RICHMOND — The Human Rights Campaign is making a “six-figure” investment in 27 Virginia House and Senate races, an unprecedented commitment to state-level contests for the national LGBTQ rights group.
With digital ads, direct mail and paid field organizers, HRC aims to mobilize 1.2 million “equality voters” for the pivotal election in November, when all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and all 40 in the Senate will be on the ballot. The group also plans to make direct donations to the 27 candidates, all of them Democrats.
“We believe that Virginia’s at a turning point for people who live in that state, for LGBTQ people,” HRC President Alphonso David said in an interview Tuesday. He will formally announce the plan at an appearance in Richmond on Thursday.
National groups across the political spectrum have been big players in previous Virginia legislative races, battling over such issues as guns, abortion and the environment. But until now, HRC has mostly limited itself to national or statewide races.
The group donated about $64,000 to Ralph Northam, $11,000 to Mark Herring and $10,000 to Justin Fairfax in 2017 for the Democrats’ successful bids for governor, attorney general and lieutenant governor, respectively. One exception that year: HRC contributed $23,000 to now-Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), who became one of the nation’s first openly transgender elected officials. In 2015, HRC donated a total of about $30,000 in three hard-fought state Senate races.
The group is stepping up its involvement in Virginia at a time when LGBTQ rights are at a standstill. Although same-sex marriage has been recognized in the state since October 2014 and across the country since June 2015, a bill to repeal Virginia’s defunct ban on it failed this year in the General Assembly.
Legislation to expand the state’s hate-crime law to include gay and transgender people died in a Senate committee, and measures to outlaw anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing and government employment fizzled in House panels.
Republicans control the legislature by razor-thin majorities: 51 to 48 in the House, and 20 to 19 in the Senate, with a vacancy in each chamber. Activists say that if several gay rights Republicans in each chamber are willing to team up with Democrats on the issue, some pro-LGBTQ legislation can pass if it is presented for a vote before the full legislature.
Bills banning housing and employment discrimination have cleared the full Senate with bipartisan support three years in a row, but they’ve never made it to the House floor under Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights). That has made Cox a top target for HRC.
“Our laser focus is on Speaker Cox,” David said. “Earlier this year, there were two pieces of legislation that would have added nondiscrimination protections. It was passed in the Republican-led Senate, but the House of Delegates stopped it. . . . There are real people in Virginia who need these protections. Because we have members who are refusing to bring these pieces of legislation to the floor, we are taking affirmative steps to remove them from office.”
Cox’s campaign declined to comment.
His opponent, Sheila Bynum-Coleman, has made gay rights part of her pitch to voters. On the campaign trail, she tells voters about a cousin who was turned away by a potential landlord because she is married to a woman.
The Family Foundation of Virginia, a conservative advocacy group, has lobbied vigorously against gay rights legislation, contending that it threatens religious liberty.
“It should come as no surprise that wealthy special interest groups are targeting Virginia with copious amounts of out of state money in this year’s elections,” Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said via email. “This is what happens when the courts draw districts and try to sway election outcomes.”
Cobb was referring to a court-ordered House map imposed this year after federal judges deemed that districts drawn in 2011 had been racially gerrymandered. Under the new district lines, Cox and five other Republicans are running in territory that is more hospitable to Democrats.
HRC is not backing any Virginia Republicans, although several broke ranks with the majority of their party to support and even sponsor gay rights bills this year. David said the group uses a “case-by-case analysis” to determine which candidates to support.
Gay rights advocates did have a win this year, with passage of a law that makes it easier for gay, straight or single parents to have children using donated embryos. It helped that the bill — which updated the surrogacy statute to replace “husband” and “wife” with gender-neutral “spouse” — was inspired by an adoption saga endured by Jay Timmons, chief of staff to former Republican governor George Allen.