As Tuesday’s House race in Georgia was drawing intense national scrutiny for signs of The Trump Effect on local races, a Democrat defeated a powerful GOP lawmaker for an obscure Prince William County office that activists on both sides call either a harbinger or a wake-up call.
Democrat Jackie Smith beat Del. Jackson H. Miller, the popular Republican House majority whip with far more campaign cash, by eight points to become the Prince William County clerk of court. The previous clerk, Republican Michèle B. McQuigg, defeated Smith, a Dumfries lawyer who has never held elected office, by five points in 2015.
McQuigg died in February, prompting a special election to serve out her eight-year term.
The office, which oversees court filings and legal documents, isn’t particularly glamorous. And only about 26,000 people — or 10 percent of registered voters — cast ballots.
But Prince William is closely watched because no statewide candidate has won Virginia without winning the county since 2001. Democrats easily have won the county in presidential and statewide contests, while Republicans have won local seats in off-year elections. The chairman of the Board of County Supervisors is Corey A. Stewart, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor on a platform of embracing President Trump and the state’s Confederate heritage, among other conservative issues.
The state Democratic Party declared the win in the clerk’s race “the beginning of the end” of the Trump age. The party credited Democratic voters energized by Trump with coming out for local issues they typically ignore and a renewed focus on down-ballot races.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) directed the state party to help Smith’s campaign. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) recorded a robo-call on her behalf, while U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) funded a mailer. Every Democrat running to represent Prince William in the state legislature and the two Democratic candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello, canvassed or made calls for Smith.
“I don’t know why everyone’s talking about Georgia. This is the center of the universe in Prince William, Virginia — all eyes should be on that,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “This was a big race in a swing county — the first marker of the 2017 election cycle, and it showed the rising tide of resistance, a wake-up call for the Republicans in Virginia and the beginning of the end of the Trump era.”
John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, dismissed Swecker’s comments as “utter hyperbole and ridiculousness.”
“After voters blew up their narrative in Georgia and Kansas, we are not surprised Democrats are grasping at straws,” said Whitbeck, referring to the Democrats who fell short in special elections to fill vacant House seats.
But he said the loss did signal the importance of Republicans ramping up their efforts to boost GOP success in early absentee voting, where Democrats have had an edge, ahead of November’s gubernatorial election.
“There’s nothing we can do about Democrat enthusiasm,” Whitbeck said. “Republicans don’t control that. What we can control is turning out Republican voters in a race that’s really do or die.”
Political analysts cautioned against reading too much into the national implications of a low-key, low-turnout clerk’s race. But they said the Democratic energy exposed by the campaign is a warning for Republicans in November, when the state will elect a new governor and all 100 members of the House of Delegates.
“It highlights the challenge that Republican nominees are going to face in having to overcome the antipathy that Trump faces in Northern Virginia,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran state political analyst. “The fact Democrats seem to be more enthusiastic and more energized in this race and were able to defeat a well-known, popular Republican is a trend Democrats hope endures.”
A prominent conservative blogger warned that the Republican loss in what should have been a winnable race should raise alarms up and down the ballot.
“This election result should force every Republican running for election or reelection in Virginia to sit up and take notice,” Brian Schoeneman, editor in chief of the Bearing Drift conservative blog, wrote on Wednesday. “President Trump’s low approval ratings and the motivation his election has created among liberal and progressive activists has manifested itself in grass-roots organizing at a level we haven’t seen in Virginia from Democrats in a long, long time.”
Harry Wiggins, the chairman of the Prince William County Democratic Committee, concedes that it’s an overstatement to sell the victory as the beginning of the end of Trump, who he doubts was paying attention. But he says the campaign showed the power of grass-roots energy on the Democratic side.
“I’ve never seen an outpouring of people like this,” said Wiggins. “I’d say 70 percent of the people I’d never seen before and never met before. And it was a particularly high number of women who were outraged by Stewart and Trump.”
Democrats and nonpartisan analysts alike say the results also reflect poorly on Stewart, the county’s top Republican elected official who is making his success as a conservative in Northern Virginia central to his gubernatorial campaign.
Stewart scoffs at this contention, saying he’s heard it many times over the past decade in office as Republicans lost his county.
“I feel bad for Jackson, but frankly I’m not surprised, because Prince William County has been a political cemetery for Republicans,” said Stewart, listing a string of gubernatorial, presidential and Senate candidates who fell short in Prince William. “They’ve all lost. Except for me.”
For her part, Smith, 34, says she’s not planning on being on the front lines of any resistance against the president or seeking higher office. She just wants to modernize a bureaucracy that’s frustrating to deal with. But she credits the president’s election for galvanizing people across the political spectrum to pay more attention to local politics.
“People have realized you can’t just sit back and let the political machine come and take care of things,” Smith said. “As a member of the community, you have to be involved in these local races that in the past have been largely ignored.”