California billionaire Tom Steyer is giving $1 million to immigrant advocates in Virginia to mobilize voters in November's state elections, part of an effort to fuel a Democratic resurgence in the Trump era by focusing on a swing state that has embodied the nation's polarized political climate.
The contribution by Steyer's super PAC, NextGen America, aims to tap into voter resentment over President Trump's immigration policies, in particular the travel ban against immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries and plans to phase out an Obama administration program that protected from deportation 800,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived here illegally as children.
It follows a $2 million effort announced by the group last month to help Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie in the Nov. 7 gubernatorial contest by targeting millennial voters and emphasizing climate change as an issue.
Steyer, a former hedge fund manager who is now an environmentalist and a major donor to the Democratic Party, said he was drawn to Virginia for several reasons.
First, the state's purple political terrain makes it a bellwether in the 2018 midterm elections, elevating its importance for progressives to gain momentum there.
Virginia is also where the violent protests over a Confederate monument in Charlottesville this summer captured the nation's deep ethnic and political divisions. Major Republican donors, such as the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, have poured money into the race for governor and some House of Delegate election contests in hopes of stopping a surge by Democrats.
"Virginia is the battleground state of 2017," Steyer said. "We feel like our most basic values and our most basic feelings for what we want as a country are on display here."
The $1 million will help advocates turn out the vote in immigrant communities through mailers, door-knocking and social media campaigns that will target Fairfax and Prince William counties, focusing on the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the CASA immigrant advocacy group, said the campaign will also support immigrant-friendly candidates in six state House of Delegates races.
Among them: Danica Roem (D), running to unseat Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) in the 13th District, Karrie Delaney (D), challenging Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-Fairfax) in the 67th District, and Kathy Tran (D), who is battling Lolita Mancheno-Smoak (R) for the open seat created by the retirement of Del. Dave Albo (R-Fairfax) in the 42nd District.
"Those are the areas were Latinos and immigrants are growing tremendously," said Torres, whose group will join the Washington-based Center for Community Change Action and the America's Voice immigrant advocacy group in trying to reach 60,000 Virginia voters by November.
Torres said there is deep resentment among immigrants in Virginia over Trump's travel ban — most of which has been blocked in federal court — and the recently announced plans to phase out former president Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has about 12,130 recipients in Virginia.
Although immigration has garnered a lot of attention, organizers have had mixed results in using the issue to sway elections.
Last year, immigrant advocates tried unsuccessfully to bring out enough voters to unseat Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), and, in 2015 they participated in a failed effort to keep Corey A. Stewart (R), chair of Prince William County's Board of Supervisors, from a third term.
That same year, however, anti-Trump sentiment among Latino voters in Prince William County and Manassas were key in helping state Sen. Jeremy S. McPike (D-Prince William) win his close election over Manassas Mayor Harry J. "Hal" Parrish II (R).
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said immigration probably won't have much traction in the southern part of Virginia this November, but could make the difference in close House of Delegates elections in Northern Virginia.
"If you're in a district where the winner is decided by a few hundred votes and a few hundred voters who might otherwise not have bothered to vote because of immigration, that becomes very important," Kidd said.