BERNSTEIN: Betraying the balance
Puckett’s resignation will likely stall bipartisan progress in the state legislature
While Virginia and the nation mourn and celebrate the defeat of Eric Cantor, the outgoing representative of Virginia’s seventh congressional district, there has also been a significant change in the makeup of Virginia’s state Senate resulting from the resignation of state Senator Phillip Puckett, a Democrat from the 38th state Senate district.
Puckett resigned Monday, presumably so his daughter could officially become a judge, since Virginia cannot confirm judges with close relatives who are current lawmakers. It might seem unfair to resent his resignation when we take this familial matter into consideration; however, Puckett’s resignation tips the scale in the state Senate from 20-20 to 20-19, officially giving the Republicans a majority while a special election is being arranged to fill his seat.
Not only that, Puckett’s resignation comes at a time when it is crucial for Democrats to maintain some balance of power. Medicaid is currently under significant threat — to the extent that there was a possibility of a state government shutdown prior to this resignation. But though in the short-run Puckett’s resignation will create a plethora of problems for Democrats in the state Senate and for current Governor Terry McAuliffe, who will now have to kowtow to Republicans in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, most have failed to consider how this could change Virginia’s political landscape in the long-run.
Puckett’s district is safely Republican in all elections but state Senate: only one of the 10 counties included in the 38th district voted for Obama in 2012, with 51 percent of the vote, and that county only accounts for 6 percent of the district anyway. Every other county went for Romney, with most in the 60-70 percent range (one at 78 percent). Though the state Senate districts have recently been redrawn, according to the Virginia Public Access Project the new shape of Puckett’s district has increased the Democratic population there by roughly 1 percent, making it still a solidly Republican district.
This makes Puckett’s popularity something of an anomaly for his district, which seems to have voted consistently for the Republican ticket. But the special election to replace Puckett’s seat could very well break with Puckett’s pattern; without Puckett’s name recognition and position as an incumbent, a solidly Republican area seems unlikely to vote Democratic, unless the candidate runs a very impressive and expensive campaign. We should note that Puckett first won his seat in 1998, when the 38th district was more liberal than it is now, and Puckett outspent his opponent by roughly 34 percent. Following that race, Puckett was only challenged twice, so his electoral history is not necessarily indicative of how the next election will go.
If this seat deviates from its Democratic history and becomes a Republican seat, the likelihood of it shifting back to a Democratic seat is low, unless there is a strong Democratic challenger somewhere down the road. This is not to say a Democratic victory in the special election or in the future is impossible. But, as it stands right now, Puckett’s resignation could lead to a lasting change in the makeup of Virginia’s state Senate.
This is problematic because Puckett was, by most standards, a moderate Democrat who fostered a good deal of bipartisanship, the kind which can quickly deteriorate once one political party has a majority. According to the Richmond Sunlight, a group that tracks Virginia politicians’ activity, Puckett’s voting record falls mostly in-between the two parties, and he frequently co-patrons bills with both Democrats and Republicans.
Thus, Puckett’s decision to resign now has not only damaged the current Democratic position in the state Senate; it could also completely shift the power in his district from Democrats to Republicans, eliminating future need for political compromise or bipartisanship. These potential lasting effects of his resignation make it all the more reprehensible.
Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.