VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Alex Askew knows firsthand how tight elections can get for Democrats in Virginia. He barely won his seat in the state House of Delegates, defeating his Republican opponent by just 802 votes in 2019.
That’s why Askew is campaigning furiously ahead of the November election. On the first Sunday of “Souls to the Polls” early voting over the weekend, Askew, 36, attended two church services before an afternoon of campaign events and canvassing. He was joined by a colleague, state Del. Nancy Guy, who clinched her seat by an even closer margin of just 40 votes.
“One of the things we’re going to share with you is how important all elections are, not just the presidential elections, but all elections,” said Veronica Coleman, the pastor at New Jerusalem Ministries, Askew’s home church where he began his day. “Amen?”
“Amen,” the crowd repeated.
When Virginia voters cast their ballots in two weeks, they’re not just weighing in on a closely watched governor’s election — one that’s been hyped as a bellwether ahead of the 2022 midterms and a judgement on President Joe Biden. They’re also deciding whether to keep legislative Democrats in office, a choice that will determine how much statewide power the party will yield and reveal voters’ satisfaction with the crush of progressive laws enacted in the last two years.
Virginia might be increasingly blue at the presidential level, but Democrats only came to control both chambers of the state legislature in 2019, after nearly two decades of mostly Republican control. Next month, they could lose control of both the governor’s mansion and the House, all in one day.
Republicans have cast the election as a referendum on the left’s agenda, not just in Richmond but also in Washington. Whoever wins will be the party that best motivates their base and turns out people to vote in an off year.
State House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said she is “making sure everyone knows all we’ve accomplished, why it matters who governs, why it’s important to make sure that we maintain if not grow our majority.”
“We’ve got a story to tell,” she said in an interview. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Virginia elections will have national implications at every level of the ballot.”
Blue wave policies
Democrats spent the last two years passing a long list of sweeping policies. They implemented criminal justice reforms, legalized marijuana, expanded voting rights, raised the minimum wage, enacted gun control measures, repealed the death penalty and set a goal of getting Virginia electric utilities to 100 percent renewable generation by 2050.
Down-ballot Democrats contend that those policies are popular with voters and believe it’s what will get them reelected in November. State House Democrats have raked in more than $36.9 million this election cycle, dwarfing Republicans’ total of $17.6 million.
But Republicans are jumping on all that activity by framing Democrats as radical liberals who reflect the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress. The Republican State Leadership Committee in August launched a six-figure television ad campaign targeting six Democratic incumbents. Those ads attacked Democrats on issues like increased costs of living due to rising inflation, rising violent crime rates and “politicization of public education.”
“The Democrats, when they took control of the General Assembly, they kind of went nuts,” said Garren Shipley, communications director for House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert. “They made the mistake of thinking Twitter was their actual district. They locked into this massive spree of all sorts of left-wing things.”
Republicans portray Democrats as the “defund-the-police” party, an issue they say stirs up their base. Campaigns have zeroed in on the criminal justice reform package that put in place changes to policing practices such as banning no-knock warrants, requiring minimum training standards for police and strengthening the decertification process for law enforcement.
Yet no enacted policies from Democrats in the legislature involved defunding police departments, and the Covid-19 federal spending relief plan approved by the legislature included bonuses for sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers and police officers.
Republicans say they’re confident that they’ll be able to pick up at least one seat and hopeful they’ll gain a handful by the end of election night. And they insist that, while taking the chamber is unlikely, it’s still within reach.
Virginia’s election cycles have fallen into a predictable pattern that has encouraged Republicans this fall. In the year after a presidential election, the party that doesn’t hold the White House performs well at the ballot box.
But there’s a notable exception that’s relevant to the current governor’s race: While former President Barack Obama was in office, Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost in 2013 to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking the governorship again.
Gaming the electoral map
Democrats are defending just a five-seat advantage in the state House. The most competitive races are in Hampton Roads, which includes Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Newport News, a suburban-dense region with a strong military presence. A few Northern Virginia districts are expected to be tight as well.
“We know it won’t be easy,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “This is an uncertain political environment. We are trying to leverage that same energy we had in 2019.”
Yet the close nature of these races means there’s also a chance Democrats could see gains. The party is focused on flipping about four GOP-held seats, like one district in the suburbs of Richmond that went to a Republican by less than 1 percentage point.
Guy, whose district abuts Askew’s, said at a Sunday gathering of campaign staff and volunteers that she’s “cautiously optimistic” about Democrats’ chances. Earlier that day, Askew attended a second church service with Guy, along with the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Hala Ayala, showing how Democrats are banding together in the mad dash to election day.
“Let’s win this thing, because it’s right there,” Askew told the group of roughly two dozen who gathered in the parking lot of a state Democratic Party office before splitting up to canvas nearby neighborhoods. “It’s within our grasp.”
Askew’s Republican challenger, Karen Greenhalgh, founded a custom cabinet manufacturing company and manages crisis pregnancy centers. She’s raised $430,000 during her campaign.
Four hours north of Virginia Beach, up in Loudoun County, Democratic state Del. Wendy Gooditis has the challenge of appeasing two different regions within her district: One side is rural and more conservative and the other is suburban and more progressive. She’s facing Nick Clemente, the Republican candidate who has brought in the most fundraising dollars at $936,000. He’s running on a platform focused on increasing funding for mental health services, keeping schools open in the pandemic and maintaining funding for law enforcement. Clemente stands with mainstream Republicans on social issues like opposing vaccine mandates and using taxpayer funds for abortion.
Despite those opposing geographic and political factions, Gooditis voted with the Democratic Party 99 percent of the time, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. She’s hoping to convince all voters within her district that Democrats have their best interests in mind, not just on local issues but ones capturing national attention, like the Covid-19 pandemic and protection of women’s reproductive rights.
In an interview, she referenced the “Don’t Texas my Virginia” slogan that’s spread in the wake of Texas passing the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. “That hits home with a lot of people,” she said. “My opponent is on the opposite side of that.”
Up and down the ballot, Democrats are framing this election as a choice between a progressive future and a regressive past if Republicans take over.
“There’s a question about who do you want to lead the state?’” Post said. “Republicans are not presenting a moderate vision for Virginia.”
Virginia is heavily influenced by the national political environment. Democrats are proudly linking themselves to the Biden administration, a strategy that could pose a risk as Congress struggles to pass central pieces of Biden’s agenda and the president’s approval rating has dropped by double digits since he carried Virginia by 10 points in the presidential election.
For those reasons, Tucker Martin, a GOP consultant who worked for former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, believes it will be hard for Democrats to overcome that environment by championing specific pieces of policies.
“This race is being driven by Joe Biden’s approval rating and Trump being out of the White House,” he said. “Those two meta-factors are the big movers.”
Democrats say they’re not worried about how Biden’s slipping popularity may hurt them and maintain this election is just as much about what they accomplished in Richmond as what’s happening in D.C.
“I’ve been happy to celebrate when the administration has done well. I’ve been willing to talk about when things haven’t gone so well,” said state Del. Dan Helmer, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran whose district represents parts of northwestern Prince William and Fairfax counties. He won in 2019 by less than 1,500 votes.
“My focus at the end of the day is on Virginia. Again, I think the work we’ve done in Virginia speaks for itself.”