RICHMOND — You sure couldn’t tell Virginia Democrats had lost the last three elections.
At their biggest party of the year, a lively crowd of lawmakers and activists from across the state brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for their party and shared a few drinks with longtime friends.
But they also couldn’t help but decry the new Republican rule in Richmond.
Even U.S. Sen. Mark Warner — the party’s defacto leader who earned his reputation by staking out a bipartisan tone — took more than his share of swipes at the GOP, which as of last month controls the governor’s mansion and General Assembly.
Warner, the popular former governor, derailed the “mean-spirited proposals” coming out of the state Capitol that he said would chip away at abortion rights, gay rights and voting rights.
“Elections matter. Just look at Washington: Congress is broken. The House is being run by a ‘just-say-no’ crowd that can’t seem to say ‘yes’ to anything,’’ Warner said in prepared remarks. “And, unfortunately, we’re beginning to see the worst of this style of politics here in Richmond at the state legislature.’’
Democrats hope the black-tie Jefferson-Jackson dinner will be a springboard for a comeback for the beleaguered party, which lost statewide races in 2009, congressional seats in 2010 and the state Senate in 2011.
They’re looking for big victories this year as former governor Timothy M. Kaine competes for an open Senate seat and President Obama hopes to win Virginia’s crucial electoral votes for the second time.
Kaine, the likely Democratic nominee, is expected to face former Republican governor and senator George Allen who is looking to make a comeback.
“As we’re trying to tackle the big problems...what you’re seeing out of the General Assembly...you’re seeing a whole series of things coming from them that bear no relation to the issues Virginians are taking about,’’ he said.
About 1,300 activists from across the state braved the snowy weather to fill every seat at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. In past years, Republicans have criticized Democrats for the dinner that falls in the middle of the legislative session when state law forbids lawmakers from fundraising.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former head of the Democratic Governors Association who gave a memorable and lively speech at the party’s 2008 national convention, served as the keynote speaker. The Republican Party of Virginia used Schweitzer to poke fun of Kaine, saying the moderate Montana governor is far more mainstream than Kaine.
“These Virginia Democrats are going to decide who’s going to be the next president,’’ said Schweitzer, dressed casually in jeans and a bolo tie.
In past years, Virginia Democrats have seen the likes of Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton at ethe JJ.
The state’s three Democratic congressmen, Reps. Gerald E. Connolly, James P. Moran Jr. and Robert C. Scott, attended. But retiring U.S. Sen. James Webb canceled due to a family obligation, even though there had been talk about honoring him at his last JJ dinner.
Some activists were already looking toward in2013 as several Democrats looking to run statewide — for governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general — made themselves known.
Terry McAuliffe, a businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman who is looking at a second run, bought six tables. (That doesn’t quite compare to 2009 when he bought 39 tables, hired a marching band and rented a nightclub for an after-party.) Hundreds of supporters wore blue “Run, Terry, Run” stickers, which McAuliffe said he was not responsible for — really.
Aneesh Chopra, who just stepped down as the first White House chief technology officer who is eyeing the lieutenant governor’s job, gave at talk earlier in the day on — what else? — technology and politics. Sen. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (Fairfax), who some would like to run for governor.
Also in the house: Former House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong, who lost his re-election in November after Republicans eliminated his largely rural Southside district, who is interested in being the state’s top lawyer ; Democratic political adviser Rich Savage, and Arlington lawyer Mike Signer, who both ran for lieutenant governor in 2009, and may to do it again.
“It was a rough election for Democrats, but it’s time to rebuild,’’ McAuliffe said.