Fear struck out. Democrats picked up an astonishing 15 seats in the House of Delegates, just one away from the majority. Northam won, as did Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general.
In 2019, the GOP tried fear-and-smear again, this time adding “infanticide” to their charges (after two prominent Democrats admittedly flubbed a description of a bill to loosen Virginia’s restrictive abortion laws). But Democratic pushback helped remind voters that infanticide is illegal; no Democrat supported anything of the kind. Again, Republicans failed: Democrats took the House of Delegates and the state Senate too.
This year, Republicans have ratcheted up their lurid accusations more than a notch, if you can imagine that, falsely accusing Democrats of being soft on crime, defunding the police, backing (nonexistent) Critical Race Theory curriculums in public schools… and, again, infanticide.
But this time, Democrats worry that it could work.
The difference? In 2017, Virginia was the first test of the powerful, women-driven resistance to Donald Trump—and the resistance passed the test, overwhelmingly. Twenty-seven first-time female candidates ran for election, and Democrats contested more GOP seats than they had for years. Literally dozens of new activist organizations, quaintly called “pop-up” groups, sprang into action, inside Virginia and across the nation, all determined to take their stand against Trump.
Covering those Virginia races that fall, I watched volunteer canvassers pour off buses by the many dozens, from Ohio, New York, North Carolina, and more, to work for statehouse candidates they’d never heard of before. Big national groups like Emily’s List and Everytown and the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee were there, but so were brand new start-ups like Sister District, Run for Something, Flippable, 31st St., Swing Left, and many others. Campaign managers had a happy headache: keeping track of all the outside groups and making sure they were working productively.
I saw the same energy in 2019—energized local activists plus a cadre of national volunteers equaled victory.
This year Virginia Democrats are missing that resistance energy. In fact, the parties’ roles are reversed. For Republicans, Virginia is the first stop for the anti-Biden resistance, and polls are showing a voter enthusiasm gap that so far favors the GOP. In a recent Washington Post poll, 76 percent of Republicans were following the election closely versus 61 percent of Democrats; among conservatives, it was 77 percent to just 56 percent of liberals.
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In some ways, this is normal: Virginia has often been a bellwether, its off-year elections one of the first chances for voters to register discontent with a new president: not only to Trump in 2017 but to Barack Obama in 2009, when GOP Governor Bob McDonnell replaced Democrat Tim Kaine, and to Bill Clinton in 1993, when George Allen took over from Democrat Doug Wilder. Those results all heralded midterm congressional losses for the party in the White House, too, in 1994, 2010, and 2018.
That’s why many national Democrats are worried about their Virginia counterparts holding their 55-seat majority in the House of Delegates. They’re also worried about the top of the ticket, where former governor Terry McAuliffe, trying to return to Richmond after four years (Virginia governors cannot serve two consecutive four-year terms), is having a tougher fight than expected against political newcomer Glenn Youngkin, a shape-shifting former Carlyle executive who is endorsed by Trump but trying to come off as a relative moderate, while self-funding his campaign (via “loans”) to the tune of $16.5 million. He currently leads the well-connected McAuliffe in fundraising, $35.2 million to $31.8 million.
The Cook Political Report on Friday moved the Virginia governor’s race from ‘Lean Democrat” to a “Toss-up,” noting “It’s Youngkin who seems to have the enthusiasm on his side.”
Though national Democrats seem to understand the importance of winning Virginia, the local and national activism that powered the victories of 2017 and 2019 is clearly diminished. “The majority is at risk in Virginia,” DLCC’s Jessica Post told me. “The polling shows that Democrats really could lose the House of Delegates,” agrees Lyzz Schwegler, cofounder of Sister District. “There’s a clear enthusiasm gap across the board, from volunteers to donors to voters.” Christine Bachman, a Virginia digital consultant who got involved early in the 2017 cycle, is alarmed too. “Every warning sign is flashing.”
It’s not all bad news. The female-powered resistance is still strong here: Women account for more than half of Democratic nominees, 50 of 94. Of the 39 Democrats challenging incumbent Republicans, a majority, 21, are women. Four of the Democratic challengers given a serious chance to flip GOP districts are women, two of them African American. Most of the big outside groups are back, along with state stalwarts like Network NOVA and Win Virginia. The 55 Democratic incumbents have a formidable fundraising advantage over their Republican challengers so far: Only one of them has raised less money than his GOP opponent; the rest have outraised them, often by a lot. And even some insurgent challengers are outraising their GOP incumbent opponents.
But local Democrats say they need more help: more money, more volunteers, and better overall messaging up and down the state ticket. “Honestly, I think President Biden and Vice President Harris need to get down here soon,” says Finale Johnson Norton, one of the challengers given a decent chance of winning. Last November Biden won her district, which stretches from urban Norfolk to the Eastern Shore, but her opponent, Rob Bloxom, is a longtime incumbent whose father held the seat before him. Norton is unrelentingly positive, her trademark, but she’s worried. “We can’t let Republicans come in and take this place back.”
Are Democrats’ worries about Virginia the equivalent of the alarmist fundraising e-mail spam we see in every cycle? (“Massively outspent,” “I never thought I’d have to send this email,” and “No question: [Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock] likely unseated” are just a few at the top of my inbox as I write.)
I don’t think so. For one thing, the three state legislative activists I quoted above are all normally optimists, maybe overly so. All three expected gains, not losses, in statehouse races in 2020, but that’s another story.
Also: The dip in enthusiasm can be felt on the ground. Democrats may have the money this time around, but, so far, anyway, they don’t have the people.
“Our canvasses aren’t the same as they were [in 2017 and 2019],” says Delegate Joshua Cole of Fredericksburg, an activist and minister representing a central Virginia city shifting from red to blue. Fredericksburg is a lovely colonial history tourist draw where George Washington’s mother Mary lived, along with other Washingtons. It’s also the site of two Civil War battles, and the place where enslaved men crossed the Rappahannock River north to join the Union side. In the last decade it’s gotten more diverse, and more Democratic: Cole lost here narrowly in 2017, ran again, and won in 2019.
Part of the enthusiasm problem, he says, is that Virginia Democrats never got an off-year—activists have been on high alert from Hillary Clinton’s race in 2016 (she won Virginia) through the 2017 resistance, the 2018 midterms (where a 7-4 GOP congressional delegation flipped to 7-4 Democrats), the 2019 off-year where they took over the General Assembly, and of course, the 2020 election, when Biden doubled Clinton’s winning margin to 10 points. That took a lot of work.
“I’ve literally had strong super-volunteers from 2017 and 2019 tell me they’re just worn out,” Cole says. Some people are writing checks, he says, instead of knocking doors.
That’s part of the good fundraising news for Democrats: All but one of the 55 incumbents have outraised their opponents, often by a lot, and so have some of the challengers. As of the last reporting deadline, August 31, House Democrats had outraised House Republicans $11.6 million to $5.8 million. (By contrast, at this point in 2017, Republicans had twice as much money as Democrats, with $8.2 million to $4.1 million. But recall: Democrats made huge gains anyway.) In the eight districts that contain at least part of crucial Prince William County, Democrats raised more than $1.02 million during the last, two-month reporting period, compared to $237,649 for Republicans. And they have other advantages.
“The fundamentals are good,” says the DLCC’s Post. “We have great candidates, running against mini-Trumpers. Incumbents have a great record to run on.”
They do indeed. Since 2017, Democrats have expanded Medicaid, raised the minimum wage, increased funding for child care, vastly expanded voting rights, including a 45-day early vote period, loosened draconian abortion restrictions, passed pay raises for teachers, state police and firefighters, and ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. Smaller-bore issues are equally impressive: They capped the price of insulin at $50 a month, and expanded workers compensation eligibility for first responders.
So why all the worry? Some Virginia Democrats say that messaging isn’t coming across. “I run into people in my district who don’t know we expanded voting rights, don’t know we increased the minimum wage,” Norton says.
Most campaigns say they’re having a tougher time finding volunteers. Even if a lot of the same big groups are on the ground this time, they are not bringing large numbers of foot soldiers. “Burnout is real,” one campaign manager told me.
The so-called “coordinated” Democratic campaign, a structure that shows up in major state and national races to unify and sync up top-ticket candidates with those in down-ballot races, hasn’t yet fully gotten off the ground. A half-dozen people I talked to called it “the uncoordinated campaign.” Campaign managers say that coordinated campaign-paid organizers promised to them have yet to materialize in their districts. With McAuliffe struggling, many worry that he’ll focus on Democrat-heavy Northern Virginia—and thus, so will the coordinated campaign—while incumbents and challengers in red and purple districts get neglected.
No one wanted to criticize McAuliffe on the record—they hope to be working with him in Richmond next year, and many also sympathized with his dilemma: He has to win, and this is how some state Democrats think he can win.
“But I’d like to see Terry down here in Fredericksburg more,” says Cole. “This has become a blue district and there are voters here too.” Challenger Kecia Evans, running in a district adjacent to Cole’s that is less blue than his, says she isn’t yet seeing the kind of activism she’d hoped for when she decided to run. “I understand: People want to see how much work the candidate is willing to put in,” says Evans, a criminal justice investigator who is Black. “And I’m willing to work.” But a population boom in her district over the last 10 years means “the political parties don’t really know what the new voters are going to do,” and she wishes Democrats would invest more in reaching them.
For its part, the McAuliffe campaign insists that the candidate is committed to contest every district. “Terry wants a Democratic House of Delegates and he’s gonna make sure that gets done,” one campaign source told me, pointing to $11 million the candidate has invested in the coordinated campaign. The source also disputed the “uncoordinated” charge, saying that its organizers have knocked a half-million doors throughout the state, compared with 555,000 at this point in 2017, and says McAuliffe is campaigning throughout the state, with appearances in redder regions set to be announced soon.
Meanwhile, incumbents are having to spend time refuting outright lies. Cole and Virginia Beach’s Alex Askew, both Black, have been hit by mailers claiming that they want to defund the police—when in fact, they voted to give state police an 8.5 percent pay raise. The mailers also darkened their complexion, in case you missed the “anti-police” dog whistle. “Anyone who says that about me [supporting defund the police] is lying,” Cole tells me, with more fire than I normally hear in his calm preacher’s voice.
Cole happens to be running against GOP newcomer Tara Durant, who became nationally famous in June 2020 when she claimed that her car was surrounded by Black Lives Matter protesters in Fredericksburg, she and her daughter were threatened, and police refused to help her, a claim spread by Fox’s Tucker Carlson. (Local observers say she tried to drive through a crowd of protesters, who put their hands on her car to stop her, but didn’t threaten her.)
In Virginia Beach, Republican attorney and gun shop owner Tim Anderson hit Nancy Guy with the same claim in a raucous candidate forum last week. She denied it, pointing to the pay raise, and concluding: “I’ve never been an enemy of the police.” Which is not a good thing to have to say in a heavily military swing district.
Even while accusing Democrats of “infanticide,” some Republicans are nonetheless strangely evasive about their own abortion agenda. Youngkin calls himself pro-life, but said he wouldn’t sign a law like the Texas abomination that created penalties for anyone who provides or assists in an abortion after six weeks. The Republican plutocrat was caught on tape telling a purported anti-abortion activist (she turned out to be an undercover progressive) that he supported her goals but couldn’t say that in the campaign.
“When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense [on abortion restrictions],” he told her. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get…. I will not go squishy, but I got to win in order to stand up for the unborn.”
Similarly, in their debate last week, Anderson claimed that he supported Supreme Court precedent, currently encoded in the so-called Casey decision, the 1992 ruling that upheld Roe v. Wade and kept abortion legal until fetal “viability.” Guy correctly pointed out the loophole the lawyer left for himself: The Supreme Court has shifted from a 5-4 pro-Roe majority to a 6-3 majority hostile to abortion rights, and let the Texas law stand. “There is a very real possibility now that Roe v. Wade will be repealed,” she told the audience. “Then, state legislators will be the deciding factor in whether abortion stays legal.”
So far, Democrats say, there has been a slight uptick in donations as well as volunteering since the Texas decision, but many worry that the GOP candidates’ evasiveness will confuse the issue.
Some Democratic activists think the party is exaggerating its vulnerability. Dr. Fergie Reid Jr., founder of the voting rights group 90for90.org, thinks House Democrats are “selling fear,” in order to justify spending overwhelmingly on incumbents while neglecting Democratic challengers. 90for90 was founded in 2015 to honor Reid’s father, Dr. Fergie Reid Sr., Virginia’s first Black House member since Reconstruction, by registering Virginia voters with a focus on under-mobilized communities. Voter registration has surged ever since, assisted by other groups besides 90for90, of course, but this year especially, Reid says, “all of our fundamentals are awesome.”
Reid’s is a complaint I’ve heard in every cycle, regarding Virginia and every state legislature I’ve covered. Nationally, state House Democratic caucuses are almost always by definition “incumbent protection rackets,” as one activist calls them, making sure their members get reelected before looking at opportunities beyond the caucus. This year, Virginia House Democrats are defending 55 seats, which is different from merely protecting a powerless minority while ignoring the chance to win the majority, a complaint in the past.
But Reid thinks Democrats could flip at least five GOP seats, instead of merely playing defense. Part of his optimism comes down to Joe Biden’s performance in 2020: Biden won five House districts currently held by Republicans, and there are another four that he only lost narrowly. If Democrats and progressives spread their ample fundraising from incumbents to some of those challengers, they’d be more likely to hold their majority—and even expand it, he says.
Other Democrats say there are indeed opportunities, but they don’t think turnout in a presidential race is a useful metric in Virginia’s off-off-year election. In 2016, 4 million voters turned out; in 2017, despite a blue wave of local and national activism in the state, that number fell to 2.6 million. Still, Democrats won anyway. In 2019, the number fell again to 2.3 million; again, Democrats prevailed, but more narrowly. The Biden-Trump race drew a record 4.5 million voter turnout, but nobody expects anything like those numbers in 2021.
Of course, Democrats don’t need those high numbers; they just need the right percentage in the right districts to flip their way. It’s the perceived enthusiasm gap, in terms of ground-game activism, that has activists worried. As does Biden’s sinking approval rating, thanks to GOP (and conservative Democrats’) obstruction of his popular agenda. Biden’s troubles could depress Democratic turnout, and inspire Republicans, more than anything else, several activists told me.
Still, Reid isn’t the only optimist (though he’s more bullish than most people I talked to). California Governor Gavin Newsom’s overwhelming defeat of a recall attempt put a spring back into McAuliffe’s step, showing how a competent Covid response can win over even skeptical voters. Democrats are now touting polling that shows majorities of Virginians backing vaccine and mask mandates, especially in schools and health care facilities. Meanwhile, though Youngkin has been trying to subtly squirm out of Donald Trump’s embrace, that strategy is not without its own risk. In fact, Trump called him out on Friday.
“The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement,” Trump told a right-wing radio host when asked if Youngkin could beat McAuliffe. “When they try to go down a railroad track, you know, ‘Hey, oh yeah, sure, love it, love it. Oh, yeah, love Trump. Love Trump. Okay, let’s go, next subject.’ When they do that, nobody, they don’t—they never win. They never win. They have to embrace it.”
Of course, if Youngkin has to “embrace it” (a yucky image), he will likely lose the independent and suburban voters he’s trying to win with his dodginess on not just Trump but abortion too. On Sunday, Youngkin seemed to embrace it, refusing to tell Axios whether he would have voted to certify Biden’s election had he been in Congress January 6.
Democrats hope that as a GOP win becomes more possible, right-wing voters will demand more outright extremism—and liberals will get reenergized. “The complacency is real, but I think Democratic voters are starting to get back into the headspace that these elections really matter,” says Alex Askew’s campaign manager, Zoe Kleinfeld. The Progressive Turnout Project sent canvassers to Askew’s district this weekend, and they were able to knock on 1,800 doors, she said.
For his part, Reid worries that all the “doom and gloom” will discourage rather than motivate potential volunteers and voters. A retired emergency room physician, Reid thinks his experience prepared him for the high-adrenaline, up-and-down world of electoral politics. The incumbents perceived as vulnerable, like Guy, Askew, and Cole, he says, “don’t need the ICU. They need some attention. People shouldn’t panic. Just do the drill. Be about your business.”
Finale Norton walks the line between panic and confidence. “Optimism is really important,” she says, in motivating volunteers and voters. “But we need to bring a little bit of fear. We need to say, ‘Here are the consequences if we don’t get it together.’ Trump is still on the ballot.”
Norton worries about complacency, since Democrats have trifecta control in Washington, D.C., as well as Richmond. “A lot of people might say yeah, that’s good—and then stay home. We have to tell them what’s at stake.”