NEWPORT NEWS — It was "Take Your State Legislator to School Day" in this coastal Virginia city. And two of them showed up.
Del. David Yancey, a Republican who has represented the district that includes Heritage High School since 2012, barely won reelection last month, eking out a victory with a margin of just 10 votes. He passed out his General Assembly business cards to students in a medical skills class.
But his Democratic challenger, local school board member Shelly Simonds, hasn’t given up and also appeared at last week’s event. Simonds watched teenagers investigate a fake crime scene in a room down the hall. She requested a recount, which the state will conduct Dec. 19.
The rivals barely acknowledged each other, save for an awkward hello as the three-hour tour wrapped up.
Tension in Virginia political circles is building as officials prepare for a recount that could determine whether Republicans hold their 51-to-49 majority in the House of Delegates or if Democrats are able to claim Yancey’s seat and create a rare tie in the lower chamber.
Republicans headed into the Nov. 7 elections with an overwhelming 66-seat majority in the 100-member House. But a blue wave that propelled Democrat Ralph Northam to the governor’s mansion also decreased House GOP ranks.
If Simonds wins the recount, it will split control of the chamber and force Republicans and Democrats to negotiate an awkward power-sharing agreement, in which they’ll have to decide who will chair various committees, set the legislative agenda and serve as speaker.
Results from three other House races are also being challenged. Two were won by Republicans, including one race in which more than 100 voters were given the wrong ballot. In the third case, a Democrat won and the Republican conceded before deciding last week to seek a recount.
But none are as razor-close as the contest between Yancey and Simonds.
A race that had focused on local issues, such as the future of a riverfront property and school test scores, has now morphed into a high-stakes battle that could determine the prospects of Medicaid expansion, gun control and other high-profile statewide issues.
“I want to win this thing so I can be the hero and save the day,” said Simonds, who has been attending orientation sessions for new lawmakers. “I do want desperately to win so we can accomplish goals like preventing gun violence and protecting the environment and giving teachers pay raises.”
Still, Simonds is wary about expecting too much. “I feel the pressure,” she said. “But I’m also aware of the cycles of elections and the long run, and I’m confident we’re going to get there whether it’s this year . . . or in 2019 when people get out to vote again.”
As Yancey watched students measure blood pressure as part of a showcase of career-readiness programs, he joked that his should be through the roof. A normally jovial lawmaker and high school rugby coach, he tensed up when asked about the coming recount.
“Right now, I’m letting the process work itself out,” he told The Washington Post as he walked out of the school. “At this time, I’d like to just do my official duty and engage on topics like education.”
In a follow-up interview, his former campaign manager said she’s confident that the results will hold.
“The rest of Richmond has moved on and are treating him as the 51st delegate and have asked him to sponsor legislation,” said Gretchen Heal, who is also Yancey’s legislative aide. “He’s the winner in everyone’s minds so far.”
Simonds is not as certain.
“It’s going to be a toss-up,” she said. “Just like this district.”
Seemingly, the favorite
The 94th District is one of three crossing Newport News, made up of expensive homes dotting the coast line, modest inland neighborhoods near strip malls and the Christopher Newport University campus. With nearby shipyards, naval stations and a joint Army and Air Force base, the local economy is closely tied to the military.
Democrats have carried the district in statewide and presidential races, but Yancey, a 45-year-old real estate developer, has won in low-turnout, off-year elections. He seemed to be the favorite again after his first Democratic challenger dropped out in July and was replaced by Simonds, who challenged Yancey in 2015 and lost by more than 2,100 votes.
“A lot of people looked at it this year and said, ‘Well, it’s a repeat of the last go-around,’ and they didn’t think it would be very competitive,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport. “What a lot of us didn’t account for was this wave that made it what it is right now, which is a 10-vote race going into recount.”
As it appeared that the governor’s race was going to drive up turnout, the Yancey campaign braced for a close finish, Heal said.
The wave came as a surprise to Simonds, a 50-year-old local Democratic activist and former Spanish teacher who was elected to the school board in 2012.
She was hoping for a turnout of about 35 percent as the best-case scenario. Instead, roughly 45 percent of eligible voters came to the polls — mirroring a surge of voters across the commonwealth, many of whom were Democrats bent on sending a message of disapproval to President Trump.
Simonds had played down the president during the campaign, believing that he wasn’t as toxic in Newport News as he was in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
Among her reasons for running again in 2017, Simonds says, was to force a conversation about city-owned property along the James River, including a pier and modest beach, that residents fear will be sold to developers. Heal says Yancey has been consistently opposed to the sale.
Yancey’s reputation was not of a hard-line conservative but a community-minded representative who was more likely to talk about helping Hampton University’s proton therapy program than national politics.
But that didn’t matter to Democrats rebelling against Republicans across every level of government.
“GOP leadership is protecting and enabling Trump,” said Bintao Feng, a Simonds supporter and leader of a Newport News Chinese American group. “Local people here probably didn’t care about David Yancey or who he is but wanted to send a message to Republicans.”
But Heal said Trump rarely came up as Republican volunteers canvassed homes in Newport News. “There’s one elderly woman in a nursing home who occasionally calls to talk about Donald Trump, and that’s basically it,” she said. “The key factor in our community — and it’s a blue-collar community — is health care.”
‘Should I have done more?’
With only 10 votes separating the candidates, every decision and development in the campaign has been analyzed, including resources — recent campaign records show Yancey spent $100,000 more than Simonds — and the fact that a Libertarian candidate, Michael Bartley, won 675 votes.
Zack Wittkamp, the original Democratic nominee, revisits whether he would have won had he not dropped out because the demands of fundraising were too taxing as he juggled two jobs.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said, later grappling with his decision not to actively campaign for Simonds to give her space to run her own race. “Looking back, should I have done more? Could I have found 10 votes? Of course.”
Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who endured close races in the past, called Simonds to offer advice for getting through a recount.
As Simonds relays it, they suggested she focus on things other than politics, maintain a positive outlook and try not to relive the past. She takes solace in other Democratic women who narrowly lost delegate races but ran again and won.
“I’m not going to allow myself to dwell on what I could have done,” Simonds said.
That’s easier said than done.
As she showed a reporter the city-owned riverfront property that she made a campaign issue, Simonds pondered whether she could have won votes from nearby Republican homeowners had Yancey not taken the same position during a debate — leaving no difference between them on the issue.
As she drove past the Christopher Newport campus, she considered dozens of students who showed up at the polls only to find out they were registered in other precincts.
As Simonds finished eating lunch at an Asian restaurant next to her old campaign headquarters, a sushi chef asked her how the election turned out.
“Unfortunately, we are in a recount,” she replied.
And then she started tallying how many votes she got from employees at the eatery, because that’s the sort of mental math she’s been doing everywhere she goes. She counted at least a half-dozen.
“How many votes were there in all?” Zhi Chao Lin, the chef, asked.
“I’m 10 votes shy,” Simonds responded.
“Ten?” Lin grimaced.
Cindy Li, a waitress, piped up to mention that she voted but that some of her family members stayed home.
Simonds forced a weak smile.
“Well,” she said. “There’s next time.”