CHARLOTTESVILLE — David Toscano ought to be the most comfortable Democrat in Virginia.
He represents a university town so deeply blue that Republicans aren’t bothering to challenge him for reelection to the General Assembly. From his perch as minority leader in the House of Delegates, Toscano shapes his party’s strategy and priorities.
But he has been put on notice: Toscano has a primary opponent, a fellow Democrat trying to unseat him. And his opponent’s message is that there should be no comfortable Democrats right now.
For a party that has struggled in recent years to field candidates even against Republicans, the intramural challenge to Toscano shows a new level of restlessness in the era of Trump. Democrats motivated by last fall’s presidential defeat have poured into Virginia House races, where all 100 seats are on the ballot this fall and Republicans enjoy a 66-34 advantage.
Democrats are challenging in 54 of those Republican districts, up from 21 in 2015.
The aggressive slate of candidates, including a record number of women, is part of a national effort by Democrats to reemphasize state and local elections after watching Republicans make massive gains in recent years. Many of the new Democrats are untested, and are converging from a variety of backgrounds and progressive groups that are elbowing past the traditional party.
Nowhere is that more plain than in Toscano’s district, where his challenger’s objective is to pull the Democratic Party to the left — to abandon what he sees as the politics of compromise in favor of urgency.
“It must be scary to have a challenge to the conventional way of doing politics,” said Ross Mittiga, the 28-year-old University of Virginia instructor and graduate student who is taking on Toscano. “I’m sure in their mind, we are risking alienating some kind of center that they think they’re going to appeal to. But that’s not a winning strategy anymore.”
Mittiga has been studying another intraparty revolution: The way disgruntled Richmond-area Republicans toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in that party’s primary for Congress in 2014. That dramatic upset, which put college professor Dave Brat into office, blew up the Republican establishment and marked the arrival of the tea party.
The Cantor parallel is not lost on Toscano. “There is some of that going on,” he said. “Say what you will about candidates that make you uncomfortable, but they force you to think about things. It forces me to do my homework.”
A similar dynamic is playing out in Virginia’s governor’s race, where former congressman Tom Perriello is mounting an insurgent challenge against establishment favorite Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination.
Perriello, also from Charlottesville, is riding a surge of national support from Sen. Bernie Sanders and progressive activists who say the party machinery failed them last fall. Toscano’s race shows how far that dynamic is reaching down the ballot in this year’s state races.
Mittiga, like Perriello, has picked up an endorsement from Sanders’s political action committee, Our Revolution. He still faces extremely long odds to upset Toscano, whose name recognition and cash advantage are enormous.
But his presence is being felt. While Hillary Clinton whupped Sanders statewide for the nomination last year, it was a different story in Charlottesville: 8 of 10 precincts went for Sanders.
“That has to be at least a little bit disconcerting for Toscano,” said political analyst Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “As the leader for Democrats in the House of Delegates, if he were to lose, it would be obviously surprising. But I think it would be really telling about the mood of Democrats at the moment. Also it would be sort of amazing in Virginia just from the perspective of a shift to the left for the party.”
Toscano, 66, has been around long enough to see something of himself in Mittiga — his own rise was partly to rebel against the politics of then-President George W. Bush. Toscano was mayor of Charlottesville and served on City Council before being elected to the House of Delegates in 2005.
His law office is in an old house a few blocks off the downtown pedestrian mall, which he helped rejuvenate as mayor, and his home is a five-minute walk beyond that. Toscano knows, seemingly, everyone. Couples, retirees, college kids, shopkeepers — he can hardly walk three steps without being hailed or hugged.
“He’s a Republican, but he always votes for me,” Toscano says as he shakes hands with ice cream shop owner Tony LaBua.
“I always cross lines . . .” LaBua begins.
“. . . and he’s a great American,” Toscano finishes.
While he says he welcomes the competition from Mittiga, Toscano clearly bristles at the notion that he hasn’t lived up to progressive ideals. He took part in a testy debate with Mittiga a few weeks ago, and the two have battled through social media and public statements.
“I’ll hold our record against anybody who wants to make the case that we’re not in sync with Democratic values,” said Toscano, who reminds anyone he meets in the street to vote for him in the June 13 primary.
He gets the anti-Trump fervor, he said. During floor speeches in this year’s legislative session, Toscano railed against actions taken by Trump — the travel ban, government hiring freeze, health-care repeal — and made a show of asking Republicans to sign on to letters of concern he sent to the new president.
He can tick off a list of progressive issues he agrees with: protecting the environment, raising the minimum wage, making college more affordable, reworking campaign finance, protecting women’s access to abortion.
But with a legislature controlled by Republicans, he said, progress is slow. He said he would like to reject donations from big corporations such as Dominion Energy, as Mittiga has done, but won’t until Republicans do the same.
And some issues need time to build support. For instance, Toscano said, college tuition relief seems to be gathering momentum. “I think at some point, it’s going to happen,” he said.
Mittiga has no patience for that. Raised in rural Florida, Mittiga came to Charlottesville about five years ago to study the political and ethical aspects of climate change. He worked for the Sanders campaign and grew increasingly active on environmental and progressive issues.
After Trump won election last fall, Mittiga said his despair drove him to look harder at issues close to home. One of the most urgent was the proposed construction of two natural gas pipelines through mountainous parts of Virginia. When he discovered that Toscano has not opposed the pipelines and that he has received thousands in donations from energy companies, Mittiga decided he had to act.
Toscano and most Democrats in Richmond have spent too long appeasing Republicans and corporations, he said. “They’re too cozy with corporate interests. They consistently failed to protect us from the ravages of right-wing extremism.”
Like Perriello or Sanders, Mittiga is convinced voters are far ahead of their elected officials and burning for change. Years of pragmatic compromise, he said, have led to weak policy. “Tepid centrism is not really appealing to anyone right now.”
So while Toscano may say his heart is in the right place on all those issues, that’s not good enough for Mittiga. The challenger sees immediate policy goals: universal health care, opposition to the pipelines, free college tuition, the end of private prisons, economic fairness, a “robust” inheritance tax.
His original intent, Mittiga said, was to push Toscano to the left on all that. But that has hardened into something more ambitious.
“I thought Mr. Toscano would take on my positions, but he hasn’t,” Mittiga said. “Now my sincere hope is that he’ll get out of the way.”
With his all-volunteer campaign staff, Mittiga is relying heavily on enthusiastic young supporters. It hurts that most U.Va. students won’t be in town for the June 13 primary. He’s had almost no interaction with the Perriello campaign but has drawn support from the Democratic Socialists of America, which has a chapter in Charlottesville.
Last month, Mittiga was among 40 novice candidates or aspiring candidates from around Virginia selected for a training session by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the national group affiliated by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The participants reflected the diverse array of Democrats suddenly motivated to get involved — first-generation immigrants and fifth-generation Virginians. Men and women. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern. Christians, Muslim, Jews and atheists.
What they had in common was a disaffection with politics as usual and a desire to win seats across the commonwealth, from school boards and city councils to the General Assembly and Congress.
This explosion of activity raises issues for Democrats, though, who don’t know whether the enthusiasm will wane or congeal into a sense of unified purpose.
In Mittiga’s case, if the predictable happens and he loses the primary, will he support Toscano in the fall? Would he support Northam if Perriello’s bid for governor falls short?
“My feeling is — keep ’em in suspense,” Mittiga said. “It’s not appealing right now for me to be afraid enough to vote for Ralph Northam and David Toscano. What’s appealing is for them to be afraid enough that they’ll lose the progressive vote that they’ll become progressives. That’s where the fear should be.”
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, an up-and-coming Democrat who sees himself steering the city on a progressive course, said Mittiga’s passion is exciting, but familiar.
Howard Dean, John Edwards — past Democratic presidential candidates have tapped into the same populist progressivism Sanders inspires now, he said. He sees it in Perriello, an old friend. But Signer is supporting Northam and Toscano in the primary.
At some point, he said, that zealous idealism faces the reality of governing.
“We would be in a very sad place in America if idealism had no role in our democracy,” Signer said. “Idealism sets your horizon. It sets the aspiration that realists then go about implementing.”
Joe Heim contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Progressive Change Campaign Committee was founded by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The PCCC recruited Warren to run for Senate and is strongly identified with her but was not founded by her. This story has been updated.