This is a pivotal election year in Virginia, where all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot in November. Republicans maintain control by the thinnest of margins — just a two-seat majority in each chamber. In addition to shaping the legislative agenda, the party that controls the General Assembly will oversee the 2021 redistricting process.
Going into this year, the party had expected its three statewide officeholders — Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring — to campaign often and enthusiastically for legislative candidates.
But those plans were derailed by February revelations that Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook featured a racist photo and his admission that he wore blackface for a dance contest that same year, as well as sexual assault allegations dating from the 2000s against Fairfax and Herring’s disclosure that he, too, wore blackface as a young man.
Luria, Spanberger and Wexton provide a welcome respite from issues of race and sexual assault, and they remind Democratic voters what they can accomplish in the era of President Trump, party observers say.
“You’ve got three guys who are in trouble and three women who are on fire,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.). “The freshman Virginia Democratic women are the success story this year at a time that there’s been some rough news for our party in Virginia.”
Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said the women helped flip control of the House and the state’s congressional delegation, meaningful turnabouts for voters angry about Trump’s election.
“That was a big win for us,” she said. “There was nothing more devastating and heartbreaking for us than election night of 2016. After that, it was the women who stood up to run. I think women had just had enough.”
The female lawmakers expect to ramp up their campaign work during recesses and after the June 11 primary.
They will be joined on the campaign trail by Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine as well as Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Gerald E. Connolly, Don Beyer and A. Donald McEachin. Former governor Terry McAuliffe, who decided against a presidential bid, is also working on behalf of Democratic candidates for the legislature. McAuliffe said he made the call in part because Virginia Democrats had asked for his help.
The Democrats are all expected to attend the state party’s June 15 Blue Commonwealth Gala, its biggest fundraiser of the year.
Republican Reps. Rob Wittman, H. Morgan Griffith, Ben Cline and Denver Riggleman are also campaigning for their party’s legislative candidates, and their work will increase this summer. The state GOP seized on Democrats’ troubles as soon as the session ended and will continue to try to capitalize on the scandals ahead of Election Day.
This year’s races give the Democratic women a chance to build profiles that could put them in contention for statewide office, although none have raised the possibility publicly and they are careful to say their home districts are the priority.
“There’s no doubt that with Northam and Fairfax weakened, Democrats are turning to other elected officials, especially female newcomers, as the future of their party,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s possible that Luria, Spanberger and Wexton have leapfrogged the current Democratic leaders at the state level for future statewide openings.”
Of the three, Wexton has the most leeway to endorse candidates in contested primaries without fear of alienating voters because of her 12-point victory in a Northern Virginia district long thought to be moving left.
She has attended more than a dozen events for candidates since December and plans nine more.
“I have a bigger, better platform as a member of Congress than I did a state senator, and I take that very seriously,” Wexton said of the post-scandal political landscape.
Luria, a former Navy commander who owns a business in Norfolk, and Spanberger, a former CIA agent from the Richmond suburbs, won districts that voted for Trump and will probably be targeted by Republicans in 2020, making their task more delicate.
Each said they would campaign outside their districts if needed, especially considering that on drives to their home districts they pass through competitive territory.
“We are thrilled to be an asset to our 2019 races because you don’t win an election or flip a chamber alone. Many of the 2019 candidates fought for us last year, and we’re ready to have their backs in 2019,” Luria said in statement.
“Recognizing some of the challenges we’re facing at the state level, it’s important for me to uplift all voices,” Spanberger said in an interview.
All three won their races in the 2018 midterm elections thanks to strong suburban and exurban turnout that the party wants to replicate this year.
Right after the scandals broke, Spanberger, Luria, Wexton, the state Democratic Party and nearly every prominent Democrat called on Northam and Fairfax to resign. Swecker, the state party chairwoman, sidestepped questions about why they remain in office.
“We’ve moved on,” she said. “We’ve got important elections ahead to take back the House and Senate and to have a General Assembly that can do good things and move Virginia forward, so that’s what we’re focused on.”