To a crowd of about 900, which chanted “USA,” “Trump” and “Build the wall,” Pence called Virginia’s election — along with governor’s races in two other Southern states — a referendum on the Trump administration.
“We’ve been making great progress in the life of this nation,” Pence said. “Here in Virginia, and in governor’s races in Kentucky and Mississippi, the American people will have an opportunity to essentially say we’re on the right path. America is stronger. We’re safer and more prosperous. And we want at every level of government the same kind of principled, common-sense conservative leadership that President Donald Trump has brought to the White House.”
Democrats welcomed Pence to the state. They’ve been trying to link Republican legislative candidates to Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Virginia, the only Southern state he lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“We want to thank Mike Pence for coming to Virginia!” read a statement from the state Democratic Party. “This will be a huge help for us in taking Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.”
Voter distaste for Trump in Virginia has enabled state Democrats to eat away at the GOP’s strength with every cycle since his election. In 2017, they flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates. In 2018, they gained three congressional seats. Democrats hope to ride that wave a third time Tuesday, when all 140 seats in the state House and Senate are on the ballot.
Of the four states holding legislative contests this year, Virginia is the only one where control is up for grabs. If Democrats prevail, they would join with Gov. Ralph Northam to consolidate their party’s control over state government for the first time in a generation.
They have promised to enact a slew of Democratic priorities, including restricting guns, easing abortion access, protecting gay rights and raising the minimum wage.
If they win control, Democrats would also oversee redistricting in 2021 after the U.S. Census, setting the course for Virginia politics for the next decade.
Big-name Democrats have pitched in during the home stretch, with 2020 presidential contenders releasing Virginia get-out-the-vote videos or stumping for candidates in person.
On Saturday, former president Barack Obama endorsed 17 Democratic candidates for the legislature and urged people to vote. On Sunday, presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden is set to headline a canvass kickoff in Sterling.
As Pence was speaking in Virginia Beach, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder campaigned in Fredericksburg and the Richmond area. He’s leading a Democratic group that’s trying to reform redistricting around the country. In Virginia, 25 legislative districts were redrawn this year, the result of a court order that found the old electoral map had been racially gerrymandered. Several of those districts — including one represented by House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) — went from Republican- to Democratic-leaning overnight.
Pence is the biggest — and apparently, the only — national GOP figure to appear in Virginia. “We don’t have a clown-car primary going on,” state GOP spokesman John Findlay said.
Some welcomed the last-minute dose of political star power.
“It’s great to get the vice president in Virginia Beach in the final days of the campaign to help inspire Trump voters to come out,” said conservative radio host John Fredericks, a member of Trump’s 2020 advisory board.
One longtime Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending event organizers, worried that Pence’s appearance would motivate Democratic voters.
But Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political scientist, said the gamble could pay off.
“No doubt it’s a risk, but they’ve clearly calculated that the risk is worth it,” he said. “I bet you the calculation they’re making is, the Democratic base is as energized as it’s going to get. And the Republican base still has some to pull out.”
Pence also appeals to conservative Republicans who might be “a little bit squeamish” regarding Trump, Kidd said. “They look at the vice president and see the traditional Republican social conservative that they identify with. From the Republican get-out-the-vote perspective, it makes absolutely perfect sense.”
At the rally, the crowd was enthusiastic but not especially bullish about the GOP’s chances for holding the House and Senate Tuesday.
“It’s the most hotly contested races that I’ve seen in 30 years in Virginia government,” said former Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell, who attended the rally. “Most of the races down here are margin of error. They’re very close. It’s good for democracy to have a real robust debate, and I’m hopeful that we’ll keep at least one house.”
Ed Conaway of Virginia Beach said he was motivated to attend the rally — his first — because of Democrats’ impeachment effort, which he sees as a ploy to “undo” the 2016 election. The swing voter’s anger over impeachment has him tempted to vote a straight Republican ticket Tuesday.
“I usually vote independent and vote by the candidate who strikes me as genuine and sincere,” said Conaway, 70. “I don’t like to say it, but I’ll probably vote a party line.”
Turnout in off-off years, when no statewide or presidential candidate is on the ballot, typically hovers around 30 percent and tends to favor Republicans. There are signs, though, that voters may show up in higher-than-normal numbers on Tuesday. Absentee ballots are up, and candidates in several tight races have raised record amounts of money.
Democratic House candidates have outraised Republicans $34 million to $26 million over the two-year election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Democrats running for the Senate have raised $28 million over the four-year cycle in that chamber, compared with $22 million by Republicans, VPAP figures show.
One of the Republicans’ biggest out-of-state donors is the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has given more than $3 million and organized the Pence event at Kempsville Middle School. The legislature’s top Republicans — Cox and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) — attended the rally but did not take the stage.
Former congressman Scott Taylor (R), who was unseated last year by Democrat Elaine Luria, warned that a Democratic majority in the General Assembly would confiscate guns and allow “beautiful babies . . . to be killed up until birth.”
The crowd booed at the notion.
“That is what is at stake,” said Taylor, who is seeking his party’s nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) next year. “That’s not hyperbole; that’s not rhetoric. That’s reality.”
State Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), facing a tough and well-funded challenge from Democrat Missy Cotter Smasal, urged the crowd to turn out the Republican vote Tuesday.
“Go to the retirement home, pick up 20 people, and bring them with you,” he said. “The stakes are too important.”