“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Spasojevich, 41, said at a campaign event in suburban Richmond that drew 200 activists despite the fact it was a torrid Sunday afternoon in August. “We will never skip an election or ignore candidates for the rest of our lives.”
Consider it one more norm smashed by an iconoclastic presidency: This “off-off” election year in Virginia is surprisingly on.
Virginia holds elections every year, and the “off-off” year — with just state legislative races and no presidential or statewide contest — is the most easily ignored by voters. The campaign cycle is much shorter than for federal or statewide contests, television ads are scarce, and turnout historically hovers around 30 percent.
Republicans tend to vote in those quieter elections, while Democrats “get a little sleepy” in nonpresidential years, as former president Barack Obama put it at a 2017 rally for now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
But after Trump’s election, Democratic turnout surged in the two statewide elections that followed. The biggest test could come in November, with all 140 state House and Senate seats on the ballot but no statewide contests to otherwise drive turnout.
“To have the turnout advantage favor the Democrats in off years was very significant and was really an example of what I call the negative Trump effect,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political analyst. “The question is, does that still linger in 2019? Can the Democrats gin that up again?”
The stakes could not be higher for the state — and beyond.
Republicans are clinging to control of the General Assembly by the thinnest of margins. If Democrats win the House and Senate, the party will control every lever of state power for the first time in 25 years. Many long-stymied Democratic goals — to restrict guns, expand gay rights, loosen restrictions on abortion and raise the minimum wage, to name a few — would probably become law. And a Democratic legislature would redraw state legislative and congressional districts following the 2020 Census, affecting elections into the future.
The results in Virginia — the only Southern state Trump lost in 2016 — will be viewed nationally as a bellwether for the 2020 presidential contest. Virginia is one of just four states with legislative races in 2019 but the only one considered competitive. The GOP has a 51-48 edge in the House and a 20-19 advantage in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.
Virginia Republicans, already forced to run on a less favorable House map imposed by the courts to remedy racial gerrymandering, concede that Trump will energize Democrats again this year. But they say Democrats won’t have the element of surprise this time.
“At this point, every Republican political plan has built high Democratic-base intensity into it,” said John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. “We know that Democrats are going to turn out at very high rates this fall. We’re going to get our guys out, too. . . . We’re ready for it.”
Some Republicans also express hope that after three years, the tumultuous Trump administration has lost some of its shock value. And that at the very least, the robust economy Trump has presided over has blunted some of the Democrats’ outrage.
Measuring enthusiasm is an inexact science, but Democrats say their fundraising, volunteer activity and roster of candidates suggest the blue wave has not subsided.
Democrats are running in 36 of the 40 state Senate districts — a modern record — while Republicans have candidates in just 25, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. On the House side, Democrats are running in 92 of 100 districts — another record — while just 72 Republicans are competing.
All those Democratic contenders have snapped a trend in off-year races, when the number of uncontested House races usually rises. In the past four cycles with a governor’s race, an average of 50 House seats went uncontested. That average jumped to 70 in recent cycles without a governor’s race.
In 2017, when Northam ran, the number of uncontested House seats was sharply lower — just 39. Today, in a non-gubernatorial year, when the number would typically rise, it instead fell to 36.
“This is an important trend, and it speaks to the opportunities Democrats see for the party in 2019,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist. “Since 2017 and 2018 led to some unexpected victories in Virginia, Democrats are running in more districts than the norm.”
Democrats raised more money in the fundraising period that ended in June, with national groups pouring millions into the state. They also led in small donations, an indicator of grass-roots support. In the first half of 2019, Democrats running for the state House and Senate raised $1.7 million in contributions of $100 or less, compared with $444,000 for Republicans.
But not every small donor represents someone who can cast a ballot in November. Thirty-seven cents of every $1 in small donations made this year to Virginia Democrats through ActBlue came from outside the state, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The Democratic Party of Virginia said it has more volunteers than four years ago, the last off-off-year election. In nine key races in the Richmond suburbs, 258 people volunteered in August alone — up from 142 in those districts for all of 2015, the party said. How that compares with Republican volunteers is unclear. The state GOP said it does not collect those figures, and individual campaigns declined to disclose numbers.
Anecdotally, there are signs that the Democratic energy uncorked in Virginia by Trump three years ago continues to build, most notably in once-reliably red suburbs that have gone blue in subsequent elections. Democrats like Spasojevich who got active immediately after Trump’s win remain engaged. And they are getting help from newcomers, some prodded by the prospect of Trump’s reelection next year.
In suburban swing territory south of the James River, Janet Shelly found herself one recent weeknight doing campaign work for the first time in her life. She’d gotten the nudge she needed a few days earlier, when a neighbor invited her to a meet-and-greet for Democrat Larry Barnett.
Barnett is in a rematch with Del. Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield), who’s held the seat since 2010. He first challenged her in 2017, losing by just 128 votes in a district that Trump won by four points.
“I met Larry for the first time and became interested in doing something other than being frustrated by the current state of affairs,” said Shelly, 63, a Midlothian retiree.
Scribbling out postcards alongside veteran activists, Shelly said she has no particular beef with Robinson. The Republican had broken with her party this year to sponsor bills supporting the federal Equal Rights Amendment and banning anti-LGBT discrimination in housing. But Shelly wants to flip the House because Republican leaders kept those bills — and measures to restrict guns — from reaching the House floor, where they might have passed.
“I think I don’t have any really negative feelings about her, but I do have negative feelings about what hasn’t been done because of the [Republican] control,” Shelly said.
North of the river, another lifelong Democrat was getting her first taste of campaign work. Lorine Colletti, 76, teamed up with her next-door neighbors to co-host a gathering for two Henrico County Democrats. Both flipped seats in the 2017 wave: Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who faces Republican GayDonna Vandergriff; and Del. Debra Rodman, who is trying to unseat Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico).
Colletti, a retired high school cafeteria manager who also plans to canvass for the Democrats, was almost apologetic as she explained why she was motivated to do more this year.
“I’m sorry to bring this up because this is just local people, but my big thing is the president,” she said. “What he’s doing to the children down there on the [U.S.-Mexico] border, how he speaks about women — I don’t know how any woman could vote for that gentleman. We can’t tolerate another four years.”
Her comment — that the legislative candidates are “just local people” — is central to the strategy of many Republicans trying to keep a distance from Trump, whose approval rating among Virginians was 27 percent in a recent Roanoke College poll.
Virginia has part-time lawmakers, many of them known in their districts for their community service or “day jobs.” GOP leaders say that nationalizing races against a local teacher, coach, pharmacist or doctor will be difficult.
To that end, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a retired teacher and baseball coach facing a challenge in a redrawn district from Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman, released a cinematic, 60-second TV ad celebrating his days as “Coach Cox.” Dunnavant, an obstetrician-gynecologist who has delivered thousands of babies in the area, plays that up in her campaign slogan: “Dunnavant delivers.”
“It’s super cool when you’re knocking on a door and they’re like, ‘Oh, she delivered my child! Do you want to meet my child?’ ” said Kristen Bennett, 22, Dunnavant’s volunteer coordinator. “It’s a very emotional connection.”
One of Dunnavant’s most devoted foot soldiers is a patient, Diane Schriewer, 71. She had an appointment the day after the doctor announced her 2015 bid and has been volunteering for her ever since.
Although they have so far emphasized broadly popular “kitchen table” issues such as K-12 education and college affordability, some Republicans eventually plan to raise more partisan issues to turn out the GOP base. They note that conservative activists have been fired up by Democrats’ unsuccessful effort this year to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions and restrict guns after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach. They also say that Trump has fans even in the suburbs, noting that a Women for Trump event drew a big crowd in August in deeply blue Fairfax.
But issues that most animate Republicans also carry a risk in the suburbs, where they have the potential to turn off swing voters and inflame Democrats. Most of that will come late in the cycle, in highly targeted mailings and digital ads, said one GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
“Once we remind them of the issues, they’re going to go vote,” the strategist said. “Guns and abortion, benefits for illegals — there will be tons of mail on that.”
Part of what motivates Democrats is how close they came to flipping the House two years ago. Even Democratic Party leaders did not anticipate wiping out the GOP’s 2-to-1 majority in the House, the only chamber up for election that year. Control came down to a single race and dumb luck, with a name drawn out of a bowl to decide a tie. The Republican incumbent won, allowing his party to hang on to the House.
“We’re so close, you can taste it,” Robyn Sordelett, 32, a social worker who wants stricter gun laws, said at the event Colletti helped host for Henrico Democrats. “The Virginia that I want for my children, that my children deserve and all children deserve, is four seats away.”
Win or lose in November, Democrats say they will keep going. Twice a week, Cindy Sussan opens the first floor of her Midlothian house to volunteers.
About 30 were at work one recent Tuesday at her kitchen and dining room tables, and at six-foot banquet tables set up in the sun room and in what used to be a fancy living room.
The retired analyst did the same thing for Spanberger last year. Volunteers cranked out 10,000 postcards for the U.S. representative, who will be up for reelection in 2020.
This year, Sussan is focused on Barnett and other Chesterfield Democrats. Next year, she said, she’ll be back to Spanberger.
“The house stays like this. We don’t tear it down,” said Sussan, 68. “We’ll go through the election, we’ll take the rest of the month off, [plus] December and January. And then we’ll start up again for Abigail.”
Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.