The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Virginia, newly empowered Democrats test the blue depths

Democrats now have control of both chambers of the Virginia statehouse for the first time in over two decades. (Video: The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Gun control in the home state of the National Rifle Association. Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in a legislature that used to run like an old boys’ club. Climate legislation, in a state once defined by coal.

A day after winning control of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation, Virginia Democrats were making big plans to use the new power they will consolidate with Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

The wide-open slate of possibilities carries dangers, though, as the victors have to govern a state that still has veins of deep red. Suburban districts tilted blue on Election Day in part because of dislike of President Trump, but that could be fickle. A crop of new Democrats, more progressive than their predecessors, could push the state too far to the left, only to lose it all with the next election.

Democrats flip Virginia Senate and House, taking control of state government for the first time in a generation

Republicans warned that the state’s new majority would be beholden to national interest groups that poured in historic amounts of resources to elect Democrats.

Del. David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun), who won reelection, sent a fundraising email Wednesday suggesting Democrats “would take away what God has given to us.”

They would “seek to dismantle parental rights and the rights of the unborn,” he wrote, adding that “big government will impose higher taxes and more costly regulations, our ability to protect self and family will be targeted.” But he said that “we are on the right side of this war between good and evil, and with His help, we will prevail.”

Democratic leaders said they won because voters want new policies. And some of the jubilant winners urged their party to think even bigger.

Republicans woke to a blue Virginia on Wednesday

“What we’re not going to do is spend two years slow-walking this new majority into the next election season,” Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-Fairfax) tweeted Wednesday morning. “We need to act boldly on the promises we made to make Virginia affordable, inclusive, & just.”

Samirah, who ran unopposed and who grabbed headlines by disrupting Trump’s address at Jamestown in July, pledged to push an ambitious agenda of universal health care, a Green New Deal, legalizing marijuana, codifying the right to an abortion and more.

That enthusiasm could be a challenge for Northam, who was once such a conservative that the Republican Party tried to woo him. “Northam in some ways could be the moderate brake on some of the progressive visions that could be imagined here,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst.

But Holsworth said there is enough “pent-up demand” among Democrats for basic policy change after 26 years of Republican denial that party leaders “probably could agree on the basic outlines of an agenda.”

Northam tried to make that point Wednesday. Still buoyant after a night of celebrating, Northam assembled his Cabinet in a ceremonial meeting room in the state Capitol to talk about their new power.

“Virginia spoke and we’re going to listen and we’re going to take action,” said Northam, who is halfway through his four-year term.

For nearly an hour, Northam called on various Cabinet secretaries to talk about their agenda when a Democratic legislature convenes in January. They offered plans ranging from tightening gun laws to expanding prekindergarten programs, with Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne emphasizing that the state should still live within its means.

For the most part, it was a careful rejoinder to the image Republicans have tried to paint of the coming takeover by “radical” Democrats and “socialists.”

Meeting with reporters afterward, Northam said he would support eight “common-sense” bills he proposed for the special legislative session he convened in July, after the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach. Republicans who controlled the General Assembly shut down that session after 90 minutes, sending all the bills to the crime commission and promising to reconvene after the election.

Gun policy gets its big test in Virginia Beach

He mentioned universal background checks, banning the sale of military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, restoring the law that limits purchases to one gun a month, and a “red flag” law that would empower a court to temporarily remove a gun from a person deemed to be a risk to himself or others.

“We will at least start with those,” he said.

Asked if he supported confiscating military-style weapons from gun owners, Northam demurred.

“That’s something I’m working [on] with our secretary of public safety,” Northam said. “I’ll work with the gun-violence activists, and we’ll work through that. I don’t have a definitive plan today.”

Northam said the legislature will take up the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which, if it passes, would make Virginia the 38th and last state needed for ratification.

“It is a top priority,” Northam said about the ERA. “It’s one of those things that — a lot of those pieces of legislation — if we get it to the floor and let people vote, then it will become law.”

Northam also said he’d support giving localities the authority to remove Confederate monuments. A 1904 state law bars the removal or alteration of public war memorials in the state. In Charlottesville, Confederate-heritage enthusiasts have relied on the preservation law to stop officials there from taking down two Confederate statues.

“My thoughts are, the localities are in the best position to make those decisions,” Northam said.

Democrats will face a major test when they get to redraw boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 Census. Their party benefited on Tuesday from a federal court decision that ordered the state to redraw dozens of district maps because 11 had been racially gerrymandered. Several of those districts became more favorable to Democrats.

After years of lecturing Republicans about the need for a nonpartisan approach to drawing electoral maps, Democrats will have a chance to make that happen. Or they could use the power to cement their own gains.

Northam said Wednesday that he wanted to move away from gerrymandering. “I’ve got great relationships with people on both sides of the aisle. . . . I’m looking forward to working with the Democratic leadership and . . . anybody else who wants to work with us,” he said.

Northam was evasive when asked whether he would like to repeal the state’s right to work law, which prohibits a requirement that private-sector workers join a labor union.

“That’s a hypothetical question,” he said. “I deal with what’s put on my desk. But what I would say is that, while we’re the number one state in the country in which to do business, I want to do everything that I can to support our workers as well.” He mentioned raising the minimum wage — though he could not be pinned down on a dollar amount — and bolstering workforce training.

Asked about whether he’d support allowing teachers or other public-sector workers to unionize, Northam said: “Again, you’re asking hypotheticals. And if something like that gets to my desk, I’ll certainly look at it.”

What gets to his desk will largely be determined by the new roster of Democratic leaders in the General Assembly. House Democrats scheduled a meeting for Saturday to elect a speaker-designee and other top positions. Tension is brewing — House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) is theoretically in line to take over as the state’s first female speaker, but she’ll have competition.

Democrats promise a new Virginia if they take over the legislature. And that’s exactly what worries Republicans.

Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg), for one, has put up her hand. She’s part of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus — which added three new members in Tuesday’s elections — and is popular among some of the House’s young, progressive members. Del. Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William), another member of the Black Caucus, is also a candidate, as is Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), one of the longest-serving members of the House.

Regional differences could play into the competition, with the massive Northern Virginia delegation — now all Democrats — exercising its clout as other parts of the state vie for their share.

On top of internal tensions, Virginia Democrats will be operating in something of a national spotlight after the high-profile elections. Organizations ranging from People for the American Way to Emily’s List and the League of Conservation Voters touted their roles Wednesday in organizing and funding the victorious campaigns.

“Virginia is the first major state legislative program and the first major push of strategy going forward to 2020,” said Tori Taylor of Swing Left, a national grass-roots group that organized armies of volunteers to knock on doors for 20 targeted Virginia races.

She and several other groups held a conference call Wednesday with national reporters to talk about how the Virginia effort tees up Democrats for next year’s presidential contest.

“We think this is a harbinger of what’s to come,” said Erin Hill of the fundraising organization ActBlue. Touting the “great shiny moment of newness in Virginia,” Hill said ActBlue steered 2.5 times more money to Virginia candidates this year than in the “blue wave” election of 2017.

Planned Parenthood, the climate group NextGen, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Moms Demand Action — all sent volunteers to help Democrats reach voters or raise money. Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun-control group founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent more than $2.5 million in Virginia.

Chris Bolling, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the state’s unusually permissive campaign finance laws allowed the party to coordinate directly with those outside groups.

“We are able to literally talk to them on the phone about what we’re doing in a way that you cannot in federal election years,” Bolling said. He brushed aside the idea that all that outside help would push Virginia Democrats toward a more aggressive legislative agenda.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who had toured the state on behalf of Democratic candidates, said charges from Republicans that special interests are now in control are “sour grapes.” Noting that Trump tweeted attacks on Virginia Democrats but never visited the state, Kaine said Republicans are “beholden to Trump and he didn’t even help you.”

Republicans and their allies warned their supporters after the election that Democrats were preparing a hostile agenda.

The NRA put out a statement that “Virginians are about to experience life under a distant tycoon’s thumb. Candidates who proudly accepted Bloomberg’s cash — and every voter they misled — will soon realize the cost of being beholden to a Manhattan billionaire who despises Virginians’ right to self-defense.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that ActBlue steered 2.5 times more small donations to state candidates this year than in 2017. ActBlue steered 2.5 times more in total money to Virginia candidates this year. This story has been updated.

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