Now Simonds is back for a rematch, far more eager to dwell on the present than the past. “Nobody wants to relive 2017, especially me,” she insisted over lunch at a restaurant near her campaign headquarters. “We need to move on.”
With Republicans holding a 51-48 majority in the House of Delegates, with one vacancy, the stakes are high in the race. In the Senate, the margin is even more slim, with Republicans clinging to power by a margin of 20 to 19, with another vacant seat. If Democrats are able to flip enough seats on Nov. 5, the party will have control over the executive and legislative branches for the first time in a generation.
The tension was evident at a debate Wednesday night, parts of which were devoted to Simonds and Yancey sniping at each other.
“I’m shocked that onstage you would continue to attack our students,” Simonds, a Newport News school board member, said after Yancey talked of declining test scores.
“I’m not attacking schools. I’m not attacking children,” the Republican countered. “I’m attacking you and your leadership, Shelly.”
Simonds’s campaign got a boost in February when court-ordered redistricting shifted the boundaries of this coastal Virginia district to include more African American voters, a bloc that typically supports Democrats.
Yet Democrats worry that voters won’t turn out in sufficient numbers because it’s an “off-off” election year without statewide and national races. Adding to their concern is that Yancey is well-known in Newport News, having won the seat four times.
Simonds has raised $780,000, including more than $400,000 cash on hand for the last weeks of the campaign, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Yancey has pulled in $500,000, including $239,000 for a final push, records show.
“Certainly a Democratic candidate would be happy to run in the new district lines, while a Republican would prefer the old lines, but that doesn’t make this race a done deal,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor. “The high level of Republican contributions flowing into the district demonstrate that both parties consider the 94th to be a winnable district.”
Republicans are wary that Democrats will invoke President Trump, who is deeply unpopular in much of Virginia, to lure voters to the polls. That was the case two years ago when the total number of votes in Virginia skyrocketed from 2015, the last “off-off” election.
“So long as Trump is in the White House, every election is a referendum on the president,” said Shaun Kenney, the former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. “No one has settled down since 2016, which is why Democrats are spending a lot of money reminding voters who the president is.”
Yancey, 47, the founder of a real estate development company and a commercial fishing business, did not respond to numerous interview requests but agreed to answer emailed questions. He predicted that he would win in a Democratic-leaning district “because I have delivered on my campaign promises in the past.”
“I have had Democrats, Republican and Independent voters support me,” he said, “and I expect that will continue this year.”
In the debate, he portrayed himself as a seasoned pragmatist who has proved he can work with Democrats as chair of the House transportation committee. In mass mailings to voters, he says he broke with his party to “stand with women” and was “the only Republican in the legislature” to back the Equal Rights Amendment earlier this year, an initiative that failed to pass.
In actuality, seven Republican state senators voted for the ERA in Virginia’s Senate in January. Two House Republicans, Dels. Roxann L. Robinson (Chesterfield) and Christopher P. Stolle (Virginia Beach), signed on as co-sponsors.
Yancey also casts Simonds as an opponent of teacher pay raises and responsible for poor reading and math scores in Newport News’s public schools. Simonds, 51, who has supported teacher pay hikes, is among eight members of the city’s elected school board.
“There’s a lot of frustration in Newport News with the schools and the leadership, and Yancey is trying to tie all that to Shelly Simonds,” said Quentin Kidd, director of public policy at Christopher Newport University. “You look at his fliers and you’d think she’s the dictator of the school board.”
In her mailings, Simonds defines herself as an advocate for women and emphasizes her support for lower prescription drug prices and gun control. She attacks Yancey for voting four times “against affordable health care,” omitting that he most recently supported Medicaid expansion.
In another mailing, she labels her opponent an anti-choice “Republican” who “is part of a national movement to take control of women’s bodies.” She highlights Yancey’s 2012 vote for legislation that would have required women to get a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion.
“David Yancey,” the mailing warns, “must be stopped.”
That legislation was ultimately modified to specify a less-invasive abdominal ultrasound, which Yancey also supported.
“He is vulnerable because the energy behind Simonds last time and this time are these women activated by Trump,” Kidd said.
As he faced the prospect of redistricting, Yancey also has supported more moderate measures such as a proposed “red flag” gun law, which would allow judges to take people into custody and temporarily confiscate guns if they are considered a threat to themselves or others. Advocates for stronger gun laws said the bill is relatively weak and mimics mental health laws that are already in place.
“Yancey has known for two years that he would face this election,” Kidd said. “He has taken votes with the idea that the new lines would happen. You’re not going to catch him running on his Republican bona fides.”
Simonds first tried to oust Yancey in 2015, losing to the Republican by 15 percentage points. Two years later, with the electorate roiled by Trump’s victory, she challenged him again.
An initial tally on election night put Yancey ahead by 10 votes — a result that, after a recount, changed to give Simonds a one-vote lead. But a judicial review panel then called the race a tie. The deadlock was settled when an election official picked Yancey’s name out of the bowl.
“This seat is mine — I am running again,” Simonds declared days later, making little effort to conceal her anger.
In her current race, Simonds said she started campaigning and raising money five months earlier than she did in 2017. Two years ago, her campaign began airing television ads only in the last week before the vote, she said. This time, she started broadcasting ads four weeks before the election.
During their debate, Simonds invoked the 2017 election to urge Democrats to get to the polls.
“The stakes are too high to leave this up to chance,” she said.
But in his response, Yancey cited the same race as evidence of his political strength, saying that anti-Trump fervor in Virginia at the time meant that “I should have lost and I should have lost big.”
If the 94th District’s new Democratic-leaning boundaries gave her an advantage, Simonds also faced a problem. The home where she has lived with her husband and two children was no longer within the district’s lines.
As a result, Simonds had to move to an address within the new district — the home belonging to her mother-in-law six miles away, where she says she now pays rent while her husband remains in their house.
Yancey has not made Simonds’s address a focus of his attacks, though in his debate closing he alluded to it when he said, “I don’t have to move out of my home and into the district. I’m from here. I’m staying here. I’m all about Newport News.”