The Democratic wave that rose on Election Day in Virginia last month delivered a final crash on the sand Tuesday when a Democratic challenger defeated a Republican incumbent by a single vote, leaving the Virginia House of Delegates evenly split between the two parties.
The victory by Shelly Simonds, a school board member in Newport News, was a civics lesson in every-vote-counts as she won 11,608 to 11,607 in a recount conducted by local election officials.
Ms. Simonds’s win means a 50-50 split in the State House, where Republicans had clung to a one-seat majority after losing 15 seats last month in a night of Democratic victories up and down the ballot, which were widely seen as a rebuke to President Trump. Republicans have controlled the House for 17 years.
“I just can’t believe it, but it sounds like it’s pretty solid,” an excited Ms. Simonds, speaking from a bar with the sounds of celebration in the background, told reporters on a conference call. She said she was in awe of the recount process, an example of what she called good government, in which there were no arguments between Democrats and Republican observers. “It was a beautiful thing to see democracy in action.”
The recount was a nail-biting exercise avidly followed on Twitter over five hours that began with the Republican incumbent, David Yancy, ahead by 10 votes.
Although results are not official until certified by a three-judge panel on Wednesday, state Democrats declared victory, and Republican leaders in the House congratulated Ms. Simonds. “There were no challenged ballots so nothing for the court to review,” leaders of the Democratic caucus said in a statement.
“Fifty-fifty is an unprecedented event in the 400-year history of the House of Delegates,” said David J. Toscano, the House Democratic leader.
Ms. Simonds’s single-vote victory will enter election annals along with rare other razor-thin majorities. In Mississippi last year, a State House race that ended in a tie was decided in favor of the Democrat by a drawing of straws, before being reversed by a Republican partisan challenge in the State Legislature.
Iowa has been known to use coin tosses to settle tied results in its presidential caucuses. In the 2000 presidential election, when a complicated paper ballot in Florida led officials to examine “hanging chads” with eyepieces and only 537 votes separated George W. Bush from Al Gore, the Supreme Court ultimately made the call a month after Election Day.
As the votes were recounted, results were updated precinct by precinct on a white board with felt marker. Several journalists reported the seesawing results live on Twitter, with Mr. Yancey’s 10-vote margin slowly eroding.
We’re tied. pic.twitter.com/lLTuWWg7Ee
— Jordan Pascale (@JWPascale) December 19, 2017
It was one of several recounts Democrats pursued after narrow Republican victories in House races on Election Day. Before Tuesday, the others had broken for Republicans, but Democrats are still contesting one race with an 82-vote margin in a district where 147 people received the wrong ballots. A lawsuit requesting a new election is in the courts. If the Democratic candidate, Joshua Cole, somehow ends up the victor, that would give his party a 51-49 majority in the House.
Still, the divided chamber was welcome news to Governor-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat who as of January will not have to face Republican majorities in both houses of the General Assembly like his outgoing predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Virginia Republicans narrowly control the State Senate, whose members were not on the ballot this year, 21 to 19.
But control of the evenly divided House could be awkward. In the Senate, the lieutenant governor can break a tie; there is no such mechanism in the House. The choice of a House speaker must be negotiated between the parties. Power sharing is likely to lead to more bipartisan deals.
Mr. Toscano called the selection of the next House speaker “the question of the night” but added that who holds the gavel is less important than deciding which legislation advances. He and others suggested Democrats would be able to advance long-stifled priorities like health care and the minimum wage.
Over the weekend, Mr. Northam angered progressive Democrats by suggesting he would work with Republicans to design a new cost-saving Medicaid program rather than pushing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, long a Democratic priority. The governor-elect was fiercely attacked by liberals, including Tom Perriello, a former Virginia congressman, who wrote on Twitter, “Blocking Medicaid expansion was a major reason so many Republicans lost their House seats in VA this year.”
Mr. Northam backpedaled on Twitter, saying expansion was a “no-brainer.” On Tuesday he took to social media again to congratulate Ms. Simonds. “Looking forward to partnering with you to make life better for every Virginian, no matter who you are, no matter where you live,” he wrote on Twitter.
Republican House leaders expressed the desire to work with colleagues across the aisle. “We stand ready to establish a bipartisan framework under which the House can operate efficiently and effectively over the next two years,” the Republican leadership said in a statement.
Ms. Simonds is not the first member of the Virginia House to pull off an improbably close victory.
In 1991, a former Virginia delegate named Jim Scott won a race by one vote and was nicknamed “Landslide Jim.” On Tuesday, Ms. Simonds embraced the same name. “You can call me Landslide Shelly as long as you call me delegate,” she said.