are spending big in the state. There will be 140 state legislative elections happening at the same time Tuesday. That’s important because any single election could be an outlier (e.g., one really bad candidate could throw things off in an individual district).

Speaking of money, a lot of it is focused on ads that could preview the messages each party will try to capitalize on next year. Democrats have been especially focused on abortion. Will their abortion rights message carry the day? Will it be enough to save them even as Biden remains unpopular and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is well liked in the state?

If Virginia Democrats do well, expect their party colleagues across the country to try to replicate that effort next year when Biden is officially on the ballot.

But if Democrats are unable to succeed in a state Biden won by 10 points, what would that say about the president’s chances on far-less-fertile swing-state ground?

Nothing good.

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