Democrats on defense as their new House majority faces its first electoral test

By: - October 4, 2021 12:03 am

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Democrats are playing defense in nearly a dozen competitive House of Delegates districts this year as they defend their new majority against GOP challengers hoping to win back ground lost during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Commentators, observers and strategists across the political spectrum say they would not be shocked if Democrats lost between two and three seats to Republicans, an outcome that would still leave the party with a narrow majority in a chamber where they currently hold a five-seat advantage.

And some members of both parties say it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Democrats lose the majority entirely, ending the party’s unified control of state government after only two years — even if Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe is victorious in his own tight race against Republican Glenn Youngkin.

“I think there are serious challenges to holding onto this trifecta,” said Gaby Goldstein, co-founder of Sister District Action Network, a Democratic-allied group that has been fundraising and phone banking for candidates in 12 competitive House districts. “I think Democrats need to be awake and aware of that possibility — any possibility that we might lose.”

She cited state-wide polls showing low enthusiasm among Democratic voters, who during Trump’s presidency turned out in droves for Virginia’s typically sleepy off-year elections.

With Trump out of office and President Joe Biden facing his own popularity problems, Democrats worry it will be tougher to get their supporters to the polls. “We know right now that Republicans have their base fired up, and we need the same,” said Heather Williams, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Meanwhile, Republicans working on House campaigns are voicing cautious optimism for many of the same reasons. “We feel like we have a very good chance to pick up some seats,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “We think the structural factors are favorable for our campaigns.”

Republicans are focusing their efforts on 10 seats, most of which are in suburban Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. Among the most competitive, according to campaign operatives in both parties, are two races in Virginia Beach that Democrats narrowly won in 2019.

In one of the races, freshman Democrat Nancy Guy faces GOP lawyer Tim Anderson in a district she won two years ago by just over a tenth of a percentage point — Democrats’ narrowest margin of victory that year.

Guy, a retired lawyer who served a stint on the Virginia Beach School Board in the 1990s, like most Democrats, she has run ads emphasizing her party’s efforts to lower health care costs, increase funding for public schools and pass new gun restrictions.

And Anderson, like many of his fellow GOP challengers, is emphasizing support his campaign has received from police groups and reminding voters that Guy is endorsed by organizations that endorsed the defund the police-slogan last summer amid widespread protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Republicans offered a similar message in the Virginia Beach district represented by Del. Alex Askew, who worked as a staffer in the General Assembly before winning election in 2019 by three points. He is challenged by Republican Karen Greenhalgh, who founded a custom cabinet manufacturing company and manages crisis pregnancy centers. Her campaign has zeroed in on Askew’s membership in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which in 2020 released a policy platform that called for “DIVESTING from Large Law Enforcement Budgets & INVESTING More in Communities.”

Ultimately, Democrats eschewed calls to defund, divest or otherwise reduce law enforcement budgets, instead offering successive rounds of bonuses and funding increases to police and sheriffs departments during their two years in office. But Republicans still see the issue as vulnerability given the bi-partisan unpopularity of the defund concept. “What we saw from them initially was a push that would have reallocated resources and that concerned a lot of people,” said the GOP’s Shipley.

In Southside, longtime Del. Roslyn Tyler faces a well-funded challenge from pharmacist Otto Wachsmann. It’s a predominantly rural district that, unlike in other parts of the state, has seen Democrats hurt by shifting demographics. Both candidates are running on support for gun rights, with Tyler reminding voters in ads that she broke with her party to oppose gun control legislation.

Competitive districts

Districts Republicans are targeting in this year’s House of Delegates races and the margin by which Democrats won them in 2019.

83rd: Nancy Guy (D) vs. Tim Anderson (R) — D+.1

75th: Roslyn Tyler (D) vs. Otto Wachsmann (R) — D+2

85th: Alex Askew (D) vs. Karen Greenhalgh (R) — D+3

28th: Joshua Cole (D) vs. Tara Durant (R) — D+4

73rd: Rodney Willett (D) vs. Mary Margaret Kastelberg (R) — D+4.5

10th: Wendy Gooditis (D) vs. Nick Clemente (R) — D+4.6

40th: Dan Helmer (D) vs. Harold Pyon (R) — D+4.8

12th: Chris Hurst (D) vs. Jason Ballard (R) — D+7

21st: Kelly Fowler (D) vs. Tanya Gould (R) — D+9

63rd: Lashrecse Aird (D) vs. Kim Taylor (R) — D+11

Democrats are focusing their efforts on flipping four GOP-held seats.

27th: Roxann Robinson (R) vs. Debra Gardener (D) — R+.6

84th: Glenn Davis (R) vs. Kim Melnyk (D) — R+2.4

100th: Rob Bloxom (R) vs. Finale Norton (D) — R+3.8

66th: Mike Cherry (R) vs. Katie Sponsler (D) — R+4.6

Republicans also see opportunity on the outskirts of Northern Virginia, where Nick Clemente, a 32-year-old who works as membership director of the Virginia chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors has tapped professional and political connections to raise $713,000 — more than double any other GOP challenger this cycle, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Clemente is challenging Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, who won election in 2017 in a district that stretches from outside Winchester into Loudoun County.

In Northern Virginia, the GOP is also targeting Democrats Dan Helmer, who represents parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, and Joshua Cole, who represents Stafford County and Fredericksburg. And in the Richmond area, a Henrico County seat represented by Democrat Rodney Willett has seen more spending on television ads than any other House race in the state, with VPAP reporting more than $878,000 in ad buys.

Outside of the state’s populous suburbs, the Montgomery County-anchored seat represented by former television news anchor Chris Hurst is getting the most attention, drawing nearly $1 million in campaign contributions between the two candidates and more than a half million in spending on television ads, according to VPAP. Hurst won the district in 2019 by a seven-point margin.

Republicans are also holding out hope they might be able to take seats that have looked increasingly safe for Democrats in recent years, including the Petersburg-anchored district represented by Del. Lashrecse Aird and the Virginia Beach seat held by Kelly Convirs-Fowler.

Democrats see their own opportunities to pick up seats, leading some in the party to hold out hope that on a good night, they could come through with an even bigger majority. The party sees the biggest opportunity in the Colonial Heights seat vacated by former GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox, who is not seeking reelection. Cox, well known in his district, won comfortably despite the fact that its borders were redrawn by court order before the election, transforming it into a seat that leaned Democratic.

With Cox off the ballot, Democrats think they have a chance to nab it this time around.

The party is also devoting cash to an effort to knock out GOP incumbent Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield, who won in 2019 by less than point.

While some Democrats are publicly fretting, others are more optimistic, noting that it’s become a tradition of sorts in Virginia to underestimate the party’s chances. Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who serves as the caucus secretary, recalled the day of the 2017 election when MSNBC’s morning hosts infamously presumed a blow-out loss for Gov. Ralph Northam, who went on to win by nine points. He said the polling this year, which, outside of a few outliers, has consistently put McAuliffe about three points ahead of Youngkin, is reminiscent of the 2017 cycle.

“You look at the polling for McAuliffe and, yes, he’s in the margin of error, which is surprising for a lot of folks, but on almost every poll I see, he’s in the high side of the margin,” Simon said. “I’m not terribly nervous.”

While Democrats face a less favorable electoral environment than during the Trump years, the party has other things going for it, Simon said. For one, this time around the party is running incumbents with whom voters are already familiar. And he said Democrats now have a track record of action on broadly popular policy issues, like raising the minimum wage.

Republicans, meanwhile, are focusing on less popular votes Democrats took that, for instance, raised the state’s gas tax. They say the party’s record overreaches their electoral mandate.

Political observers say all the pre-election prognosticating is fairly predictable — a reflection of the GOP’s need to communicate to its voters that all hope is not lost despite a string of successive statewide losses that stretches back to 2009 and Democrats’ need to remind their supporters to turn out in an off-year election.

But what is not up for debate is that, with Trump out of the White House, Republicans are looking at better odds than they have over any of the past four years in Virginia, said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.

“Whether that will be enough to win a majority in the House of Delegates, well we’ll have to see,” he said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association. Contact him at [email protected]

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