Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated the number of Republican incumbents in Virginia’s House of Delegates who will face Democratic challengers this fall. The number is 48. This story has been updated.
RICHMOND— Former congressman Tom Perriello, who drew national attention in his bid for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor but came up short at the polls, will lead a new political action committee aimed at ending the GOP’s longtime majority in the commonwealth’s House of Delegates.
The Win Virginia group has already raised $260,000 from four wealthy donors, three of them longtime Democratic supporters from Fairfax County. The fourth is from California.
Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), the House minority leader, said the donors, including financier Edward Hart Rice and tech executive Shashikant Gupta, were motivated after the election of President Trump to find a way to shore up Democrats at the state and local level.
“It was the Trump election that led them to say, ‘We have to up our game a bit,’ ” Toscano said. “And the first chance to really do that is in the Virginia House races.”
The group reached out to Perriello to lead the effort after his surprise run for the nomination this spring. He had attracted big money from outside Virginia but lost to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who spent years lining up support within the state.
Northam will take on former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie in the November election.
Running with the endorsement of two national progressive icons, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Perriello made the Virginia race a referendum on the policies and style of Trump and Republicans in Washington. His strategy was to attract young people and voters in rural areas who don’t usually participate in primary elections during a year outside of a presidential election.
There’s some irony in his new role: Perriello cast his campaign as a call for a new direction for the state’s Democratic Party, but now he’s working with the party machinery to try to take back the statehouse.
“It’s a unique opportunity because we have such dynamic candidates up and down the ticket and such an enthusiasm gap in our favor,” Perriello said in an interview. “We think this is the year to break some of the normal rules of the political landscape in Virginia.”
The organization will not only raise money, he said, but also will help candidates find ways to use technology to campaign more effectively. Perriello cited his own campaign’s use of Facebook Live events to reach thousands of voters at little cost.
Republican House leaders derided Win Virginia as an “outside liberal activist group” and said it showed Virginia Democrats are now beholden to Sanders and Warren. “They push an extreme, out-of-touch agenda that’s failed in Washington and won’t work for the Commonwealth,” said Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who Republicans selected as their majority leader for next year. “We know the communities we represent, and we’ll continue to fight for them in Richmond.”
Republicans enjoy a commanding majority in the 100-seat House of Delegates, with 66 seats to Democrats’ 34. All 100 seats are on the ballot this fall. Just a few months ago, Democrats were talking of picking up a handful of seats, at best.
But with Trump’s approval ratings at historic lows — only 36 percent of Virginians approved of his performance in a poll last month by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University — the party is feeling energized. It has fielded an unusually large slate of candidates, challenging 48 Republican incumbents.
Democrats also boast what may be a historic number of female candidates — 42 — for the House of Delegates, in which women held only 17 seats in the most recent legislative session.
Democrats have done well in Virginia’s statewide races in recent years — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and both U.S. senators are Democrats.
Virginia also was the only Southern state to go for Hillary Clinton last fall, as changing demographics — especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia — paint the battleground state increasingly blue.
But Democrats lost control of the House of Delegates years ago, and redistricting since then has helped Republicans increase their edge. Republicans also control the state Senate, 21 seats to 19. Those seats are not up for election this year.
Calling the election an “uphill battle” against a legislative map “rigged” by Republicans, Perriello said the party has a chance to pull off an upset.
Toscano credited that momentum to the election of Trump: “Ironically, it has created an energy within the Democratic electorate that we think is going to be good for us this fall.”
Clinton won 17 House of Delegates districts that are represented by Republicans. Those districts now form the heart of Democrats’ plan to retake the House.
Such a big swing in the balance of power is a long shot. But so was Trump’s victory in November.
Once the Virginia primary ended, the big question was whether Perriello and the progressives who came out for him with such fervor would stick around for Northam and the rest of the party.
Perriello’s quick moves to endorse Northam and to lead Win Virginia, and the fact that one of the PAC’s initial donors was a Perriello supporter during the primary, suggests that at least some of them will.
Rice gave $100,000 to the PAC; Gupta gave $60,000; and government contracting executive Dario O. Marquez Jr., also from Fairfax, gave $50,000. Marquez supported Perriello in the primary.
The fourth, San Francisco venture capitalist and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, gave $50,000.