Last week, Del. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas) announced his bid for the party’s nomination for governor, joining former delegate Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) in this year’s primary election.
Meanwhile Dels. Hala S. Ayala (D-Prince William) and Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William) are competing in a crowded field of Democrats who want to become lieutenant governor.
Their bids reflect the fact that once-conservative Prince William has become a hub of liberal energy in Virginia, political analysts say — allowing local Democratic activist Candi King to raise nearly four times as much as Republican Heather Mitchell in Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat Carroll Foy vacated in December to focus on her gubernatorial bid.
“Win or lose in 2021, the influence of Democrats in Prince William will grow in the coming years,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “Prince William County has been one of the locations with the greatest Democratic gains over the last decade, and it makes sense that the field of statewide candidates reflects that.”
Once predominantly White, Prince William was long known for the former head of its Board of County Supervisors, Republican firebrand Corey A. Stewart, who became a fierce acolyte of President Trump after the 2016 election.
Today, 55 percent of the county’s population is either Latino, African American or Asian, and the local Democratic Party committee has been infused with new activism fueled by the demographic shift.
In 2017, voters in Prince William and nearby Manassas City and Manassas Park also elected Danica A. Roem (D-Manassas), the nation’s first openly transgender lawmaker, into the House of Delegates.
In 2019, the county board flipped to a 5-to-3 Democratic majority after being controlled by the GOP for more than a decade.
Local Democrats say the area reflects the broader changes occurring in Virginia, and a desire to do more about issues of long importance to Democrats such as affordable health care, workers’ rights and criminal justice overhauls.
There are still conservative pockets in the area, but Republicans have been able to win only local races in recent years — a reality Stewart cited in 2019 when he decided against pursuing another term as county board chair.
“Where goes Prince William County, so goes the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Carroll Foy, whose former district includes portions of nearby Stafford County, which in November voted blue for the first time in nearly half a century. “We are a community filled with working families and millennials, people of color and women, and that’s what our party looks like. We are the center of Democratic energy.”
Carroll Foy, 39, presents herself as a gritty embodiment of that energy, telling voters in her gubernatorial race about how in 2017 she campaigned for office while she was pregnant with her twin sons, “with morning sickness and swollen ankles.”
She, Guzman and Ayala were part of a group of activists who brought a sense of urgency to the local Democratic Party committee, which has since evolved into a formidable fundraising apparatus for new candidates like King.
That movement was born during the local backlash against new immigrants in the county that helped launch Stewart’s political career.
It gained more enthusiasm in 2008, when Barack Obama held the final campaign rally of his first presidential run inside the Prince William County Fairgrounds, where the then-senator from Illinois urged a crowd of about 80,000 to “change the world.”
“It was really inspiring to see a Democratic candidate who was a person of color inspire so many people,” said Guzman, one of the early opponents of the federal 287(g) agreement championed by Stewart that allowed the county to hold incarcerated undocumented inmates for deportation after their jail sentences expired.
“The most important part was, if we really believed in his message, we needed to grab a clipboard and start knocking on doors,” Guzman, 47, said of Obama’s impact.
After Trump’s 2016 victory, more activists began eyeing the area’s General Assembly seats that had long been held by Republicans.
Ayala, who recently announced she will not seek reelection to her House seat in the fall, said those officials did not appear to understand the needs of a growing population of constituents in their districts who were struggling to stay afloat in the increasingly expensive Washington region.
“I understand how thin that bridge is between struggle and success,” said Ayala, 47, who was a single mother dependent on Medicaid for her son, who suffered from various health issues, before she went on to become a cybersecurity specialist for the Department of Homeland Security.
Carter, a self-proclaimed socialist inspired by the presidential run of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), argued that the coronavirus pandemic has made it necessary for all of Virginia to move further to the left.
“We’ve got to make sure that, when we rebuild the economy, we’re not engaging in the same kind of corporate handouts we’ve engaged in during the past decade,” said Carter, 33.
Whether the more-liberal positions of all of the Prince William candidates resonate enough with the state’s Democratic electorate is an open question, political analysts say.
Historically, more-moderate Democrats have prevailed in Virginia, including Gov. Ralph Northam in 2017 and former governor Terry McAuliffe in 2013.
This year, McAuliffe is again the likely front-runner in a Democratic field of gubernatorial candidates that also includes Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond), political analysts say.
In the lieutenant governor’s race, Guzman and Ayala are competing against six other well-known Democrats — making it harder for them to gain traction with voters outside of Prince William.
That makes the decisions by Carroll Foy and Ayala to let go of their House seats a gamble, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
“There is a real risk to jumping too soon and not being successful, and then you’re gone, essentially,” Kidd said.
Both Democrats said the risk is worth a chance to set the state’s direction on the economy and long-ignored social inequities from a higher office. They also expressed confidence in their party’s ability to hold on to their seats.
In Tuesday’s race, Mitchell, who lost to Carroll Foy by 22 points in 2019, has emphasized her experience as a former senior aide to Stewart on the Board of County Supervisors.
Mitchell, who declined to be interviewed, has also played up her residency in Stafford County, where the district’s more conservative voters live.
Garren Shipley, the spokesman for House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), said the fact that both candidates have had less than four weeks to campaign gives Mitchell a strong chance at victory on Tuesday.
He noted that the turnout for early voting for the special election, an option overwhelmingly picked by Democrats in November’s presidential race, has been low. As of Monday, about 850 had voted early in a district of nearly 51,000 active voters.
“The fact that we saw such a bifurcated vote in November, between Democrats voting early and Republicans voting on Election Day, makes me hopeful,” Shipley said.
King, a program assistant for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, acknowledged that she may not be as well-known in the district as Mitchell.
But King, who has outraised Mitchell $103,000 to $27,500, believes there is enough Democratic enthusiasm in the area for her to prevail.
“Our community is very engaged,” said King, 38.