Virginia Democratic delegate-elect Shelly Simonds called into a hastily arranged press conference from a bar. “Surprise, surprise!” she joked, as she celebrated her single-vote recount victory Tuesday night before heading to one last meeting of the Newport News school board, where she has been a member since 2012. (Simonds reportedly didn’t want to break her attendance record, even though she’s going to the Richmond statehouse next month.)
“I just can’t believe it,” the former journalist and educator confessed to several dozen reporters Tuesday night, after the nail-biter of a recount victory in Virginia’s 98th district. “But there aren’t any ballots that are going to the judge. I won, right?”
Simonds indeed won, against all odds, part of a stunning Democratic wave that turned an overwhelming 66-34 GOP majority into a 50-50 tie. Thirteen of the 16 new Democrats are women. Simonds ran for the seat and lost by 2,000 votes in 2015—but the turnout was only 14,000. “It felt like we had a party, and nobody showed up,” she said Tuesday night. Two years later, turnout in Virginia’s 98th district surged by 9,000, or two-thirds, to 23,000 voters. Simonds defeated incumbent Republican delegate David Yancey 11,608 to 11,607.
“It was a wave election. We can feel the movement here in Newport News towards the Democrats. I can imagine getting Medicaid expansion done,” Simonds told reporters. The Democrats’ new parity means Republicans can no longer bottle up popular progressive ideas in committee, whether that’s nonpartisan redistricting, a state Equal Rights Amendment, increasing the minimum wage or paid family leave, Simonds added.
For that, Simonds thanked a new cohort of state, national, and local political-activist groups—better known as the Resistance—for carrying her to victory. She jumped into the race late, after the Democratic nominee dropped out in August, and on Tuesday night said she couldn’t have done it without the outside groups who helped: Emerge America, Win Virginia, Sister District, Tech for America, Forward Majority. So many of the groups I’ve written about, in other Virginia victories this year, got shout-outs from a giddy Simonds after her one-vote win.
“I was overwhelmed by the outside groups,” she told me. “They were open to experimenting with different ways to contact voters. The loss of Hillary Clinton was so deeply felt. It was like I had the support of the entire nation.” The 2017 Virginia House races, she said, became “a laboratory for the whole country.”
Democrats certainly hope so.
Meanwhile, in Virginia’s 28th district, Democrat Joshua Cole will have a second chance at victory in his recall on Thursday. But the African-American pastor and educator is not likely to prevail in a simple recount, since he’s behind by 83 votes—Simonds wad behind by only 10. Cole, though, is asking for a new vote, since at least 147 people were, rather unbelievably, given ballots for the wrong district. The Washington Post, local papers, and the state Board of Elections all agree Cole should get a very rare new vote, but the federal hearing on that question isn’t until January 5. Nevertheless, Cole will persist.
“I am super-excited to hear about Shelley’s win. Our minds are really blown,” he told the Tuesday-night press conference. “This feels like election night all over again. Shelly has given us hope tonight and we will continue to press forward.”
House minority leader David Toscano declared Tuesday “a very exciting night for us,” which he traced back to “the night after Donald Trump was elected,” when an unprecedented number of Virginia women began to think seriously about running for office. Nevertheless, Toscano finds himself facing a leadership challenge, powered at least partly by some of these new delegates, several of whom complained that they had been written off by the House Democratic Caucus early, back when they needed it most. Change is messy. Here’s hoping these 16 new Democrats—and maybe 17—can make good on the promises that got Virginians out of their homes and to the polls last month, in a Trump backlash that could make for a happy 2018.