Emblematic of the shift was the victory of Shelly Simonds: In 2017, she lost a Newport News seat in the House of Delegates when the winner of a tie was drawn from a bowl; in 2019, she won with 58 percent and virtually the same number of votes, while the incumbent who defeated her two years ago received 3,500 fewer votes.
Democrats have a very different party from the one that last controlled both the legislature and governor’s office, before 1993. The old coalition of small farmers, black residents and city dwellers is gone. Instead the Democrats are educated, racially and ethnically diverse and dominated by women. They want gun control and better transit, health care and schools — and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Republicans, by contrast, have a shrinking base. Their margins in the suburbs have vanished. Their voters are whiter, less educated and rural. They have stuck to the same issues — anti-tax, antiabortion, pro-gun — that are untenable for a majority party in a state that has embraced the Capital Beltway’s high-tech, value-added economy.
Just ask Danica Roem. In 2017, she proudly acknowledged that she was trans and beat Bob Marshall and his homophobic campaign by running on better roads for fast-growing Prince William County. Roem cruised to reelection.
But the emotional backdrop of the last two years in the seat of the Confederacy is statues. In August 2017, white supremacists converged on Charlottesville to defend the display of a 1924 statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback. Trump defended the protesters — producing the low point of his popularity. Four months later, the state House’s GOP bottled up bills that would have allowed localities to remove statues. It blocked Arlington from renaming Jefferson Davis Highway (Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring’s advisory opinion last spring circumvented the General Assembly).
Republicans in their 2018 Virginia Senate primary voted for a candidate who linked defenses of Trump and the statues as key planks in his unsuccessful campaign, continuing a string of statewide GOP losses dating to 2009. And in January, Senate Republicans still stopped to honor Lee — leading Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax to sit down.
Conventional wisdom is that Virginia’s Democrats go to sleep in the third year after a presidential election, when all 40 Senate seats are at the top of the ballot. But the new party ranks are the “pussy hats” of Jan. 21, 2017, who didn’t go home after the largest protest in Washington in memory. They organized, ran for office, knocked on doors, posted signs, wrote checks. They held meetings, publicized issues, built networks of committed volunteers who turned from electioneering to lobbying the legislature back to electioneering. In January, they’ll go back to Richmond to ensure that their issues are addressed. And after that, they’ll work for Trump’s defeat.
In the process, the Indivisibles and We of Action and Network NOVA and Moms Demand Action and scores of other spontaneously formed and rigorously maintained grass-roots groups have accelerated the death of the Confederacy in the same State House that governed the Lost Cause. The outgoing GOP legislature was the remaining bulwark defending its symbols, like the statues of Davis and Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
Expect that one of the first bills that Gov. Ralph Northam (himself the subject of a “blackface” scandal 10 months ago) will sign next winter will authorize localities to remove those statues. That page of our history is about to turn.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the district represented by Shelly Simonds. It is Newport News, not Virginia Beach. Both cities are part of the Hampton Roads metropolitan region.