The Democratic Wins in Virginia Are What Happens When You Have a Smart Ground Game—and Fair Election

November 6, 2019

The Nation: The Democratic Wins in Virginia Are What Happens When You Have a Smart Ground Game—and Fair Election
By Joan Walsh

Winning 15 House of Delegates seats in 2017 changed everything for Virginia Democrats, and the people they represent: They finally expanded Medicaid (to 320,000 people and counting) and hiked education funding, even while Republicans held a narrow majority. Now, flipping five more seats to take the General Assembly while also winning control of the state Senate, they’re poised to enact an inspiring roster of progressive priorities: expanding voting rights, passing the Equal Rights Amendment, enacting commonsense gun laws and drawing the state’s legislative boundaries—fairly—after the 2020 Census. With a Democratic governor—the flawed moderate Ralph Northam, grateful to progressives and voters of color for letting him survive his blackface scandal—not quite anything is possible. But almost.

Maybe most important, on Tuesday night Virginia became the first Southern state to entirely flip back to Democratic control in the post–civil rights movement era. As victorious Virginia Beach house challenger Nancy Guy said campaigning in late October: “Virginia has the chance to lead the nation again. We can join the 21st Century from the 19th.” On Tuesday night, it did.

The big win was made possible by a local and national web of women-powered resistance activism and a phenomenally diverse and mostly progressive roster of Democratic candidates. But as we observe the civil rights victory the Virginia statehouse flip represents, let’s remember that Democrats were buoyed by a court-ordered redrawn map of legislative districts that finally, in the words of National Democratic Redistricting Committee chair (and former attorney general) Eric Holder, “was not drawn to dilute the voting power of African Americans.” In other words, a fair election.

Fear was on the ballot in Virginia Tuesday night, after a campaign polluted by ugly Republican ads accusing Democrats of supporting illegal immigrants, gun confiscation, and infanticide. But fear lost badly, as Democrats took control of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation. As we saw here in 2017, and all over the country in 2018, Donald Trump’s GOP is increasingly toxic among women voters, and in the suburbs. “He couldn’t even step foot in Virginia!” an ebullient Terry McAuliffe, the former governor, told reporters Tuesday night.

Indeed, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to Virginia Beach, a former GOP stronghold, on Saturday. Almost every Republican there lost. (Trump went to Kentucky, which he won by 30 points in 2016, and the deep red state’s unpopular GOP governor Matt Bevin lost too.) It’s a great day for schadenfreude, too: The National Rifle Association, headquartered in Richmond, warned last week on Twitter: “If Northam’s gun control allies win, Virginians can kiss their gun rights goodbye.” On Wednesday morning, Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts got the last word, tweeting, “We kicked the NRA’s ass in its own backyard!” House GOP appropriations chair Chris Jones blocked Medicaid expansion for years, but this year ran as though he supported it. It didn’t work: Democrat Clint Jenkins beat him easily.

Obviously issues matter most, but it’s hard not to look at candidates’ stories. Of the 11 women in the Democrats’ class of 2017, the nine who ran for reelection won, including the house’s first Latinas, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala; its first Asian Americans, Kathy Tran and Kelly Fowler; its first transgender woman, Danica Roem, and its first public defender (surely an underrepresented minority), Jennifer Carroll-Foy. Two ran for state senate; Debra Rodman lost, while Cheryl Turpin’s race is too close to call.

The class of 2019 has great stories, too. After a recount, Newport News Democrat Shelley Simonds, a former teacher, tied her assembly opponent in 2017 and lost a surreal tiebreaker (incumbent David Yancey’s name was pulled out of a ceramic bowl). Simonds ran again and beat Yancey 57-40 Tuesday night. Democrat Joshua Cole, an educator, pastor, and NAACP leader, likewise waited out a recount in 2017, which he narrowly lost; Cole won easily this time around. In suburban Richmond, Democrat Ghazala Hashmi beat a Republican state senator who tried to rebrand himself as “independent,” becoming the first Muslim woman elected to the General Assembly.

Maybe the best story is Kelly Fowler’s. The first-term incumbent, who is of Filipino and Mexican descent, survived a barrage of ugly ads tying her to the Salvadoran MS-13 gang, accusing her of supporting “infanticide” for backing changes in the state’s later-abortion laws and—in the closing days—blaming her for ignoring claims of sexual misconduct against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. It turns out blaming a sexual abuse survivor for the alleged misbehavior of a man backfired badly on the GOP. Widely considered the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbent (on background, until now), she beat opponent Shannon Kane by nine points. When I talked to her this morning, she told me, “My opponent attempted to photoshop me in with gang members, lied about my record, and politicized sexual assault victims. Our campaign showed that those types of political tricks do not work.”

I can tell you now: Local and national progressive Democratic leaders told me, mid-year, that they were panicked about Virginia. Northam’s blackface scandal, and the allegations against Fairfax, shadowed all of the Democratic incumbents. State Republicans were parading as the champions of black people and women, when they are neither. Local activists worried that the national groups who made a difference in 2017 wouldn’t show up. Just a month ago, local and national leaders were considering Fowler, Ayala, Roem, and Guzman to be “vulnerable” first-term incumbents. “But they talked to their constituents, they got out there, they always knew they’d have tough races—and they’re just so good at it now,” says Geri Prado of Emily’s List, which put an unprecedented $2.1 million behind 39 women in this single state legislative race. Republicans “threw out everything—immigration, abortion, Justin Fairfax—and it didn’t work.”

“All the first-termers winning reelection should serve to shush anyone out there still trying to claim 2017 was some kind of fluke or outlier,” says Carolyn Fiddler, longtime Virginia activist now communications director at Daily Kos. “Winning reelection without a statewide election on the ballot means those districts are just, well, blue now.”

Virginia also shows other state Democrats what it takes to flip a legislative chamber in just two cycles, even after a decade of Democratic neglect cost the party almost 1,000 state seats, says Christine Bachman, founder of Virginia Matters and a digital consultant to at least 10 candidates who won.

“Before the blue wave was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, we in Virginia were doing the work,” she says. Like several other women I interviewed, Bachman got a little bit emotional about the big night. After Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, she realized “life could never be the same. This became our mission.”

It’s become the mission of many women—and men—in Virginia. Here’s hoping the state’s blue wave carries into 2020, as it did from 2017 to 2018.