CHESTERFIELD, Va. — In this bastion of Virginia-brand conservatism, dozens of Democratic women roared on a recent night as their organization's leader crowed over their party's historic electoral triumph.
For the first time since 1961, Chesterfield County backed a Democrat for governor — and the driving forces in this Richmond suburb included women who defiantly trumpeted a political label their party has ducked for decades.
“Are we done?” Kim Drew Wright asked members of the organization that she and her allies christened the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County after President Trump’s election last year.
"Noooooo!" the women shouted back.
Until Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) won Chesterfield County three weeks ago, the stretch of suburban and rural communities southwest of Richmond had been considered reliably Republican.
Yet voters infuriated by Trump, many of them women and Hispanics who have migrated to the county in recent years, are redefining Chesterfield and alarming Virginia Republicans who have depended on the area to make up for the support the party lacks in urban areas.
The results in Chesterfield are also a potential harbinger of what looms beyond Virginia, in suburbs where anger toward Trump is motivating voters bent on defeating Republican candidates in next year’s midterm elections.
“That’s a huge red flag for Republicans and an opportunity for Democrats,” said Jesse Ferguson, a national Democratic strategist. “There’s opportunity in these traditionally conservative suburbs with college-educated white voters who are unwilling to back a Republican candidate. It’s a function of and proof that Trump has tainted the rest of the Republicans running for office.”
Chris LaCivita, a Richmond-based GOP strategist who works on national campaigns, said Chesterfield’s results are a pointed reminder of the challenges Republicans face not only to remain competitive in Virginia’s suburbs but elsewhere.
“Midterm and off-year elections are defined by whose base is more animated and engaged and right now it’s the Democrats,” he said. “You’re going to have to work harder than ever if you’re a Republican in this environment.”
As they sift through the remains of their Chesterfield defeat, Republicans hold onto what they describe as encouraging signs, including that Ed Gillespie, their party's losing gubernatorial candidate, got 7,000 more votes in the county than Ken Cuccinelli II, the GOP's 2013 nominee.
Yet the growth in Republican turnout was overwhelmed by the ballooning number of Democratic voters. Northam received 16,000 more votes than Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) got in the county in 2013.
The Liberal Women of Chesterfield County is an example of a new breed of Democratic activism in the Richmond suburbs. The group, which says it has admitted nearly 3,000 followers to its private Facebook page, has established 13 neighborhood chapters and canvassed more than 50,000 homes in a get-out-the-vote effort. On Election Day, the group worked with the local Democratic committee to staff all 75 of the county’s polling places, something that the local party on its own had previously been unable to accomplish.
Besides championing Northam and the statewide ticket, they pushed local residents running for the first time, including the first openly gay woman elected to the House of Delegates ; a mental health administrator who came within 128 votes of defeating a Republican House of Delegates incumbent; and a British-born accountant who ran her first race and is Chesterfield's newly elected commissioner of revenue.
“I wouldn’t have done this every day for the past year if I hadn’t gotten so angry about Trump,” said Wright, 46, a mother of three who observed politics from the sidelines before last year’s presidential election. “Once you wake up and see how important local elections are, it’s hard to go back to the shadows and stick your head in the sand. Now we have our eye on everybody, from dogcatcher on up.”
Wright and her allies insisted on including “liberal” in the group’s name, reviving a political brand that Republicans and even some Democrats have lampooned or avoided. “It was defiance,” she said. “My mission is to change that connotation of ‘liberal.’ ”
The group’s next target is Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), whose district includes Chesterfield and who earlier this year complained that “the women are in my grill no matter where I go” — a reference to the activists who protested against efforts by Brat and other House Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Three women and a man who are LWCC members are among the six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Brat in 2018, a group that includes a former CIA operative, an Army veteran, and a former Marine. “Everybody loves to hate Brat,” Wright said. “There’s something about his smug little face.”
Asked about the group targeting him, Brat in a statement said Northam won because Democrats “nationalized the election and motivated their voters to go to the polls while Republicans did not.”
“Overall, when you compare the policies the liberals want and the policies I support,” he said, “it will be clear to voters in Chesterfield and throughout the 7th District what the better way forward is.”
A half-century of GOP control
The last Democratic candidate to carry Chesterfield was former governor Albertis Harrison — 56 years ago. Harrison had been the choice of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., the former Democratic governor who ran the state’s dominant political machine and led the resistance against school desegregation.
In 1965, as Byrd’s health was suffering his political influence was waning, A. Linwood Holton won Chesterfield — the first of 13 successive gubernatorial races in which the county voted Republican.
Nearly 30 years later, Republican dominance in the county peaked when gubernatorial candidate George Allen defeated Democrat Mary Sue Terry by more than 31,000 votes. In 1997, Republican James Gilmore’s margin of victory in the county was 25,000 votes.
“In presidential years and in governor’s races, the county where Republicans had their largest margins was Chesterfield,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. “It was where Republicans did their best.”
But the county evolved as its population mushroomed by nearly 25 percent between 2000 and 2016. While the number of whites in Chesterfield declined by 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, the percentage of blacks grew by 4 percent and Latinos more than doubled from 3 percent to more than 7 percent.
At the same time, Republicans’ victory margins steadily declined. In 2001, Mark R. Warner was the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate in four decades to get more than 40 percent of Chesterfield’s vote. By 2013, the Republicans’ winning margin had shrunk to eight percentage points. In 2016, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only two percentage points in Chesterfield, setting the stage for Northam to surpass Gillespie.
“I don’t think this election was generally about demographics, but in Chesterfield it was,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “In the next 10 years, it’s not going to be the Chesterfield where you slap an ‘R’ next to someone’s name and they win.”
The broader question is whether Chesterfield’s political shift is a template for suburbs nationwide, Kidd said. “The challenge for Democrats is, ‘Can you transcend Trump?’ ” Kidd said. “A lot of this is driven by women voters, but can Democrats translate that to a more permanent voter? Or is that woman going back to voting Republican once Trump is gone?”
Republicans in Chesterfield insist that the county’s shift is more about Trump than any deeper bend toward the left.
Even as Gillespie lost the county, they point out that Jill Vogel, the GOP’s candidate for lieutenant governor, and John Adams, the Republican running for attorney general, both carried Chesterfield, albeit by slim margins.
They both lost the statewide contests to Democrats Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring, respectively.
Adams, who was raised in Chesterfield County and still lives there, said the fact that he and Vogel carried the county but Gillespie lost should not be interpreted to contain any profound lesson.
“I think it’s indicative of a lot of energy on the left to vote against Republican candidates but not Republican ideals,” Adams said. “I don’t think it’s as monumental a shift as Democrats are claiming.”
Yet Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the results suggest that voters’ rejection of “Trump’s brand of Republicanism” is potent in suburban areas that are “increasingly diverse and/or highly educated.”
“These results should scare them,” Skelley said of Republicans inside Chesterfield and beyond.
From despair to resolve
On the night Trump won the presidency, Kim Drew Wright became so infuriated that she took a Sharpie and, on poster board, compared the Republican mogul to a slang word for the male sex organ, and added: "And so are you if you voted for him."
She then duct-taped it over the “Hillary for President” sign in her front yard, and was pleased when a few neighbors emailed to thank her for sharing their sentiments (she took it down the next day, afraid that kids on school buses would see her invective). A week later, Wright posted on the Clinton-inspired website “Pantsuit Nation” an open invitation to women to meet at a local tavern to share their angst over Trump.
Ninety people showed up.
Her hands shaking as she made her first public speech, Wright declared that she hated Trump “with the white-hot passion of a billion suns.” She urged everyone to “connect with others” and “know that you are not alone.”
A year later, she has a slew of new friends.
They include women such as Lynette Clements, 62, a retired computer programmer, and Sara Gaborik, 40, a criminal defense lawyer, and Becky Conner, 43, an electrical designer, all of whom help organize LWCC events, including a recent “speed dating” soiree at which advocates for a variety of progressive causes went table-to-table briefing the women on issues.
Jenefer Hughes, 54, a British-born accountant who was among those who attended the meeting, said Trump’s election is what prodded her to join LWCC, where she heard members talk of the need to find Democrats to run for office.
Soon she found herself considering a new career path, one in which she could draw on her experience as an accountant for Fortune 500 companies.
Last week, after winning her first political race, Hughes was sworn in as Chesterfield’s commissioner of revenue, a $126,000-a-year post.
“I’d like to run for governor at some point,” Hughes said in her British accent, when asked about her future political ambitions.
She insisted that she was serious.
"I didn't even know a person like me could run for office," she said. "I'm just a regular person who stood up."