“The stakes are way too high for us to be passive in this election cycle,” said Tabe, who is Black and wore a shirt that read, “Never underestimate a Black woman born in January.”
With Election Day a little more than two weeks away, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is busting out the big names to try to boost voter turnout — particularly among African Americans. Abrams visited seven Black churches with him Sunday morning before headlining rallies in Norfolk and Fairfax — all marking this as the first year Virginians can cast early votes on Sundays.
Vice President Harris recorded a video that was distributed to 300 Black churches in Hampton Roads on Sunday, in which she urged people to support McAuliffe. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms hosted a get-out-the-vote event in Richmond, and former president Barack Obama plans to rally there next Saturday.
Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin issued a statement denouncing Abrams and Bottoms as “ ‘defund the police’ radicals” whose presence should be “a giant red flag that should worry every Virginian.”
But the effort to woo Black voters to the polls is serious business for Virginia Democrats. A year after social justice protests brought new urgency to issues of racial equity — and two years after Democratic gains propelled women and people of color to historic positions of power in Virginia’s legislature — Black voters will have a crucial say in whether those trends continue.
“This is not about the names on the ballot,” Abrams said Sunday to a raucous Norfolk crowd, many of them Black and in churchgoing finery. “It’s about the people they are pledging to serve.”
Issues of race have been particularly fraught in this year’s campaign. Youngkin has whipped up largely White Republican crowds with dire warnings about “critical race theory,” an academic concept about the teaching of racial history that is not in the curriculum for Virginia schools.
Former president Donald Trump has kept the tension high, citing critical race theory and repeatedly weighing in on Virginia’s election on behalf of Youngkin.
Democrats have felt tensions of their own. McAuliffe, who is seeking a comeback after serving as governor from 2014 to 2018, defeated three Black candidates for the Democratic nomination, including two women. While McAuliffe’s primary win was decisive — he carried every jurisdiction in the state — some of the party’s younger, more liberal activists were disappointed. Whether they’ll show up in force for a 64-year-old White man is one of the major questions of the campaign.
For Democrats to win, a strong turnout from Black voters is “critical,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. Without it, he said, “Democrats lose.”
It’s in the numbers. Going back to about 2009, Republicans have consistently managed to turn out between about 1 million and 1.2 million votes statewide, Kidd said. Over the same period, Democratic turnout fluctuated much more wildly — from about 850,000 to about 1.4 million.
“A lot of that variability in turnout for Democrats is younger Black voters and women voters,” he said.
Jatia Wrighten, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed out that Black voters were a major reason for McAuliffe’s three-point victory in 2013 over Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
“More than 37 percent of his vote came from Blacks in Virginia,” Wrighten said. Even a slight drop-off in Black turnout, she said, “would have actually changed who won.”
In 2017, 87 percent of Black voters supported Democrat Ralph Northam and helped power him to a nine-point win. Black women supported the Democrat at significantly higher rates than Black men, Wrighten said — leading some in the party to hope for a woman of color to lead the ticket in 2021.
But Wrighten predicted that Black voters will still turn out for McAuliffe this fall because they see a Republican win as the bigger risk.
“On the one hand, you have a man who says he supports these Trump-like politics laden with racism [and] sexism. . . . And on the other hand, you have a moderate, mediocre White man,” Wrighten said. “At the very minimum, Black people are steadfast Democrats because at least Terry McAuliffe is not going to actively harm the Black community.”
Based on recent polling, Kidd said he sees little prospect that Republicans will make significant inroads among Black Virginians, despite the fact that the party’s statewide ticket is historically diverse. GOP lieutenant governor nominee Winsome Sears, who is Black, and the attorney general nominee, Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach), who is Cuban American, have not seen unusual levels of support from Black voters in surveys, he said.
In an email responding to questions about Youngkin’s efforts to reach Black voters, campaign spokeswoman Macaulay Porter cited the formation earlier this year of the Black Virginians for Glenn Coalition, which she said has 200 members and has hosted events across the state. The group is headed by Clarence C.J. Sailor, who worked in the 2017 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Ed Gillespie and has also worked for the Gloucester Institute, an academy for African American youths founded by Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James.
The coalition plays “a critical role in reaching out to black voters and demonstrating that Glenn’s plans to remove regulations so businesses can thrive, provide parents with school choice, and boosting our economy — will best serve them,” Porter said via email.
According to his campaign, Youngkin’s outreach has included meetings at all of the state’s historically Black universities, even guest-teaching a business class at Virginia State University in Petersburg. He worshiped at a Black church in Richmond, attended a town hall with Black pastors in Suffolk, hosted a “minority roundtable” in Virginia Beach and “toured inner-city housing projects to reach new communities,” among other events, the campaign said.
Youngkin also touts the endorsement earlier this month of the Hampton Roads Black Caucus, which provoked an outcry from Black lawmakers who said the group does not represent them and was designed to confuse voters.
Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the Greater Hampton Roads Black Democrats and the Democratic Black Caucus of Virginia held a news conference to denounce the endorsement. According to records on file with the State Corporation Commission, the Hampton Roads Black Caucus’s secretary is William Curtis, chairman of the Virginia Beach Republican Party.
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the VLBC, said he thinks the endorsement won’t affect voters. “The people are smarter than they give them credit for,” he said.
All of the state’s top Black elected officials routinely act as surrogates for McAuliffe on the stump. State Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) — who as president pro tempore of the Senate is the most powerful Black woman in Virginia politics — is the chairwoman of McAuliffe’s campaign.
McAuliffe has visited nearly 60 Black churches this year, his campaign said, including a single Sunday last month when he visited 11 in Norfolk and Chesapeake. After McAuliffe made a fiery speech at Bethany Baptist in Chesapeake, the Rev. H. Patrick Cason told him: “It’s official — you’ve been ordained as a Black preacher.”
While Cason said later that he won’t tell his parishioners how to vote, he added that McAuliffe’s action to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons had been a major boost to his church’s long-standing program to help people transition out of life in prison.
Felon rights restoration has been a powerful and constant topic for McAuliffe when he campaigns before Black voters. But some say it substitutes for action on broader concerns such as health care, jobs and education.
Princess Blanding is running for governor as a third-party candidate out of frustration with what she calls Democrats’ failure to enact meaningful change in areas of criminal justice. After her brother, Marcus David Peters, was killed by Richmond police during a mental health breakdown, Blanding worked for two years to get the General Assembly to pass laws such as establishing citizen law enforcement review boards and making police more liable for lawsuits.
“It got to the point where I said, you know what? This is all performative. They’re only willing to give us crumbs, so we must expand our fight from the streets,” said Blanding, who is Black.
If her campaign siphons votes from McAuliffe, Blanding said, “that’s the Democratic Party’s fault. . . . We can’t keep begging our oppressors to be our saviors.”
Other left-leaning groups that have been working for Democrats say they’re seeing signs that Black voters are suffering fatigue after four years of Trump and 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic.
“People are overwhelmed,” said Alexsis Rodgers, Virginia director of Care in Action, a group that advocates for domestic workers. “It’s kind of hard to be excited for much when you’re literally cycling from one crisis to the next.”
Rodgers and other members of the group have been canvassing for votes in neighborhoods in Northern Virginia, the Richmond area and Hampton Roads. Care in Action endorses only candidates who are women of color, Rodgers said, so Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Hala Ayala is the only statewide candidate the group has put its weight behind. But it still urges people to vote for the Democratic ticket.
“The choice is pretty clear when it comes to who’s going to help move us forward and what’s at stake in the election,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure our issues are at the center of the campaign.” She credited McAuliffe with absorbing some into his stump speech, advocating for paid family sick leave, higher pay for domestic workers and improved access to child care.
“It shows that the work of particularly Black women . . . [has] made an impact in this race,” she said.
As Rodgers knocked on doors in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Petersburg one day this week, Eunice Eubanks said she intends to vote for Democrats — though not enthusiastically.
“The issue most important to me is how they treat Black people,” said Eubanks, 51, a health-care worker. She pointed to a bullet hole in the siding of her house — a remnant of a shooting down the street — and described the constant fear of being the mother of a young Black man. Democrats have failed to ease those concerns, she said, but she believes Republicans will only make things worse.
Down the street, Prince Jones Sr., 61, agreed, saying he was disturbed by Republican efforts to pass voter restrictions in Georgia. “It seems like they’re trying to take voting rights away from us,” he said.
That was one of the messages Abrams brought to the Norfolk rally on Sunday. Speaking alongside McAuliffe and several Black politicians — including U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander — Abrams told voters that Virginia can show the nation how Democrats plan to build lasting change.
“In 48 states, [Republicans] have tried to claw back voting rights, but not here in Virginia,” she said. “You are voting for progress, and you’re voting for possibility. . . . You’ve got to get it done for all of us because we’re counting on you.”
Afterward, Norfolk resident Barbara Amos said the speech had filled her with enthusiasm to vote. But Amos, who is Black, said she wasn’t motivated by race. “My focus is not just Black voters,” she said. “My focus is all Virginians and their right to life and liberty.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.