When she first ran for office four years ago, Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-Clarke) managed to amass an impressive arsenal for her campaign: nearly twice as much in donations as her Republican opponent. An army of fired-up liberals, eager to take control of the Virginia House of Delegates. And, she says, an ability to see eye-to-eye with some of the more conservative constituents in her district, which stretches from Leesburg’s town center to rural parts of Frederick County.

Not so this year.

Closely trailed in donations by her challenger, Nick Clemente, the two-term lawmaker is scrambling to generate enthusiasm and defend herself from attack ads on her voting record. That common ground she had with Republicans? It has totally eroded — under false right-wing messaging, she said.

“It’s all gotten crazier — much, much crazier,” Gooditis said, driving past a mix of townhouses and grassy fields on an overcast Sunday this month. “The elections can’t be a referendum [on Democratic leadership] if people don’t know or don’t acknowledge the facts. You can’t have a referendum on misinformation.”

No matter what, though, the party’s record in Richmond will be put to the test next month. As Terry McAuliffe (D) seeks to regain his former job as governor, down-ballot Democrats such as Gooditis are waging their own battles to preserve a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates — and continue a leftward legislative push on issues including guns, marijuana and health care.

Whether they are successful will depend largely on areas like this one: a rapidly growing stretch of far-flung exurbs and farmland, one of several districts on the outer edge of Northern Virginia that flipped from red to blue in the anti-Donald Trump waves of 2017 and 2019.

“With two years of a Democratic trifecta, the incumbents have a record to defend,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Now that Trump’s not president, it’s creating an opening for Republican candidates without having that potential drag on their campaigns.”

The Nov. 2 Virginia election has become an unexpectedly close contest. The commonwealth holds elections for governor, lieutenant governor and statewide offices. (Luis Velarde, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

Two of the three most competitive Northern Virginia races, including Gooditis’s in the 10th District, are breaking fundraising records. Airwaves and mailboxes are filling up with dueling and sometimes incendiary messages from candidates.

And while some of the debate between candidates might touch on highway congestion or suburban development, Farnsworth said, these three contests — each about an hour’s drive from D.C. — are also still taking on a decidedly national feel, much of it spiraling back to Trump.

Gooditis, for her part, said she would prefer to talk about the need to create workforce housing and preserve farmland — two key issues in a part of the state that is developing rapidly.

But “there are so many political messages that hit harder in this day and age,” she said, “and those are frankly statewide and national issues.”

The same may be true in the 40th District, where Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) is running his first reelection campaign for a GOP-friendly seat once known as “Death Row for Democrats.”

After Helmer beat an 18-year incumbent in 2019, eliminating the last splotch of red from the map of Northern Virginia, he said he’s now trying to point to his own accomplishments in Richmond: Universal background checks for all gun sales, protective equipment for small businesses, food assistance for low-income families.

Still, the business consultant has also tried to paint his challenger — Harold Pyon, a retired federal employee with deep ties in Centreville’s Korean American community — as an avid Trump supporter who follows the former president’s ideology and wants to restrict abortion and loosen gun laws.

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Helmer slammed Pyon over mailers that showed the Democrat looking over stacks of coins with what appeared to be a digitally altered nose, calling the ads antisemitic and right out of Trump’s playbook.

“We should be focused on the issues, and my opponent has instead focused on trying to bring Trumpism to carry Virginia,” Helmer said in an interview. “It’s a factor because he’s made it a factor.”

Pyon, however, said he rejected any current connection with Trump — or for that matter, a strong affiliation with the Republican Party — even though he led GOP efforts to organize Korean American voters in Virginia in 2020.

He said his focus is on restoring merit-based education systems, including at a prominent magnet high school in Fairfax, and on representing the Asian American community in Richmond.

“I am a middle-of-the-road guy,” Pyon said in an interview, saying that he had been stereotyped and victimized by Helmer. “I don’t care about right or left.”

About 40 miles away, Del. Joshua G. Cole (D-Fredericksburg) said he is making little mention of the former president as he campaigns around Stafford County. Instead, the first-term lawmaker said he wants his base to understand how the state’s Democratic majority managed to pass laws that overhaul policing and defend voting rights.

“We have to say: If you don’t get out and vote, all that could be gone as fast as January,” he said. “If necessary, I may have to pull the Trump card, but that’s few and far in between.”

After losing the 2017 election by fewer than 100 votes, Cole — a bisexual Baptist pastor who sports a rainbow wristband on his smartwatch — managed what even a decade ago would have been unthinkable: In 2019, he flipped the seat once held by Bill Howell, the longtime speaker of the House of Delegates.

This month, speaking before a crowd of teachers inside a Fredericksburg pub, Cole minced no words about the drop in liberal energy this year.

“I know this has been one of the longest two years of your life,” he told the group. Cole urged them to contribute their time to Democratic candidates up and down the ticket, saying that — this year especially — both were necessary to ensure continued support for public education in Richmond.

As in Helmer’s race against Pyon, mailers in Cole’s race have also drawn accusations of discrimination. One mailer funded by the Republican Party of Virginia portrayed Cole, who is Black, as a puppet, bound by ropes and suspended in the air.

Cole called it a racist dog-whistle meant to incite hard-line conservatives. And while the mailer was not officially sanctioned by his challenger, elementary school teacher Tara Durant, state GOP leaders “knew exactly what they were doing,” the Democrat said.

Neither Durant nor her campaign manager, Eric Harpootian, responded to repeated requests for comment. Clemente, the Republican candidate challenging Gooditis in the 10th District, also did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

Ron Wright, co-founder of the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition, a Fairfax-based group that looks to promote Republicans in the region, said he was hopeful that all three competitive Northern Virginia seats could flip back to red.

“They swung against the Republican Party during the four years of President Trump, but now they’ll potentially swing back,” he said. Just as suburban Democrats had reacted to a GOP president, Republicans were fired up to vote this year in response to President Biden.

And while all three contests had their nuances, Wright said, Republicans would also be energized thanks to a new crop of younger or more racially diverse candidates — people like Clemente, Durant and Pyon.

“It’s a new generation coming through,” he added. “You’re seeing a party changing. It’s not a bunch of old White guys anymore.”

But Ben Tribbett, a Democratic political strategist, said the political geography had been permanently altered, in part thanks to the lasting legacy of the former president. Where all three districts had been solid GOP territory only a decade ago, he noted, Republicans would be lucky to win just one of these three races.

“A different Republican Party should be winning back these three seats,” he said. “Trump took it not just ideologically but theoretically to a place where Northern Virginia voters couldn’t stomach it in any way.”