Hillary Clinton roused a crowd of several thousand Democrats in Northern Virginia on Friday night with sharp attacks on her Republican rivals, calling them the “party of the past” on issues as varied as domestic terrorism and gay marriage.
Her speech came at the end of an eventful day, punctuated by both the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage and the funeral for the Charleston pastor killed June 17 with eight of his parishioners.
“It was an emotional roller coaster of a day,” Clinton said.
There was no sense of exhaustion at George Mason University’s Patriot Center, where about 2,000 Democrats cheered with gusto as the presidential candidate outlined her priorities and booed with equal enthusiasm as she jabbed Republicans in her speech that lasted a half-hour. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been drawing larger crowds in recent weeks in a rival bid for the Democratic nomination, Clinton on Friday proved that she also can electrify an audience.
She began soberly, saying that despite the week’s Supreme Court victories and the removal of Confederate flags from a number of public venues across the country, “fear and hatred are far from finished.”
Clinton applauded South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) for calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of that state’s capitol. But Clinton added: “We also saw the opposite from too many, even including many of the Republican candidates for president, who seem determined to lead us right back into the past.”
She also chided House Republicans for voting to restrict research on gun violence.
“How can you watch massacre after massacre and take that vote?” she asked.
To loud boos, she noted that “recently, a Republican candidate for president described immigrants as rapists, drug dealers and criminals.” Earlier in the day, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called that comment, from mogul Donald Trump, “not helpful.”
There were more boos when Clinton recalled the effort by Virginia Republicans a few years ago to mandate ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. It was later discovered that the examinations would have had to be performed transvaginally for pregnancies in their early weeks, which is when most abortions are performed.
“We don’t need any more leaders who shame and blame women,” she said.
“Across the board,” she concluded, “they are the party of the past.”
The audience ate it up, rising to their feet with a chant of “Hillary! Hillary!” after her speech.
Even recycled lines got a warm reception. The crowd laughed as Clinton said her hair would not turn white in the White House — she didn’t have to add that she’s been dyeing it for years.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who introduced her to the crowd, joked that when he wants a beer, “I don’t go looking for Bill Clinton, I go looking for Hillary Clinton, because she’s a lot more fun than Bill is.”
McAuliffe said Virginia is not only a presidential battleground state but also a test case for an aggressive brand of liberalism. Clinton looked on, smiling, as McAuliffe cast his own unlikely rise from political operative to governor as “the prime example” of “what happens when Democrats don’t shy away from who we are, when we don’t shy away from our progressive values.”
He recalled that he campaigned heavily on abortion rights and was the first Southern statewide candidate to come out in favor of gay marriage.
“I didn’t shy away from the tough issues,” he said, his voice hoarse as he shouted through a 15-minute speech. “And that’s the message that Democrats need to push all around the country.”
McAuliffe has made several moves that appeal to the Democratic base. He engaged in the state primaries, helping unseat a conservative Democrat and propel his preferred candidates to victory. He is phasing out Confederate flag license plates in the state, launching a study of whether to bring back parole and easing the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling upholding a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, he is pushing again for Medicaid expansion despite firm Republican opposition.
“Let me be clear, I’m just warming up, folks,” he boasted. “That was just an appetizer.”
Clinton’s visit is a sign of how critical Virginia is to Democrats and Republicans alike for 2016. State legislative elections in November, with control of the state Senate at stake, will be an early sign of which party is better mobilized for 2016.
“It’s no surprise that their number one candidate is here in Virginia,” state Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck said at a news conference that Republicans held outside the venue where Clinton and McAuliffe spoke. “More so than millions of Americans, Virginians have the ability to determine who the next president is going to be.”
Priebus labeled Clinton’s candidacy “one of the most staged and scripted campaigns that we’ve ever seen.”
The Patriot Center can hold 10,000 people, and Republicans mocked Clinton for its many empty seats Friday. Democrats countered that they were not expecting to fill the arena; they were thrilled, they said, to sell more than 2,000 tickets and raise more than $1 million.