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Billionaire Tom Steyer, Emily’s List pump cash into Virginia to help Democrats

Billionaire Tom Steyer, the founder of NextGen America, speaks during the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco earlier this month.
Billionaire Tom Steyer, the founder of NextGen America, speaks during the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco earlier this month. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
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Billionaire Tom Steyer is pouring $1 million into efforts to register at least 12,000 millennial voters in Virginia, part of a broader push to deliver the General Assembly to Democrats in fall elections.

NextGen America, the liberal advocacy group Steyer founded in 2013, will target 11 mostly Republican-held districts with digital ads and other forms of outreach to voters between ages 18 and 35, with messages centered on gun control, reproductive rights and climate change, the group announced Monday.

And two national Democratic political action committees will pump a combined $600,000 into Virginia this year to try to boost female candidates.

Priorities USA and Emily’s List announced Monday that they will back some of the 36 female candidates around the state who support abortion rights, in part with a $600,000 digital campaign “focused on voter persuasion and mobilization.”

Virginia is one of four states with legislative races in 2019 but the only one where control of the state legislature is at stake. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot in November, and the GOP holds a three-seat edge in the House (51 to 48) and a bare majority in the Senate (20 to 19), with one vacant seat in each chamber.

“This is a specific focus on the two chambers of the legislature, and each one of them can turn blue this year,” Steyer said, referring to the small majorities Republicans hold after Democrats made sweeping gains in 2017. “Obviously, that’s something that would be in­cred­ibly important.”

Democrats have been hoping that a wave of successes in recent Virginia elections will move them into control of the legislature for the first time since 1995. The party in charge in 2021 will oversee the next statewide re­districting effort, following next year’s census — potentially cementing an advantage in future elections.

Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, said her group is trying to build on momentum from the last legislative election.

“Women made history in 2017 when they were elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in record numbers, helping break the Republican supermajority,” Schriock said.

“This year, with both chambers up for election, redistricting around the corner and ongoing Republican attacks on women and families, the stakes could not be higher, which is why Emily’s List is doubling down on its effort to turn the Virginia Assembly blue by making our largest-ever investment in a state legislative effort,” she said.

Steyer, a former hedge fund owner turned environmentalist who has led calls for President Trump’s impeachment, said NextGen America also will participate in a “Give Green” campaign that will solicit donations nationwide for select Democratic candidates in Virginia.

During the past few months, Giffords, the organization fighting gun violence launched by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), endorsed Democrats in two key Northern Virginia districts, and the Future Now Fund organization launched a $400,000 competition meant to spur nine of its chosen Democratic candidates to interact more with voters at their doorsteps.

On the Republican side, the Colonial Leadership Trust political action committee formed in 2017 by House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) has been the most active, steering $385,000 to more than a dozen candidates over the past 17 months, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.

“There’s going to be tons of money out there,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

Large donors “are all thinking this is the year where they can pick up the House and the Senate, and they’re really going to make an effort at it,” he said.

John March, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, said the flood of money from national Democratic groups was a sign that Democrats’ in-state fundraising operations have been hobbled by scandals involving the state’s three leading Democrats: Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring.

In February, Northam and Herring admitted to wearing blackface as young men. Two women came forward at that time to accuse Fairfax of sexually assaulting them in the early 2000s — allegations he has firmly denied. All three remain in office.

“We’re not surprised that these two radical liberal groups are donating so much out-of-state money,” March said. “Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring are all pariahs to the Democratic Party and have absolutely no fundraising power. The 2019 message of the Virginia Democrats seems to be, ‘Embrace racism; embrace the most radical factions of their party.’ ”

Steyer has been involved in Virginia since his group rallied in 2013 to help defeat Ken Cuccinelli’s Republican bid for governor over his conservative views on climate science and reproductive rights. At the time, Cuccinelli was the state’s attorney general.

Over the past six years, NextGen America has spent $13 million on Democratic campaigns in Virginia, a spokeswoman said.

The new campaign aims to engage younger voters in six House of Delegates districts and five Senate districts, mainly in neighborhoods near college campuses in those areas.

Among the Republicans being targeted are Cox, who is seeking a 15th term against Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman and independent Linnard K. Harris Sr.; Del. David E. Yancey (R-Newport News), who will again compete against Democrat Shelly Simonds after their tied race last year was decided by a random drawing from a bowl; and former Stafford County Supervisor Paul Milde, who ousted Del. Robert M. Thomas Jr. (R-Stafford) in this month’s Republican primary election and will face Democrat Joshua Cole in November.

NextGen America will also work to defend several Democratic seats, including those held by Dels. Dawn M. Adams (Richmond), who will face Republican Garrison Coward in the fall, and Chris L. Hurst (Montgomery) in his race against Republican Forrest Hite, the group said.

Steyer, who contributed nearly $214 million toward last year’s congressional elections, said he has no plans to get involved in any other state elections, largely because he does not want his group to be seen as parachuting in to help Democrats in places where it previously had no real presence.

NextGen America has 19 full-time staffers and 1,500 volunteers in Virginia, he said.

“We understand that state legislatures are important,” Steyer said. “We also understand that for us to win, and for Democrats to expand, we really can’t come and go when it suits us. We have to actually be part of the community.”

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