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‘Absolutely fundamental’: How women have emerged as a force in Virginia politics

From left, Democrats Jennifer Wexton, Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria. The three women flipped GOP congressional seats in Virginia in 2018.
From left, Democrats Jennifer Wexton, Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria. The three women flipped GOP congressional seats in Virginia in 2018. (Cal Cary, Ryan M. Kelly and Vicki Cronis-Nohe, for The Washington Post)

Democrats Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton flipped GOP congressional seats in Virginia last year with help from suburban female voters to give their party a majority of the state’s congressional delegation.

Now, the trio is trying to tap into the growing political power of suburban women to help Democrats win a majority in the state legislature.

“Women have been the key voting demographic — especially college-educated women,” said Rachel Bitecofer, an analyst at the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said of recent Virginia elections.

“When we think about what has been happening in national politics, one of the key ingredients of the blue wave was women,” she said. “They’re absolutely fundamental.”

New gun laws have emerged as a central issue in Virginia's legislative races, with all 140 seats in the General Assembly on the Nov. 5 ballot. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot on Tuesday, with Republicans protecting slight majorities of 51 to 48 in the House and 20 to 19 in the Senate; each chamber has one vacancy.

If Democrats win control of the legislature, they will join Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to consolidate power over state government for the first time in 26 years.

They promise to pass a raft of measures that a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found to be popular with female voters: stricter gun laws, the Equal Rights Amendment and a higher minimum wage.

Luria, Spanberger and Wexton were the main attraction at a fundraiser earlier this week organized by House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) to boost candidates in the final days of an “off-off year election,” when turnout is typically lower than elections featuring statewide or presidential contests.

They arrived at the McLean home of Leslie Kerman and Jeff Bialos after late votes on Capitol Hill and settled in for their first joint interview since taking office in January.

Spanberger wore a purple-and-white scarf that traced the history of women’s rights from the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, to the election of a historic number of women to Congress.

The congresswomen have each attended dozens of campaign kickoffs, meet-and-greets and fundraisers for legislative candidates in their districts in recent months.

Wexton, a former state senator from Loudoun County, gave $70,000 from her campaign coffers to state and local candidates, and Luria of Norfolk donated $137,000 from a newly created leadership committee.

Their message is that Democrats can win, even in Republican districts.

“Look, we did it,” said Spanberger, who unseated Rep. Dave Brat (R) in a suburban district outside Richmond that President Trump carried in 2016. “We’re tangible evidence when you want to make a change in your elected representation, no matter what the historic voting record is for your district, enough motivated people can make it happen.”

In 2017, the first Virginia election after Trump’s election, a record 28 women were elected to the House of Delegates. Of 15 seats that Democrats flipped in the House that year, 11 were won by women who replaced men. Those women are all seeking reelection Tuesday.

Asked what the president has to do with the historic gains Democrats have made, Spanberger said, “Nothing,” but she added that the 2016 presidential race motivated people to pay attention.

Wexton said women — and men — realized they could not count on politics to go their way without their participation.

“This is our country and our lives, and we need take some ownership of it and step up and do everything to make our country and our district the place we want to live in and raise our children in,” she said.

Spanberger, a former CIA agent, was working for an education nonprofit and had no plans to run for office in 2018. But she felt a sense of urgency to be part of the democratic process, she said, as Wexton interrupted and said, “For all good women to come to the aid of their country?”

“Ha!” Spanberger laughed.

Luria also carried a district that voted for Trump, and Wexton unseated Republican Barbara Comstock, a fixture in national GOP politics since the ’90s.

The congresswomen have been campaigning for state candidates more than they might have if scandal had not weakened Northam, whose medical school yearbook page featured a racist photo, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who was recently accused of sexual assault by two women who say the crimes took place in the early 2000s. (Fairfax says the encounters were consensual.)

Republicans are also targeting female voters. The GOP has been reminding voters that Democrats — including Wexton, Spanberger and Luria — called for Fairfax to resign but opposed calls from Republicans for the General Assembly to hold public hearings into the sexual assault allegations.

In an ad aimed at voters in Loudoun and Prince William counties, Republican Senate candidate Geary M. Higgins said his Democratic opponent, John J. Bell, “silenced these brave women and blocked a bipartisan, independent investigation” into the allegations.

The state GOP repeated the message in a mailer that featured a white woman with a piece of tape over her mouth. Fairfax’s accusers are African American.

Filler-Corn, the first woman to lead the Democratic caucus, has felt the emergence of women as a force in the General Assembly in Richmond, a Southern capital often seen as an old boys’ club.

When she was elected in 2010, she was the only mother in the House of Delegates with school-aged children. Today there is a nursing room, a parents caucus and at least one pregnant member, she said.

At the fundraiser, one of the hosts, Bialos, stood under a tent between his wife, Kerman, and the three congresswoman, and said, “I have to say, I’m a little intimidated to be up here with these high-powered women.”

“You’re right at home!” someone shouted over the laughter.

Then he added, “And this is probably the future of elected politics.”

Antonio Olivo and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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