At 33, former Virginia delegate Joshua Cole has seen everything, at least in terms of state politics. In 2017, Virginia’s off-year state elections offered the first test case of the riled-up Democratic anti–Donald Trump resistance. The party did better than anyone’s wildest dreams, winning an astonishing 15 seats in the House of Delegates—11 of the winning candidates were women—and missed taking control from Republicans by only one seat. That might have been Cole’s; he ran for a Fredericksburg seat and lost by only 73 votes. Democrats won the governor’s, lieutenant governor’s and attorney general’s races that year.
The wins kept coming, with the party flipping Virginia’s congressional delegation red to blue in 2018, then taking control of the state House and Senate in 2019, when Cole ran again. And won.
But in 2021, Virginia provided the first test case of the Joe Biden blues. The state’s off-year elections are always the first place a losing presidential party can prove it might rebound—just as Democrats showed in 2017, so did Republicans in 2009, after Barack Obama went to the White House. Cole told me candidly that his party was in trouble back in September 2021. “Our canvasses aren’t the same as they were [in 2017 and 2019],” he said. “I’ve literally had strong super-volunteers from 2017 and 2019 tell me they’re just worn out.”
A footnote: Remember that Virginia’s off-year elections mean that when volunteers are recovering from campaigning for the presidential races (big turnout) or the midterms (decent turnout), Virginians are going back to the polls every year. What was fun in 2017 got exhausting.
And Cole was right: In November 2021, shape-shifting pretend-moderate Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race and the GOP took back the House of Delegates. The young pastor and local NAACP chapter president lost his seat by just under 1,000 votes.
Now, in 2023, Democrats have a chance to take back the House of Delegates and build on their slight lead in the state Senate. All 140 seats are up for grabs, but only about a dozen are considered flippable. Cole is running again, for an open seat redrawn by redistricting. He’s one of the top candidates identified by a slew of progressive and Democratic groups as someone with a strong chance to win, but not a sure one.
“The feel on the ground is different,” Cole told me. “People get what’s at stake.” I remind him of what he told me two years ago, and he laughs. “There’s more energy than in 2021. People are coming back. It feels more like 2019.” The year he won.
Most people I spoke to about the Virginia races told me some form of exactly that. But not without some worry.
All the candidates and groups I talked to identified three major issues on the ballot. The top one is abortion. Virginia is currently the only Southern state that hasn’t imposed new abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, thanks largely to the power of the Democrat-controlled Senate. I must note: In a very rare Democratic primary, Lashrecse Aird beat anti-abortion Democrat Senator Joe Morrisey in June this year. Recent polls show that 70 percent of Virginia women rate abortion as a “very important” issue in the coming election; only 47 percent said that in 2019. “I think we’ve been able to make abortion the issue,” says outgoing Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee leader Jessica Post, whose group has been focused on Virginia state races since before 2017, and who saw activism, money, and anti-Trump rage sync up in the Commonwealth that fateful year.
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The second is crime: Republicans think that’s their inoculation against the way the abortion issue hurts them. They have a lot of money, and their crime ads against Democrats are mostly fable, but also ugly—so they might resonate.
The third, and maybe most important, is Governor Glenn Youngkin himself. He’s made this race a referendum on his leadership, raising $30 million to invest in Virginia Republican statehouse candidates.That kind of money, attached to one Republican, is a wild card here. “If we lose, that will be why,” one local Democrat told me.
Youngkin has declared that if the GOP can keep the House and flip the Senate, he’ll be able to advance his conservative agenda, starting with imposing a 15-week abortion ban. Asked in 2021 about whether he planned more gun safety bills, Youngkin’s retort was biting: “I think we need to be fully clear: none.” Since 2020, Democrats imposed new gun laws, from background checks to red-flag laws, and if Youngkin gets full control of the legislature people expect those moderate reforms could be gone too.
“Virginia will become the next Florida” if Youngkin’s statehouse investment pays off, says Abhi Rahman, communications director of the Democratic State Legislative Campaign. “Freedom is on the line—freedom of choice, freedom to the read the books you want, to love who you want to love.”
Youngkin’s investment in the state races is also viewed as a referendum on his future as a GOP presidential candidate—if not in 2024, when some desperate Republican plutocrats would like to draft him, then in 2028. Virginia Democrats “really want to get him a loss on the books,” says Swing Left Executive Director Yasmin Radjy. It could not only protect abortion rights and block his presidential aspirations.
But nobody’s looking that far ahead, she notes. All eyes are on the election coming November 7.
Earlier this year, Virginia Democrats were sounding alarms across the country: Neither national party leaders nor the outside groups that had been so crucial from 2017 through 2020 were putting enough muscle into the 2023 contests. The state’s two US senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, complained loudly to NBC News in August. “I don’t think there’s the same national donor focus on Virginia as Gov. Youngkin is pushing on the Republican side,” Kaine said.
This situation has improved in the last couple of months, candidates and advocates say. Yasmin Radjy worried “at the beginning,” when national partners didn’t seem tuned in. Lately, she’s feeling better. “With our candidates now, the ground game support is there,” she tells me. In Swing Left’s target districts, the group is seeing that likely supporters’ doors have been knocked two and even three times.
“Oh, we’ve knocked,” says Joshua Cole, a Swing Left candidate this year. “Sometimes I have to apologize” for how much his supporters have knocked, Cole says. The candidate himself has knocked a personal best of 6,000 doors in his district on his own, he tells me.
Over in a newly drawn district in Hampton Roads, Delegate Nadarius Clark isn’t quite running as an incumbent; he’s running for an open seat. Don’t get this wrong: The new districts are mostly fairer districts, but it’s still a bit of a challenge being an “incumbent” running for a different seat. It’s OK, Clark says: Like Cole, he’s door-knocking and introducing himself to voters he didn’t meet last time. His opponent, he says, “is trying to turn back the hands of time, on reproductive rights, red-flag laws on guns, early voting.”
Early voting is complicated: Virginia Democrats introduced it in 2020. You might remember: That’s the same year an ex-president counted it among the ways Democrats were cheating him, and Republicans turned against it. But Youngkin, who is smarter than TFG, is putting money behind getting his supporters to vote early. It’s not working that well, yet, but Democrats can see some of their normally wide early vote margin narrowing as Youngkin gets his message out. “You have to remember: We haven’t had early vote in Virginia very long,” says Jessica Post, who happens to live there. So Democrats have to spend money making sure people return their early ballots on time.
Cole and Clark, who are both Black, are facing ugly campaign ads about crime that seem to play on their race. But former prosecutor Russet Perry, who is a white woman, is also having the crime issue thrown at her, not fairly either, by her high-spending GOP opponent, Juan Pablo Segura. He’s running an ad accusing Perry of having something to do with the release of a domestic violence perpetrator who wound up murdering his wife—though Perry was gone from the prosecutor’s office when the tragedy occurred. “It’s pretty hard to make that stick since she is a former prosecutor and CIA operative while [Seguro] owns a chain of doughnut stores,” says Lyzz Schwegler, cofounder of Sister District, which lists Perry’s as one of its key races.
That kind of factual argument doesn’t stop Youngkin’s minions, Clark says. But Democrats can counter it anyway. “I ask [voters] who’s going to show up for them. I’m in the neighborhood.” He and Cole feel pretty good about their ability to beat back nasty advertising. The DLCC hopes it helped by getting out research showing that states run by a GOP trifecta, where Republicans run all houses of government, which Youngkin openly wants to achieve with his millions, are less safe. As in: Eight of the the 10 states with the highest gun death rates, the DLCC found, are run by Republican trifectas; nine have GOP-controlled legislatures. (Sorry, Mississippi: You’re the big winner.) Meanwhile, eight of the 10 states with the lowest gun death rates are controlled by Democratic trifectas (Hawaii is the winner of that genuine prize).
State Democrats as well as national leaders say abortion is cutting in an interesting way. Some Republicans are trying to spin Youngkin’s proposed 15-week abortion ban is a sign of moderation. GOP pollster Whit Ayres told The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne that it reflects Youngkin facing the fact that “abortion is as much of a vulnerability for Republicans as immigration, inflation and crime are for Democrats,” and, in Dionne’s words, “acting accordingly.” Democrats, predictably, disagree that Youngkin’s proposal represents compromise.
“In 2021, the governor didn’t have any kind of a record, on anything,” notes Joshua Cole. The former Carlyle executive ran a great campaign, as I noted at the time, welcoming Trump’s endorsement but somehow keeping the former president (future prisoner?) out of his state. I called him a “wolf in fleece clothing” for the modest stands on parental rights he used to win the race, when it was clear he’d push extremism once in office.
Youngkin still has no record on abortion, thanks to Virginia’s Democratic Senate, but he’s staking the race on his pledge to sign a 15-week ban. Cole thinks it’s getting through even to Virginians tired of electoral politics.
“Our polling shows abortion is one of our top issues,” he tells me.”On the doors, people say, ‘Thank you for your support’” of abortion rights. He pauses, then adds: “But they always say, ‘I’m also concerned about something else’: Traffic, affordable housing, infrastructure, jobs. And I have plans for all of that, too.”
One star of the 2017 cycle, Delegate Danica Roem, is now running for the Senate. Virginia’s first transgender state representative, she said during her first race she cared as much about traffic as trans issues. Now, she’s touting her successful expansion of formerly always-choked Route 28 through her district.
And that’s another benefit of the class of 2017: Democrats have some stellar candidates. Combined with the class of 2019, Virginia Democrats expanded Medicaid, raised the minimum wage, increased funding for childcare, vastly expanded voting rights (including a 45-day early voting period), loosened draconian abortion restrictions, passed pay raises for teachers, state police, and firefighters, and ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. ERA supporter Jennifer Carroll Foy, who lost a bid for the Democratic governor’s nomination in 2021, is almost certainly heading to a Senate seat next week.
Youngkin’s millions could set many of these political stars back. But Democrats are hoping that even Virginians who voted for Youngkin in 2021 understand, now, that he’s a GOP extremist. We’ll know next week.
Editor’s Note: This article initially suggested that Gov. Glenn Youngkin would run for governor again in 2025. In fact, governors in Virginia cannot serve successive terms. The text has been corrected.