Carolyn Fiddler likes to call it “the Trump effect”—the sudden surge of new candidates, most of them women, who said to themselves: If that fucking schlub can be president, I can run for office. Fiddler, an expert on Virginia politics, is partly kidding—but partly not. For a host of reasons, the election of the pussy-grabbing, utterly incompetent, nationally embarrassing Donald Trump has inspired a stunning wave of female newcomers to electoral politics. Since November, an astonishing 16,000 women have contacted Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, to say they want to run. In the 2015–16 election cycle, only 920 women did that.
Nowhere is this surge more evident than in Fiddler’s home state. Virginia stands at the intersection of two remarkable progressive trends. The unprecedented surge of Democratic women running for office is one; the dawning recognition among Democrats of the importance of statehouse races is the other. Since 2008, Democrats have lost almost 1,000 legislative seats and 27 statehouse chambers, and Republicans now control 68 of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide. This decade of Republican dominance has allowed the GOP to gerrymander congressional and local districts alike, further cementing their advantage.
Today, at the statewide level, Virginia is solid blue: Its governor, lieutenant governor, two US senators, and state attorney general are all Democrats. It voted for Barack Obama twice, and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when it comes to the House of Representatives and Virginia’s House of Delegates, the impact of partisan gerrymandering is clear: Seven of 11 US House members are Republican, as are 66 of 100 state delegates.
The balance among the latter could change dramatically this fall, as Virginia’s off-year elections provide an opportunity to test whether a wave of fresh Democratic female candidates and a renewed focus on taking back statehouses can break the Republican grasp on power. Democrats are running 54 challengers against GOP incumbents, up from only 21 in 2015. And of all the Democrats running for the House of Delegates, including incumbents, 42 are women and 28 are people of color. The Democrats need 17 more seats to flip the House—and, coincidentally, there are 17 districts in Republican hands where Clinton defeated Trump last November. Those districts have come to be known as the “Hillary 17,” and Democratic women are running in 10 of them.
“We might not flip the majority this year,” says Catherine Vaughan of Flippable, a new post-Trump political start-up that is focused exclusively on winning statehouses. “But we could get close and then do it in 2019.”
Flippable is just one of the intriguing new “pop-up groups” getting involved in Virginia state politics. Candidates here are getting help from Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution as well as Run for Something, founded by Hillary Clinton loyalists. Tom Perriello moved on from his disappointing loss in the gubernatorial primary to run Win Virginia, which is backing progressives in state races. And Sister District, founded last year to let folks in safe blue districts partner with those in red or purple ones, has endorsed candidates in 12 races.