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Once again, Virginia Democrats are looking to female candidates to cement their grip on power

RICHMOND — This fall's elections for all 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates will look unlike any the state has ever seen, with women leading the way in unprecedented fashion for Democrats and contests playing out in parts of the state that haven't seen competitive races in years.

While both major parties are fielding a record number of female candidates, Democrats have crossed a historic threshold: For the first time, women account for more than half of the party's House nominees, 50 out of a total of 97.

The slate that took final form after the June 8 primary elections will battle for control of the House, with Democrats defending the majority they won two years ago after a generation in the wilderness and Republicans fired up to reclaim power.

The size and diversity of the slate of candidates for both parties underlines the stakes in a wealthy, politically evolving state that always draws national attention for its post-presidential election contests. The only other statewide races this year are in New Jersey, which is seen as safely Democratic.

For the first time in living memory, the two major parties are running candidates in almost every district in Virginia — Republicans in all but one, Democrats in all but three.

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That’s a dramatic increase from as recently as 2015, when only 29 of 100 districts featured races contested by both parties, with Republicans firmly in control and Democrats focused on running in the most populous urban areas.

The next year, of course, Donald Trump won the White House and sparked a political backlash that catapulted Virginia Democrats to dominance. Democrats’ defense of their House majority will test whether voters simply rallied to them in defiance of Trump. Republicans will test whether they can overcome Trump’s unpopularity in Virginia and get back in favor.

The new faces running for both parties “shows that the enthusiasm of that Trump era really could carry over to these future elections,” said J. Miles Coleman, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Turnout for the June 8 primaries — which also involved choosing Democratic nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — hit 8 percent of registered voters, down from the record 9.9 percent of 2017, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. But it was the second-highest level since 1994, when it reached 8.9 percent, VPAP said.

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And turnout was better than four years ago in the largely blue, vote-rich cities and suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, VPAP found — a good sign for Democrats heading into the fall.

The shift of suburban women toward Democrats has been one of the most dramatic elements of the state’s recent blue tilt. Female candidates led the way for the big gains Democrats made in the General Assembly in 2017 and 2019, but this year is a new high-water mark.

Democrats are running nearly as many female candidates this year (50) as the total number of candidates — of both genders — that they fielded in House races in 2015 (57).

“It’ll be the year of the woman,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), the first woman to hold that position in the General Assembly’s 402-year history.

Republicans are getting the message, said longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “It was important for them not to simply be perceived as the party that just represented one gender,” he said.

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This year, 23 of the 99 Republican House candidates are women — a record for the party, up from 14 in 2019 and nine the year before that.

Delegates Emily M. Brewer (Suffolk) and Terry G. Kilgore (Scott), from opposite ends of the state, headed up recruiting efforts for Republicans this year and said they had no trouble finding fresh candidates.

“This is my 28th year in the General Assembly, and I have never seen that many people fired up to run,” Kilgore said.

He and Brewer said many have been motivated by frustration with the restrictions imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to fight the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to dislike of Democratic efforts to strengthen gun control and overhaul criminal justice policies.

“We have had the family unit and everyday structure disrupted in so many ways,” Brewer said, mentioning the closure of schools and the struggle to find child care. “That created such a hardship that it inspired several [women] running in this cycle to run for office.”

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Republican candidates have also generally shifted to the right this year. In Virginia Beach, former Del. Chris Stolle — a moderate who lost his longtime seat two years ago to a Democrat by 27 votes — appears to have lost the chance to run for it again to lawyer Tim Anderson, who has a flamboyantly Trump-like style. Anderson is ahead by 28 votes.

In Southside Virginia, seven-term incumbent Del. Charles D. Poindexter (R-Franklin) suffered an unexpected upset to newcomer Wren Williams, a lawyer who helped represent the Trump campaign during the Wisconsin vote recount.

Several other Republican candidates have gone further than most incumbents in questioning the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election victory. In suburban Richmond, for instance, GOP challenger Christopher Holmes posted on Facebook that “anomalies in the 2020 election . . . gave us single party rule” and were the “beginning of tyranny.”

While three delegates wrote a letter in January seeking to nullify Virginia’s electoral vote, most GOP delegates have acknowledged the outcome, though they push for “election integrity” laws.

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Kilgore dismissed the notion that Trump’s unfounded accusations of voter fraud will gain ground with the new crop of Virginia Republicans.

“I don’t hear that a lot,” he said. “We just want to move forward and try to offer our message to Virginia as to what we can bring to the table.”

“Election integrity is important to all voters; I don’t think that’s a Republican or Democrat issue,” Brewer said. Rather than a shift to the right, she said, “I think what we’re experiencing is a shift to common sense, a shift to a direct understanding of how the legislative process affects everyday lives.”

Democrats say the impact of legislation is exactly why they expect to retain — or even extend — their majority in the House.

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“People understand what’s at stake in November,” Filler-Corn said. With extraordinary action in the past two years to expand gun control, end the death penalty, legalize marijuana, fund education and more, she said, “we’ve given [candidates] a record to protect and build upon.”

Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) said he has no worries that Democratic voters will lose their enthusiasm without Trump in the White House to egg them on. “Folks talk about Trump like he went away, but the mind-set and the hate that Trump embodies is still there,” he said.

Bagby, who heads the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he is particularly excited about the potential for increasing the diversity of the General Assembly. In two of Tuesday’s primary contests, White Democratic incumbents were unseated by Black challengers: Michelle Maldonado over Lee J. Carter in Manassas and Nadarius Clark over Stephen E. Heretick in Portsmouth. If both hold on to those seats and other incumbents win, they could expand the Black Caucus — which covers both House and Senate — from 23 to 25.

With other Black candidates challenging in competitive races, “a quarter of the House of Delegates could in fact be Black,” Bagby said. “I’m excited about what the future looks like.”