From Abortion to Gun Rights, Virginia's Upcoming Elections Have National Implications
Why national advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood and the NRA are spending millions to influence November races.
Illustration via Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia.
It's no coincidence that both Barack Obama and Mike Pence were in Virginia recently – the upcoming election is garnering national attention because its impact will be broad. This year the election of the entire lower chamber (100 seats) as well as the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the attorney general takes place. Democrats and progressives see it as an opportunity for the state to flip blue, which would be a loud and clear message to the White House, as well as the White Nationalists in Charlottesville and beyond. Republicans see it as a chance to harden their lines on reproductive rights, the environment, immigration, and the Second Amendment.
"Virginia is one of just a few states holding elections," explained Gabrielle Goldstein, Political Director for Sister District, a national organization out of San Francisco that looks to harness political energy in blue areas to reach fellow voters in traditionally red areas. "There's such interest and outrage at the national level, and this is one of the places both Democrats and Republicans can focus their electoral energy this year."
"We should all care about what the Virginia State Legislature is doing because those laws could become national laws."
State and local elections are so important for a few reasons. First of all, the policies enacted at these levels impact people's lives directly and immediately. And often these policies are later adopted at a national level.
"These are the laboratories of policies that could become national policies," explained Goldstein. "We should all care about what the Virginia State Legislature is doing because those laws could become national laws."
Additionally, the candidates and representatives themselves are getting invaluable experience, and they could end up moving through political office and gaining a wider platform in the future.
"By supporting progressive candidates in Virginia," said Goldstein, "we are building a pipeline for political voices… The reason we focus on state legislative races is because they're important for incubating strong progressive policy and strong progressive leaders. These races tend to be undernourished, overlooked, and don't receive the attention in the national spotlight that they deserve."
It's also the first major election since November 2016, when the political environment was flipped on its head. Self-described progressive political groups have sprung up across the country, but this will be their first opportunity to make a real, wide-reaching political statement.
That's one of the major reasons that Jennifer Carroll Foy, a public defender and foster mom, decided to run for delegate for the first time.
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"People are seeing the consequences of what happens when you don't exercise your right to vote," Carroll Foy told VICE Impact. "People are elected who don't represent your voice."
She says that her district, the second district in Virginia, is becoming more diverse every day, and she wants to speak for those constituents, especially when they're not acknowledged on the national stage.
"With Trump and his racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric, it has made people take charge and say, 'I have to have a seat at the table,'" she said. "I have to be there to ensure that there are policies put in place that will take us forward and not push us fifty years back."
Carroll Foy's opponent, Mike Makee, served in the Navy for over twenty years, and he wrote on his campaign website that in traveling all over the world, he saw that there are good people everywhere "whose dream it is to come to American and live the American dream". But while he says he supports legal immigration, he compares illegal immigrants to intruders breaking into your home at night. "They aren't invited," his site states, "and you can't be sure what their true intent it."
"We have to make clear that this is not the America we represent, the kind of state we are, or the kind of state we want to be. We need to stand up for communities that normally don't have a voice."
With an AQ rating (the equivalent of an 'A' letter grade) from the NRA, Makee is a strong supporter of the second amendment and opposes gun restrictions.
"Criminals don't follow laws," his site says, "so restrictive regulations and rules only burden law abiding citizens and put the general population at greater risk."
Virginians are experiencing a battle for their soul right at home, with demonstrations in Charlottesville commanding national attention and exposing sharp divides. Mike Mullin, who is running for re-election as a delegate in the 93rd District after winning a special election last November, wants to ensure that the Virginia he believes in is victorious in this conversation.
"To think that actual Nazis were marching here in Virginia is a terrifying thought," Mullin told VICE Impact. "We have to make clear that this is not the America we represent, the kind of state we are, or the kind of state we want to be. We need to stand up for communities that normally don't have a voice."
The current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, is not eligible for re-election because of term limits in the state constitution. He did, however, speak out strongly against the demonstrations in Charlottesville, and Carroll Foy believes that's representative of the majority of Virginians.
"We are not tolerant of racism and bigotry and xenophobia," she said. "It's a dying legacy and we are seeing the last remnants of it. We have such a diverse population, and we need to make resounding noise to say that this is not acceptable here. There is a serious pushback here against the demonstrations in Charlottesville."
The two candidates for governor in Virginia, Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam, have been endorsed by President Trump and President Obama respectively, though there is no trace of Trump's endorsement on Gillespie's website, even under endorsements, where he lists dozens of senators, members of congress, and other elected officials that have endorsed him. CNN has speculated that he's trying to keep his distance.
When President Trump blamed "both sides" of the deadly protest in Charlottesville in August, Gillespie was quick to differentiate himself. A former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to George W. Bush, Gillespie tweeted that there was no moral equivalence between white nationalists and counter-protesters, and described white nationalists as having "no redeeming value whatsoever."
Still, on polarizing issues like gun control, reproductive rights, and the environment, the two candidates fall decisively on party lines. The NRA endorsed Gillespie, issuing a statement that "Gillespie is a strong supporter of our constitutional rights who will stand up to Michael Bloomberg and his out-of-state gun control groups. Gillespie is a leader in the growing national movement to expand our Second Amendment freedoms."
Planned Parenthood has spent $3 million to back Ralph Northam.
"Everything about women's health is at stake," Jennifer Allen, chief executive of Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC, said in an interview with the Washington Post. "It's really clear that Virginians want and need a fierce champion like Dr. Northam to stand up for them and to stand up for women's health."
One of the most dramatic races in Virginia is in the 13th district, which was carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. That makes it one of 17 seats in the chamber that's held by the GOP but voted for Clinton.
Danica Roem, a former reporter and political neophyte, will take on Delegate Robert Marshall, who has been elected 13 times over the last 26 years. Marshall, 75, attempted to pass a "bathroom bill" in Virginia last year that would limit where transgender people are permitted to use the restroom in government buildings. Danica Roem is a transgender woman, and she sees this election not only as personal but as an opportunity to stand up against someone who has marginalized other members of her community, including young people.
Marshall has refused to debate Roem, saying her supporters would call him "a bigot", and he has questioned reporters as to why they refer to Roem as a woman at all.
"When Delegate Marshall said that, his lack of understanding and empathy weren't just disrespectful toward me personally," Roem, 32, said in a statement. "He once again attached every person in our community who he's singled out and stigmatized through his 26 years of discriminatory social policies designed to tear our community apart instead of unite us around out common needs."
Other firsts include Elizabeth Guzman, running in the 31st District, who would be the first Latina state legislator. This seat, which is held by Republican Scott Lingamfelter, was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Guzman says that her district is extremely diverse, but that her opponent has only represented the interests of "16% of the district".
"As a Latina woman, I hope to not only be a Delegate for all Virginians in my district, but bring more representation for Hispanics in the commonwealth," Guzman told VICE Impact via email. "Currently, there are conversations happening in the Virginia Assembly about people who look like me that are not true."
She says that even though 9 percent of the population in Virginia is Hispanic, there's only one Latino delegate. She hopes to use her background and experience as a means to create a more inclusive conversation.
"My experiences and challenges in this country assured me that anyone who is willing to sacrifice and work hard will be able to achieve the American dream," she said. "The divisive rhetoric of Trump and Republicans is hurting our state and we need to stop that."
Carroll Foy is optimistic that Virginia is going to lead a chorus that will echo all the way to 2018 and 2020.
"This is a litmus test, putting the finger on the pulse of the country to see if Trump's rhetoric is really popular, to see how it's turning out for people who did vote for him," she said. "We are one of the first elections after his inauguration, and I think you'll see a real turning of the tide."
VICE Impact is committed to getting more people registered leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. We are working with Democracy Works' TurboVote challenge , a leading digital voter registration initiative, and grassroots organizations across the country to increase voter registration and turnout in the United States.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated all members of the Virginia general assembly are up for re-election, when it is actually only the lower chamber. We regret the error.