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War of the suburbs: Virginia Democrats, GOP fight over key turf to win control of House of Delegates

Control of the Virginia House of Delegates is at stake in the Nov. 2 election, when all 100 seats are on the ballot. Democrats are trying to protect their 55-45 advantage. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — The first time Democrat Rodney Willett ran for a seat in the state House of Delegates, he could barely walk up a driveway looking for votes in his suburban Richmond district without someone shouting anti-Trump encouragement.

“I’d be 20 feet from a door and someone would see me coming and go, ‘I’m a lifelong Republican and I’m supporting you because I am so done with the party of Trump,’ ” Willett said.

That was two years ago. Now Donald Trump is out of the White House, and the top Republican on many Virginians’ radar screen is gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin — a former business executive who works hard to come across as more friendly and likable than the former president.

The red Youngkin signs now plastered all over Willett’s part of Henrico County are a particular issue for Democrats, because there’s a prize at stake this year just as coveted as the Executive Mansion: control of the House of Delegates.

All 100 seats in the House are on the Nov. 2 ballot. Democrats are defending a 55-45 advantage. Republicans need to flip just six districts to regain the majority they had enjoyed for a generation until Democrats snatched it in 2019, when voters turned out in massive numbers to express their dislike of Trump.

Control of the House probably hinges on Willett’s seat and a handful of others — almost all of them in suburban districts that could swing either way. It’s the same territory that will determine whether Youngkin or Democrat Terry McAuliffe wins the governor’s race.

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“Elections in Virginia have long been won and lost in the suburbs,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “The Democratic gains over the last four years have been concentrated in suburban districts.”

Many of those districts tipped blue by narrow margins — Willett won by a little more than four percentage points — and could easily swing back. That’s why Republicans are leaning into issues they say play well in the suburbs, such as the role of parents in schools.

“Trump exaggerated the extent to which Virginia is a Democratic state over the last four-plus years,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University.

Before 2016, Kidd said, demographic changes in the state’s diversifying population had probably given Democrats a natural advantage of 2 to 4 percent statewide — provided everyone showed up to vote. Republicans tend to be far more reliable voters in off-year contests.

But during the Trump years, Democrats won by expanding margins. Hillary Clinton edged out Trump by six points; Gov. Ralph Northam won by nine points; Joe Biden took Virginia last year by 10 points.

Opposition to Trump created “inflation” for Democrats, Kidd said. Polls now show a dead heat between former governor McAuliffe and Youngkin. “To some extent, what we’re seeing is that the inflation is receding back to something that’s probably closer to normal in Virginia,” Kidd said.

McAuliffe needs his winning streak to hold as he seeks another term as Virginia governor

That makes predicting who wins the House majority even trickier, because individual district races turn on their own issues and personalities, said Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist who spearheaded Northam’s win four years ago.

Democrats could lose the majority even if McAuliffe wins the governor’s race, Bergman said, depending on the margin of victory. Under such a scenario, an avalanche of blue votes from the state’s most populous suburban jurisdictions — such as Fairfax County — could put McAuliffe over the top in the statewide count by one or two points.

But that might mean House races in other areas — Prince William and Loudoun counties; Henrico and Chesterfield counties near Richmond; Virginia Beach and Chesapeake in the Hampton Roads region — would return to their red roots.

“I see all the internal polls for the House. We’re in tight races in every single race. So yeah, we’re up in the air. It all comes down to turnout at this point,” Bergman said.

Democrats lead across the board in fundraising for House seats. In some of the tightest races — such as three close districts in Virginia Beach — the Democratic incumbents have raised almost three times as much as their Republican challengers, showing how focused state and national Democratic groups are on these contests.

Are Virginia’s Black voters energized or tired? McAuliffe brings in the big guns to motivate a crucial Democratic constituency.

In August, the Republican State Leadership Committee rolled out a six-figure TV ad campaign against six vulnerable Democratic House incumbents. Three of them were arguably the only Democrats who remain in rural districts, including Del. Wendy Gooditis, whose Loudoun-based district also stretches into rural Frederick and Clarke counties, along with Dels. Chris L. Hurst in the Blacksburg area and Roslyn C. Tyler along the North Carolina border.

The other three were in suburban areas: Joshua G. Cole in Fredericksburg and Alex Askew and Kelly K. Convirs-Fowler in Virginia Beach — a heavily military city where Republicans say they can reclaim lost ground.

The tightest race in 2019, and one of the closest-watched now, is in the Virginia Beach district of Democratic Del. Nancy D. Guy, who won her seat by upsetting a longtime Republican incumbent by 27 votes.

Her challenger this year is lawyer and gun-shop owner Tim Anderson, who manages to mix the man-next-door affability of Youngkin with a healthy dose of Trump-style theatrics. He represented state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) in her unsuccessful fight against being censured by the state Senate, in part over her referring to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as “patriots”; posted a video on social media of himself taking a flamethrower to the Democratic policy agenda; and has posted videos to his campaign website offering guidance on challenging coronavirus vaccine policies, such as arguing that weekly testing could raise the risk of cancer.

Old guard, new guard or Trump guard: Republicans in Virginia Beach district face intriguing choices for House of Delegates candidate

Neither Anderson nor his campaign manager responded to several requests for comment for this story. While Anderson has raised only about $435,000 compared with almost $1.2 million for Guy, he has kept up a regular schedule of community events that Republicans say taps into deep grass roots support.

Guy accused Republicans of “trying to stir the culture war pot” and said she is focused on topics such as expanding access to health care, gun safety and teacher pay.

“We had 110 teacher openings the day school started in Virginia Beach. That’s a problem,” said Guy, a former school board member.

Michael Berlucchi, a Republican member of the Virginia Beach City Council, said there is a sense among some that the Democratic-controlled legislature has overplayed its hand. He cited an attempt to end qualified immunity for police officers, which protects them from lawsuits, as out of step with local sentiment.

But for some voters, the shadow of Trump still affects the way they look at the race.

Mark Harrison, who retired this year as athletic director at Virginia Beach’s Salem High School, said he has been a Republican most of his life but calls his 2016 vote for Trump “a really grave mistake.”

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As long as Trump controls the GOP, he said, he’ll support Democrats. “I’m not into this radical right,” he said after greeting McAuliffe at a recent event in Hampton Roads. “I’m a middle-of-the-road guy, you know, and we are the lost generation.”

In suburban Richmond, Willett’s Henrico County district was once considered so safely Republican that Democrats didn’t bother fielding a candidate for eight years straight.

This year’s race is a rematch between Willett and the Republican he beat by 4.5 points in 2019, Mary Margaret Kastelberg.

Willett has outraised Kastelberg considerably — $917,418 to $557,028 — but even he expects a tighter contest this time. His district, like many around the state, are “split areas,” he said. “They certainly trended Democratic in the [recent] elections. But they’re not slam-dunks.”

But Willett says he’s seen Democratic motivation climbing and Republican defectors growing as the race has gone on and Youngkin has leaned into certain themes meant to keep Trump supporters whipped up, such as critical race theory and the former president’s false claims that Biden stole the 2020 election. Republican efforts in other states to outlaw abortion, restrict voting rights and ban local efforts to mandate face masks in schools have fed into that, he said.

“People supporting me are pushing back, saying, ‘No, we don’t want that,’ ” Willett said. “So I think there’s still a Trump theme. He’s not here himself, but surrogates are here and themes are here, policies are here.”

Youngkin distances himself from controversial rally featuring Trump and Bannon

Republican Kastelberg, a Princeton-educated financial adviser, has pushed back against Willett’s attempts to tie her to Trump extremes. She describes herself as “pro-life,” for instance, but said she would not support a Texas-style abortion ban.

As Texas law takes effect, abortion looms large in Virginia governor’s race

She also has struck a softer tone on education than Youngkin, saying critical race theory isn’t something she hears about in Henrico.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the fever pitch that it is in Loudoun,” she said. “It’s more, ‘We’ve got to get our students back on track after being out of school [after pandemic shutdowns].’ ”

She, in turn, has attacked Willett for voting over 99 percent of the time with fellow Democrats. He doesn’t dispute the number but says it doesn’t reflect the negotiations that go on as a bill makes it through the legislature, citing the example of compromises that made environmental legislation more moderate.

“I said the Green New Deal is not going to fly in Henrico County,” he said. “Making progress on the environment will fly, but you’ve got to do it in a business-friendly way.”

In another slice of Henrico, Democratic challenger Blakely Lockhart lets voters know that Republican Del. John J. McGuire III (Goochland), a former Navy SEAL, attended the Jan. 6 insurrection and snapped a selfie not far from the besieged Capitol.

“He took an oath to protect and defend our Constitution, and his actions went completely against our democracy,” she said.

Trump fans election fraud theme as Virginia governor candidate Youngkin walks tightrope

But she does not rely heavily on that theme in a district that even Democrats call a stretch, reaching into deep-red Goochland and Louisa counties. Lockhart, a Henrico native and recent college graduate who put off medical school to challenge McGuire, is stressing her support for some policies championed by Youngkin, including repeal of the grocery tax.

McGuire, known for flying enormous Trump flags from his truck, has said he did not enter the Capitol on Jan. 6. A spokesman said McGuire “represents that area very well.”

Just south of Richmond, Democratic challenger Debra Gardner is going after veteran Del. Roxann L. Robinson (R-Chesterfield) for suggesting the coronavirus vaccine might be unsafe.

“She’s been out here denying the science,” said Gardner, who was chief deputy director of the state Department of Corrections under then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

Robinson, a recently retired optometrist, said she has been vaccinated but opposes mandating the shot as a matter of personal choice — and because she thinks its safety is unproven.

“If they mandate this [vaccine] this time, what are they going to mandate next?” said Robinson, who also contends parents should decide if their children wear masks to school.

Robinson first won the office in a 2010 special election, drew no Democratic challenger in 2011 and 2013, and crushed an underfunded Democrat in 2015. But while Trump was in the White House, she barely squeaked out victories in 2017 and 2019.

But Robinson says voters seem done with Democrats now for hiking gas taxes and feeding labor shortages with a temporary boost to unemployment benefits.

House Speaker Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who became the first woman in the chamber’s 400 years to hold that post after Democrats won the majority two years ago, said she believes the party’s agenda of change is aimed squarely at suburban Virginians.

“We told them we are going to move forward on the issues that are important to them and we delivered,” Filler-Corn said, citing improving access to health care, increasing funding for schools, passing gun control and securing voting rights.

GOP efforts to stir anger — such as blaming Democrats for the handling of sexual assault allegations in Loudoun County schools — are “scare tactics,” she said. “They have nothing else. They have no vision. They have no plan.”

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House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said Democrats have made the landscape more favorable to Republicans by overreaching in areas ranging from higher gas taxes to a criminal justice overhaul that he says “made criminals out to be victims and police the bad guys.”

“The momentum is shifting in Republicans’ favor right now because they failed to realize what they had on their hands was not a mandate for pursuing a far-left agenda, but maybe a frustration with the national political environment,” Gilbert said. “And they sure misread it.”