Can Virginia Democrats Win the State House in 2019?

October 29, 2019

The Nation: Can Virginia Democrats Win the State House in 2019?

By: Joan Walsh

Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy pulled into a nondescript Virginia Beach strip mall in her tricked-out purple and turquoise van at exactly 9 a.m. last Sunday. It was one more stop on her statewide crusade to support her sisters in the Class of 2017: the 11 women elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in the first sustained burst of anti-Trump electoral outrage, which heralded and also helped make possible the congressional victories of Virginia Democrats in 2018. A young multiracial team of volunteers tumbled out of the van, clutching coffee, looking a little sleepy, but ready to canvass for local candidates, including first-term Virginia Beach Delegate Kelly Fowler and her colleague in an adjacent district, Cheryl Turpin, who is trying to move up to the state Senate.

”It feels empowering to do my part to help women win everywhere in Virginia,” Carroll Foy told me modestly.

I’m sure it is, but it’s also a sign of strength: The first-term incumbent isn’t taking her Northern Virginia district for granted, she wants me to know, but the truth is, nobody is worried about her race. She’s become a statewide political star who is regularly mentioned as a likely candidate for governor in 2021. Carroll Foy has her own PAC, Virginia for Everyone, which she established to support “women, people of color, young candidates” — the kind of candidate she was, just two years ago, when establishment Democrats endorsed her opponent.

That Class of 17 included a lot of firsts who likewise lacked establishment support: not just Carroll Foy (who was the first African American woman to attend Virginia Military Institute, and also the first public defender to serve in the House), but the chamber’s first transgender woman, Danica Roem; first Latinas, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala; first Asian-American women, Fowler and Kathy Tran; and its first social worker (Guzman again). Just two years later Carroll Foy, whose 2017 Democratic primary went to a recount, is confidently driving all over the state in a van that promotes her bill to make Virginia ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It features the slogan: “Let’s make history. It’s what we do.”

It’s what these remarkable women did in 2017, and what they want to do again.

And it’s looking pretty good. The local, state and national groups that helped lift them to victory two years ago are all in. In Virginia Beach this past weekend, I ran into staff and volunteers from Emily’s List, Sister District, Moms Demand Action, Everytown, the labor group LIUNA, and the Sierra Club (and plenty of unaffiliated locals). Hundreds of volunteers moved through the campaign office Carroll Foy visited over the weekend, picking up packets to walk carefully chosen precincts. Here in Virginia, the foot soldiers of the anti-Trump resistance haven’t rested since 2016.

These first-term women are also able to boast of policy victories: most significantly, the expansion of Medicaid to more than 300,000 Virginians, and a large teacher-pay hike. They’ve taken the lead on gun safety reform, an increasingly popular issue in the wake of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May. Here in the state the National Rifle Association calls home, the gun lobby is playing defense. “Gun safety reform wasn’t a big deal in my district last time,” Carroll Foy recalls. “But now it is.” In July, Republicans sabotaged a special session to deal with eight gun safety bills, shutting it down in just 90 minutes. “People were just stunned,” says Cheryl Turpin. “It triggered a backlash.”

So 10 days out, things looked good for Virginia Democrats. They have issues on their side, they’re got the grassroots muscle, and so far they have significantly out-raised their GOP rivals. But in the closing days, desperate Republicans began to hammer these women with women’s issues, ironically, falsely claiming the class of 2017 supports “infanticide” and ignores sexual abuse. (That these are issues at all has to do with the misdeeds of male Virginia Democrats; more on that later.)

But it doesn’t matter who made the mess: women are going to have to clean it up. And these Virginia women believe they can do just that on November 5.

Virginia offered Democrats a test case of whether they could undo the damage of 10 years of ignoring state legislative races. That neglect cost Democrats almost 1,000 seats nationally. After winning a total of 15 seats in 2017 (including those 11 women), coming within one seat of taking over, Virginia Democrats came into 2019 optimistic that they could flip both the House of Delegates and state Senate blue. “Virginia could be the perfect example of how Democrats, if they’re disciplined and take the long view, can flip a state legislature that’s been gerrymandered in two cycles,” says Chris Bachman, founder of Virginia Matters and a digital political consultant to several in the class of 2017, as well as some 2019 hopefuls.

Then came two political bombshells. As Virginia Democrats pushed abortion-rights bills in the House, Republicans seized on a bill introduced by first-term delegate Kathy Tran that would, among other provisions, require one doctor, rather than three, to approve a later abortion as medically necessary. Supporters explained it as a matter of common sense. “In Southwest Virginia, you might only have one or two obstetricians in a county,” Turpin said. “Where do you get that third doctor? Ohio? West Virginia? Does he or she Skype in?”

But reason gave way to hysteria when Governor Ralph Northam, a pediatrician, awkwardly attempted to explain to a radio interviewer what would happen in the essentially impossible event a fetus was born alive. “The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.” Northam quickly admitted he misspoke, but Republicans just as quickly charged Democrats with supporting “infanticide.” At a Texas rally two weeks later, Donald Trump claimed Northam said “that he would even allow a newborn baby to come out into the world, and wrap the baby, and make the baby comfortable, and then talk to the mother and talk to the father and then execute the baby. Execute the baby!”

“It was scary to be up there at the time, to be honest,” Turpin recalls. “All that national stuff trickled down to us. Practicality lost to rhetoric.”

But Northam soon found a way, and not a good way, to bump those comments out of the news, when it came out that he’d worn blackface at least once while in college. Many Democrats called for him to resign, expecting Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax to take his seat. Then Fairfax was hit by two credible allegations of sexual misconduct. A once-promising legislative session dissolved into chaos, as Democrats tried to figure out how to handle the misdeeds of its two top executives in a scandal involving race (Fairfax is black, as are his female accusers) and gender. Fairfax denied the charges and refused to resign; Northam admitted to at least one blackface incident but also refused to resign, and the caucus deadlocked. Both men serve today, and the GOP has tried to use that to paint their fellow Democrats as indifferent to racism and sexual harassment.

When I talked to Virginia women and their supporters in mid-February, they were livid. “Now that the new Democratic members have their sea legs, suddenly no one is talking policy, and that’s sad,” said Carolyn Fiddler of Daily Kos Elections, who did political work in Virginia earlier in her career. Many worried the controversies would dog them into their November elections.

But seven months later, they’re not so worried. “These issues are just not coming up when I knock doors,” Carroll Foy told me. Geri Prado, who directs state and local campaign work for Emily’s List, says the early-year scandals didn’t stick because “these women really never stopped working. They stayed true to what they ran on. They pushed their issues in the legislative session. They’re out there doing the work and knocking doors.” Emily’s List has made an unprecedented $2.1 million investment in Virginia, its largest ever in a state legislative race.

“This is our first look at a class of post-Trump incumbent women, who are running for re-election,” Prado says. “We feel good because they’re all strong women who ran for the right reasons who’ve stayed true to their issues.”

One of Emily’s List’s success stories is Kelly Fowler, a Virginia Beach incumbent who came close to ending her first race because of lack of financial support, especially from Democratic Party leaders. But she got some late help and won her seat, against a male incumbent who would later go to jail for defrauding the federal government. This year, she’s got a female challenger — as do Turpin and Carroll Foy, by the way — and she knows she’s considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents. “We’re just running our race,” she says. “I couldn’t do it without Emily’s List.”

The admiration is mutual. “Kelly has really grown as a candidate,” Prado tells me. “She’s always had sharp elbows — she had to. She didn’t get the support she needed last time around.” Fowler had a tough time raising money in 2017; this time, like most of the women incumbents, she’s out-raised her opponent so far. She says state Democrats have gotten “better” about knowing how to support women candidates than two years ago but she still has a few complaints. “They’re still pushing me to do more television and less digital. A lot of the first-term women, we just say ‘Nope, we’re not doing that.’ As incumbents, we can push back. ‘Oh yes we are doing that much digital!’”

Fowler might be facing the dirtiest fight in the Commonwealth. Opponent Shannon Kane has dumped thousands of dollars into scurrilous direct mail pieces that claim Fowler said she was “too busy” to listen to Fairfax’s accusers (a quote taken out of context) and that claim she supports “infanticide” and is just generally “bad for women.” In 2017, Fowler could be easily rattled; two years later she rolls with the political punches. The mother of two daughters, she’s in her second trimester with a third. “Infanticide? Sure. I really welcome that charge, being pregnant out to here,” she says, pointing to her growing midsection. “How am I anti-woman, I have two daughters and a third on the way? Try it.”

But she wasn’t quite ready for the latest Kane mailer, which photoshopped the young mother, who is of Filipino and Mexican descent, alongside three face-tattooed members of the MS-13 gang. “It hadn’t gotten racist yet,” she says, sounding bemused. She’s seen a backlash from the mailers, with even local media coming to her defense. Still, she’s worried about reports that her opponent just got $100,000 from the state party to go up with television attack ads.

Fowler admits campaigning while pregnant can be tough — “my campaign manager and I had to do call time [to donors] from my bedroom in the first trimester, because I was so sick.” But this crop of women is determined to show that motherhood and politics can mix. Carroll Foy gave birth to twins during her first race, while Tran had an infant daughter, and Fowler considers them role models. Meanwhile, Cheryl Turpin’s kids are grown, so she puts in time knocking doors that Fowler can’t quite manage. “Cheryl’s a machine and she’s really been there for me — she does what I can’t do,” Fowler says. Turpin, an indefatigable high school science teacher, just shrugs. “I don’t know how any of them do it with young kids, I really don’t.”

It’s heartening to see the way the diverse class of 2017 supports one another, but the Class of 2019 could be equally diverse. Several African Americans who lost close races last cycle are running again; amazingly, in her third race, Chesterfield small businesswoman Sheila Bynum-Coleman is given a good chance of defeating GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox. Thanks to new and fairer district maps, Bynum-Coleman found herself in a different and more heavily Democratic district; she’s even been able to out-raise the speaker. The mother of a daughter who survived gun violence, Bynum-Coleman has made gun safety a top issue, providing a sharp contrast with Cox, who famously allowed the NRA to use his conference room as its headquarters during the “special session” on gun reform that Cox cut down to 90 minutes.

Delegate Laschrese Aird, another black woman I met on the road campaigning hard for women in other districts, told me Bynum-Coleman can win “because she’s a mom who’s experienced gun violence, and that’s the kind of perspective our legislature needs. Plus, she works so hard! The grassroots energy has been amazing. I truly believe people will carry her over the finish line.”

In Cheryl Turpin’s district, her former student, Alex Askew, is running to succeed her as she looks to move up to the Senate. The African-American former legislative aide wants to prioritize early childhood education and criminal justice reform, and it must be said: the student and teacher make an awesome campaign trail duo. Community college professor Ghazala Hashmi, an Emily’s List priority running for Senate in a Richmond district, would be the first Muslim-American woman to serve. Democrats are proud to note that of their 92 House of Delegates candidates, 48 are women and 33 are people of color. But the most important number there might be 92 Democratic candidates; four years ago, only 56 bothered to run for house seats, leaving 44 Republicans unopposed by Democrats. In 2017, that number climbed to 88, which was part of why the party was able to flip 15 seats; you can’t flip seats where you don’t field challengers. (On the state senate side, 36 Democrats are running out of 40 total seats; 17 women and 7 are people of color.)

There’s a little bit more diversity on the GOP side too this year — Carroll Foy, Fowler, Turpin and others have female challengers, and there are a couple of black challengers as well. But the most remarkable trend among Republicans is leaving their party affiliation off their mailings and signs. Speaker Kirk Cox’s signage neglects to mention the GOP. Senator Glen Sturtevant, Hashmi’s opponent, calls himself an “independent.” Shannon Kane, Fowler’s opponent, is using the color blue in her signs, as are many Republicans. Others are taking credit for Medicaid expansion, even after voting against it. “They’ve lost touch with their electorate and they’re out of issues,” says Geri Prado.

Which is why candidates and volunteers are braced for an onslaught of ugly negative ads in the final week, whether on “infanticide,” the Justin Fairfax scandal or MS-13. Democrats have the issues — Medicaid expansion, education funding, gun safety, healthcare generally — as well as people power. “We’ve seen no attrition (in volunteers) since 2017,” says Lyzz Schwegler of Sister District, which matches people from relatively blue areas with candidates in red parts of the country. She had a team from Chicago working for Askew and Turpin last weekend in Virginia Beach, but there were other Sister District teams canvassing for at least a half dozen other Democrats around the state. “People get really invested in these candidates.”

All Republicans have offered is fear, says Christine Bachman. “On our side, I’ve seen no evidence energy is flagging. The women and grassroots folks who got involved in 2017 have stayed involved, and the field machine is revved up,” she says. But she admits to being concerned about “the shoe that’s dropping straight from the dark money playbook:” a final two weeks of brutally dishonest direct mail and television advertising by desperate Republicans. On Saturday night the GOP released an ad it called “Silenced,” featuring Fairfax’s alleged victims telling disturbing details of non-consensual sex, claiming Democrats wanted to “silence” the women. The first ad targeted a male senator, John Bell, but it’s easy to see the ad repurposed for others. (At press time, they repurposed it, as I expected — against Kelly Fowler.) Just before that, Turpin got hit with an ad accusing her of supporting infanticide. It will keep coming. It will get worse.

Still, my overwhelming feeling after 48 hours in Virginia Beach is optimism. It rocked to see not one but two black female house members on the road, with supporters, campaigning for other women (and a few good men). That Carroll Foy and Aird have become powerhouses in a few short years, here in the former capital of the Confederacy, means so much. Nancy Guy, who’s running for another Virginia Beach delegate seat, put it this way at a Saturday canvass launch: “Virginia has the chance to lead the nation again — to be the first state in the South to flip Democratic in modern times. We can join the 21st Century from the 19th!”

A week from today, we’ll find out if Virginia took that opportunity.