On Tuesday, the Virginia governor’s race will be the biggest show in town.
But further down ballot, the usually sleepy state legislative contests are drawing an unusual surge of interest from Democrats across the country.
President Trump’s election sprouted a network of activists who want to flip seats blue. It served as a wake-up call for Democrats to pay attention to lower-profile state races as a way to chart a path back to power.
For a new crop of Democratic groups, Virginia is the opening salvo and a testing ground ahead of what they hope is a wave election in 2018.
Virginia is the first state to hold a competitive contest for governor after Trump moved into the White House, and both parties want to win it — the Democrats as a rebuke of Trump, and the Republicans to show they are not blemished by an unpopular president.
It’s also a purple state where Democrats have been winning statewide since 2009, but Republicans hold 66 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Democrats are running in 54 GOP-held districts this year, and scores of groups — some well-financed, some loosely organized, are looking to leave their mark on those contests.
There’s a Democratic super PAC planning to spend $1 million — with an eye to a bigger goal of raising $100 million to take control of state houses across the country.
An organization founded by wealthy Virginia donors and bankrolled by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is beta-testing technology to help low-budget campaigns run more efficiently.
Activists in solidly Democratic states are forming groups to help Virginia from afar, by fundraising and making phone calls.
“We certainly had a lot of support in ’13 and ’15, but the level of the support now is astronomically larger,” said Trent Armitage, the executive director of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus. “It’s incredibly reflective of the energy we have seen across the country, and the fact that Virginia is first in a post-Trump world is making it even more pronounced.”
Republican state lawmakers and candidates aren’t seeing the same influx of outside groups coming to their cause. They benefit from a massive war chest accumulated after years of controlling the chamber, increased financial support from the long-standing Republican State Leadership Committee and the name recognition and legislative record that comes with incumbency.
“You can bring all the outside money you want, but we have proven our value in governing Virginia effectively while we’ve had the opportunity,” said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who is set to be the majority leader if his party maintains control of the chamber.
While Democrats this year have also looked for clues about 2018 in a handful of special elections to fill congressional vacancies around the country, Virginia’s legislative races may be a better bellwether because the turnout will be similar to the midterms, said David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“The House of Delegates races in Virginia this November could tell us more about 2018 than any other election this year,” Wasserman said. “Democrats will find out whether Trump can motivate enough casual voters to flip seats because they came close to winning a number of these [Virginia] seats in 2013 and 2015.”
The flood of outside groups also presents challenges for Democrats. Many disagree about whether to pour resources into races perceived as winnable, such as those where the Republican incumbent is retiring or where Hillary Clinton prevailed last year or whether to try to expand the map to red-leaning rural and suburban districts.
Not every lesson from Virginia will translate to other states. Lax finance campaign rules in the Old Dominion allow groups to pour in unlimited sums and directly coordinate with campaigns.
“Other state legislative elections are not going to have quite the same national attention paid to them,” said Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of Run for Something, which helps train and raise money for 10 delegate candidates in Virginia. “But it’s important for us to start learning the lessons from Virginia now, so we can start applying those in 2018 when we don’t have as much national focus on one state.”
New groups, new tools
Democrat Jennifer Carroll Foy, running for an open seat in the Washington exurbs Clinton carried by 17 points, is seen as a prime pickup opportunity for her party.
Foy’s campaign manager Teddy Smyth (himself plucked from an outside group: the Progressive Campaign Change Committee) has a spreadsheet on his computer keeping track of 73 representatives of outside groups coming to her aid. They include a Sister District program in Massachusetts raising money, a group of Los Angeles filmmakers cutting a campaign ad and a D.C. organization deploying canvassers.
Also on Smyth’s laptop are portals to technology tools provided by new groups trying to help shoestring campaigns.
Mobilize America, a group founded by an Obama staffer turned Silicon Valley executive, seeks to wrangle grass-roots energy with an app connecting people to volunteer events that is synced to their calendars and email inboxes for reminders. That saves campaign staffers time spent calling volunteers.
Win Virginia, a PAC led by former U.S. congressman Tom Perriello — who unsuccessfully challenged Northam for the Democratic nomination for governor in June — is also connecting candidates for the House of Delegates to organizing tools. They range from simple (a portal for supporters to upload video testimonials) to complex (a program to easily send local voters texts about upcoming events and reminders to vote — which Republicans blasted as spam).
Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prolific Democratic donor, has given $300,000 to Win Virginia, nearly a third of its funding.
“We are experimenting in different types of technologies, different types of messages, just to see what will reach voters who haven’t been reached,” said Dmitri Mehlhorn, a venture capitalist and political strategist who advises Hoffman.
Chief among lessons to be learned from Virginia: how to tap into voter dissatisfaction with Trump while also focusing on local issues like schools, roads and taxes?
“There is a big debate among Democratic circles on if Democrats should focus just on how horrible the president is,” said Ravi Gupta, co-founder of The Arena, which produced digital biography ads for six candidates and is testing what resonates best online. “The Virginia race is in so many ways a gateway to discussions folk should be having about ’18.”
Others are lending their star power to down-ballot races.
Democrat Jason Kander drew national attention in 2016 after nearly unseating Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in a state Trump handily won. Now he heads Let America Vote, a group that aims to combat gerrymandering and voter suppression.
His call to action has drawn 114 interns since June — some who learned about the group on the popular Pod Save America podcast, others who were among his 240,000 Twitter followers — to a field office in Manassas, Va., where they canvass for Democrats in 10 Northern Virginia races.
That’s success, Kander says. “We are going to use the same boots on the ground strategy in five states we expand to in 2018,” he said.
Republicans, who are watching these efforts, see it as playing catch up. In 2010, the GOP executed a strategy that helped Republicans win control of 22 additional state legislatures, which allowed the party to redraw legislative districts and solidify its control of Congress.
Several Democratic groups are trying to replicate their success.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, backed by former president Barack Obama and chaired by his former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., has sent more than $1.2 million to Virginia Democrats as part of its strategy to limit GOP influence over redistricting in 2021.
A similar group is Forward Majority, a super PAC founded by Obama campaign alumni, that’s using Virginia as its “prototype” as its eyes as an expansion to states including Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Kentucky.
Forward Majority’s $1 million foray into Virginia involves digital advertising and voter outreach in 12 contests that aren’t top priorities of party leadership.
The group is experimenting with text messaging and digital advertising as a way to draw voters to the polls in what is traditionally a low turnout election the year after a presidential contest.
Meanwhile, the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group dedicated to electing Republicans in down-ballot races around the country, nearly tripled its giving to Virginia’s GOP House leadership from $258,000 in 2013 to $755,000 this year.
The Democratic groups will learn on Tuesday if the attention and money they’ve invested in Virginia was worth it.
“Failure to deliver and translate momentum into electoral outcomes in Virginia this fall could be very damaging for our overall progress as a party,” said Vicky Hausman, co-founder of Forward Majority. “With Donald Trump in the White House, now more than ever we should be able to translate this enthusiasm into electoral success.”