The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a Democrat newly famous for losing turn defeat into political gold?

Democratic candidate for the 94th House of Delegates seat, Shelly Simonds, center, speaks to the media as her husband, Paul Danehy, left, and their daughter, Georgia, second from left, look on after state officials held a lottery drawing. (Steve Helber/AP)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The instant Shelly Simonds walked into an Italian restaurant near her home the other day, a booth full of diners rose from their seats to hug and console her.

"This is one hot mess," another diner volunteered when Simonds wandered by.

For an excruciating moment last week, Simonds was America's most-talked-about political loser, a distinction she earned after her defeat in an electoral game of chance that was broadcast live across the country on CNN.

Simonds, a Democrat who may still challenge the outcome, had thought she lost the race for the Virginia House of Delegates by 10 votes on election night, only to learn after a recount that she had won by a single vote.

Republican David Yancey won a drawing on Jan. 4 in a contested race in the Virginia House of Delegates. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

The astonishing turn momentarily threatened the GOP's 18-year majority in the House of Delegates and transformed Simonds into an improbable, if fleeting, star of cable news shows.

But Democrats' euphoria was soon quashed when a judicial panel ruled the race a tie — 11,608 votes each — and left its outcome to the whims of a lottery. A state election official on Thursday picked the name of the winner — Republican David E. Yancey — from what may now be the country's most photographed ceramic bowl.

"I'm probably stuck in the anger phase," Simonds said over lunch the next day, reflecting on a two-month saga in which she found herself evolving from a political unknown to the inspiration for the Twitter hashtag #StandwithShelly.

With Virginia's General Assembly convening Wednesday, Simonds, 50, is contemplating whether to exercise her last remaining option: a second recount. She has until Jan. 16.

Hers is not the only House race shrouded in uncertainty. Democrats are appealing a federal judge's denial of their request for a special election in District 28, in which 147 voters received ballots with the wrong candidates listed. Republican Bob Thomas won the race against Democrat Joshua Cole by 73 votes.

Whatever her choice, Simonds said she's preparing to begin fundraising to challenge Yancey in 2019.

"This seat is mine; I am running again," Simonds said. She said her resolve has been fortified by her post-election journey, one that included a three- judge panel allowing a contested ballot to be counted for Yancey, upending what she had thought was her one-vote victory.

A single vote leads to a rare tie for control of the Virginia House

"It was 'Every vote counts,' a beautiful story, and then it morphs into a darker story — you can play tricks and a judge can decide an election," she said between forkfuls of pasta. "I am part of the Democratic blue wave. We're fed up with the old boys network, and the judges represent that. They can't do business as usual in Richmond from here on out."

Democrats had flipped 15 House seats in November, decimating the iron grip that Republicans had held over the chamber and bringing the political parties to near parity. Republicans now hold 51 seats to Democrats' 49.

But the uncertainty surrounding the 28th District, as well as the 94th District, where Yancey and Simonds ran, could shift that balance.

If the federal appeals court orders a new election in the 28th District, for example, and Thomas is not seated in the General Assembly on Wednesday, the GOP advantage shrinks to 50 to 49.

If Simonds were also to seek a recount, blocking Yancey from being seated as the session begins, the body would be tied 49 to 49. Republicans would be forced to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with Democrats on the first day, when lawmakers elect a speaker, decide committee chairs and set rules.

In a statement following the lottery won by Yancey, Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who would be House speaker if the GOP maintains a majority, described the post-election tribulations as "unprecedented to say the least, but the process laid out in state law worked. Now, it's time to get to work."

The annals of American politics are littered with politicians defined by soul-crushing defeats. Republican New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, for one, lost the 1948 presidential race despite many projections and at least one headline to the contrary ("Dewey Defeats Truman"). Al Gore's razor-thin loss to George W. Bush in 2000 still conjures teeth-gnashing angst among Democrats.

Neither Dewey nor Gore ran for the White House again.

Whether Simonds's electoral misfortune can eventually help her capture a General Assembly seat is an open question. At the very least, her roller coaster of a ride — one that included enough stomach-churning turns to require a robust dose of Dramamine — has made her better known than if she had won or lost by, say, 1,000 votes.

"There is no better way to lose than the way she lost," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center of Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "This is her moment. A lot of her supporters are angry. She has a lot of momentum behind her."

Yet, Simonds's path is not without risks, Kidd said. If she seeks a second recount, she may signal to voters that she's "a loser who didn't want to accept it," he said.

Robert Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor, said Simonds's challenge is to galvanize voters by latching on to an issue that has nothing to do with her electoral misadventure.

"People don't vote because of sympathy they have for you," Holsworth said. "They want to know what you're going to do for them."

By any measure, the drama that Simonds has endured since November is not what she is accustomed to as a yoga-practicing mother of two daughters. An Ohio native, she moved to Newport News in 2000 when her husband, Paul, an engineer, got a job at NASA.

Simonds entered politics only six years ago, when a friend persuaded her to run for a school board seat that she won by what in retrospect seems like an ample 174 votes.

"Women need to be asked to run," Simonds said, explaining the roots of her first campaign. "Women are taught as girls to be part of the team, be part of the family, not necessarily to demand the attention of everyone."

Simonds relished her new role enough that she campaigned for Yancey's House seat in 2015, a race she lost by 2,000 votes. If she was unsure about exposing her family to the rigors of another campaign, Simonds said President Trump's 2016 election motivated her to challenge Yancey again.

"I felt this urgency," she said. "I was much more assertive and aggressive."

The past couple of months have been rife with moments she's not eager to relive, such as when she learned that the judicial panel had nullified her one-vote victory and declared the race tied. "I had been so excited about getting up to the General Assembly and thinking about legislation I'd introduce," she said. "That was the hardest day."

The lottery drawing was also painful, even before she knew the outcome, because she knew the result could be challenged. "If I won, was I really going to win?" she said. "I almost felt like a lamb being led to slaughter."

Her list of what-might-have-beens includes something that has nothing to do with ceramic bowls or recounts.

It's the unopened cardboard box she found in her campaign headquarters days after the election. Inside were the names and addresses of hundreds of targeted voters her volunteers needed to reach on Election Day to get them to the polls.

No one from her campaign had knocked on those doors.

With the election so close, Simonds knows that a handful of those voters could have made the difference.

"I was stunned when I found that box," Simonds said.

Her foray in the political spotlight has also included pinch-me moments, such as when MSNBC sent a chauffeur-driven SUV to deliver her to an interview with Lawrence O'Donnell.

Or when she realized during another interview that she was being broadcast live in London.

Then there was the delight she felt when, after she lost the drawing, humorist Samantha Bee tweeted to her 479,000 followers that she was "currently smashing bowls" in her kitchen "in solidarity with @shelly_simonds."

"This made me laugh so hard, at a moment when I really needed a laugh," Simonds tweeted in reply.

Reflecting on her newfound infamy, Simonds joked about the idea of getting herself a "L-O-S-E-R" tattoo.

But she emphasized that the tattoo would be temporary.

"Then I can replace it with 'W-I-N-N-E-R,' " she said. "I am not a loser."

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