In next week’s Virginia state legislative elections, there are two big issues. One is abortion, since it’s the only Southern state that hasn’t imposed new restrictions since Roe v. Wade was overturned last year. The GOP drive for at least a 15-week ban helps Democrats—70 percent of women say it’s driving their votes, while only 47 percent said the same in 2019. The other is crime, which Republicans believe will help them. The party hyped crime fears in the 2021 election, falsely charging that moderate Democrats, for instance, supported the “defund the police” movement even when they hadn’t. The ploy seemed to work: The GOP took control of the House of Delegates and Glenn Youngkin strolled into the governor’s mansion.
That explains why, in a hot state Senate race in Loudoun County, GOP newcomer Juan Pablo Segura is running a scurrilous ad charging his Democratic opponent Russet Perry, a former commonwealth prosecutor, with abetting the murder of a local domestic violence victim by her husband. Perry, who ran the county’s domestic violence unit, had already left the office when the 2021 murder occurred. She notes that in eight of her 10 years, she worked for Republican prosecutors. “Any insinuation that I would have let [the alleged killer] out on bond is false,” she told local reporters. “Any insinuation that I was somehow soft on crime is untrue.”
But Democratic candidates in every Virginia swing district, whether for the House of Delegates or the Senate, are facing similar attacks from their GOP opponents. Many are funded by the enormous campaign war chest amassed by Youngkin, who is asking voters to give him a GOP trifecta—control of both the House and Senate, along with his own seat—to push his extreme agenda on abortion and gun safety.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is hoping to inoculate its candidates with some new research, shared exclusively with The Nation, showing that gun homicides increased 110 percent in Virginia between 2012 and 2021. (Before Youngkin, Virginia had Democratic governors since 2014, but the GOP held both houses of the legislature until 2020.) Nationwide, gun death rates are highest in states run by Republicans.
Eight of the the 10 states with the highest gun death rates, the DLCC found, are run by Republican trifectas, and nine have GOP-controlled legislatures (Mississippi tops both lists.) Meanwhile, of the eight of the 10 states with the lowest gun death rates are controlled by Democratic trifectas (Hawaii is lowest).
“Electing Republicans doesn’t keep our communities safer,” DLCC communications director Abhi Rahman told me. “By weakening gun laws and bowing down to the gun lobby, Republicans in Virginia threaten to ruin safety and prosperity in the commonwealth.”
The new DLCC report highlights a long roster of GOP gun champions up for election this year. Delegate Tara Durant of Fredericksburg, now running for a local Senate seat, bragged, “We passed some good legislation this year to strengthen gun rights in Virginia, but the Democrats’ Brick Wall in the Senate is preventing us from becoming a Constitutional Carry state—just one reason why flipping the Senate in November is crucial to safeguarding the Second Amendment.”
Not surprisingly, Durant has an A rating from the NRA, as do the other gun-happy Republicans the DLCC profiles. Segura, Russet Perry’s opponent, has an “AQ,” meaning an A based on his NRA questionnaire answers, since he has no legislative record.
Gun-safety advocates have won big victories in Virginia over the last five years as Democrats gained more power in the once-red state, including universal background checks, red-flag laws, a limit of one handgun purchase per month, and a three-year ban on gun ownership by most people convicted of domestic violence felonies. It’s been especially satisfying because the NRA is headquartered in Richmond. Candidates who once ran in fear from the NRA have in the last few years advertised their F ratings. But while the NRA is besieged by scandal within, its message of unregulated gun ownership still has adherents in the Commonwealth. And Youngkin is using his millions to advance its agenda.
Running again for a house seat in Fredericksburg, former delegate Joshua Cole—who lost his seat to Durant in 2021—says his GOP opponent Lee Peters is also leaning into false narratives on crime. Peters, the Stafford County sheriff, a political neophyte, is trusting that his badge will attract voters worried about safety. His campaign claims that Cole supports the movement to defund the police—in fact, he’s voted to increase police pay—and that parole reform he did favor released “hundreds of criminals” into the community, which it did not.
“It’s disingenuous, it’s all lies, but for some people it’s working,” Cole told me. “On the doors, people who don’t know me ask me about it. But those who do know me say, ‘Why are they lying on you like that?’”
Youngkin is paying a lot of money to let Republicans lie about Democrats like that. By nationalizing the race the way the governor has, he just might nationalize the gun-safety issue. Public opinion polls show that voters, including in Virginia, support more reform measures, not fewer. The DLCC is betting they’ll see GOP candidates’ A ratings from the NRA as an F rating when it comes to Virginians’ safety.