Buoyed by a wave of progressive activism that began after the election of President Trump, Virginia Democrats plan to challenge 45 GOP incumbents in the deep-red House of Delegates this November, including 17 lawmakers whose districts voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In some districts, multiple candidates will compete in Democratic primaries for the chance to challenge a Republican incumbent. And at least one Democratic incumbent from Northern Virginia will face a primary challenge, from a local school board member who said Clinton’s defeat helped propel her to run.
Republicans hold 66 of the 100 seats in the House, and GOP leaders say many districts — including those won by Clinton — remain Republican strongholds for state elections.
Still, if Democrats succeed in running 45 challengers, it would be a significant increase over 2015, when only 21 Democrats ran against GOP lawmakers.
In addition to trying to wrest control of the House, fielding a strong Democratic slate is critical to showing the nation that “Virginia is shifting and becoming a more progressive state,” said Del. Charniele Herring (Alexandria), chair of the House Democratic caucus.
“It’s important because we know those districts can change,” said Herring, who credited Trump’s election and years of recruiting efforts with fueling the surge. “I think the tide is turning.”
John Whitbeck, the chairman of the state Republican Party, described the GOP’s 16-year majority in the House as “near insurmountable” and said his party plans to challenge incumbents in heavily Democratic districts in Arlington and Fairfax this fall, too.
“Until they have 51 winnable races, they shouldn’t be talking,” Whitbeck said. “I just don’t buy it. We consistently win those Hillary Clinton districts with good, solid Republicans.”
Some potential candidates were encouraged to run by such newly formed political organizations as Run for Something, founded by former Clinton outreach worker Amanda Litman. Others said they were influenced by the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington.
“We’re focusing on down-ballot offices to help build a long-term, progressive bench,” Litman said in an interview. “We are actively recruiting young progressives, and our goal is that no races should go uncontested.”
Three Democrats will compete to challenge 25-year incumbent Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas) in the 13th District, which Clinton won on Election Day with 54 percent of the vote. Two others are battling for the Democratic nomination to oppose Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Woodbridge) in the 31st District, where Clinton captured 51 percent of the vote.
Elizabeth Guzman, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Peru and longtime party volunteer, said she decided to run because she and her family have endured years of harassing comments about their ethnicity, as well as unprovoked traffic stops.
“Then Trump gets elected, and my son, my 9-year-old, said, ‘Mommy, we have to get out because Mr. Trump doesn’t like people who speak Spanish.’ That decided it,” Guzman said. “My district is incredibly diverse, and I think it is time to bring that diversity to Richmond.”
In the June 13 primary, she faces Sara Townsend, a seventh-grade civics teacher who lost to Lingamfelter in 2015. Protecting public schools is her passion, she said, “and with the election of Trump, and his appointment of [Betsy] DeVos as education secretary, there’s no question of me running or not this year.”
In Marshall’s district, Mansimran Singh Kahlon, 24, is seeking to be the first Sikh elected to the House of Delegates. “Mostly, I feel there’s a void between the lives of people and the legislation presented in Richmond,” Kahlon said.
Danica Roem, an LGBT activist who would be the first openly transgender person in the chamber, said she’d been weighing a run since August, but Trump’s election “convinced me there’s literally nothing in my backstory that would disqualify me. . . . But I’m not running against Donald Trump, I’m running against Delegate Marshall.”
Steven Jansen, a former Wayne County, Mich., prosecutor who now directs the nonprofit group Prosecutors Against Gun Violence, said Trump’s election also shocked him. But what made him enter the race was Marshall’s decision to introduce legislation forbidding transgender people from using bathrooms for the gender with which they identify.
“He’s not representing his district, he has this extremist agenda, and he’s trying to bully transgender kids,” Jansen said.
Not all of the prospective candidates have filed the required paperwork, Herring said. The deadline is March 30 for primaries; independents and candidates running against someone from another party can file as late as June 13.
In Alexandria, school board member Karen Graf will challenge fellow Democrat and first-term Del. Mark H. Levine for the nomination to represent the very liberal 45th District. Graf said she has no particular criticism of Levine, but was prompted to run by “national issues” that demand local responses.
“The timing is right for women and for education, but also for someone who cares about health care, immigration and other issues,” said Graf, who has served five years on the school board.
Levine won a five-way Democratic primary in 2015 with 28 percent of the vote and had no Republican opposition in the general election.
A self-defined progressive, he has sponsored or co-sponsored bills that have passed the House to preserve evidence for victims of sexual assault and protect people from defamation lawsuits when speaking on matters of public concern. He also has supported stricter gun laws and spoken out against Trump’s travel ban; he has the endorsement of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and 36 other state and local elected officials.
Graf said she’s proud of her tenure on the school board, which included four years as chair. She helped hire a new superintendent, kept the state from taking control of the academically challenged Jefferson-Houston School, launched a capital improvement plan in response to growing enrollment pressures and strengthened fiscal oversight.
In Herring’s district, Charles Sumpter Jr. filed paperwork establishing a campaign committee to run against her. But Sumpter, who chairs the Alexandria Commission on HIV/AIDS, said in a Facebook message Tuesday that he has reconsidered and will not run this year.
No other incumbent Democrats in Northern Virginia face primary challengers so far, Herring said, but there are still six weeks to go.
All 100 House seats are up for election this year. Local parties decide how to select their nominees.