After retiring from her environmental law career, Mary Jo Sheeley spent much of her newfound free time volunteering for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Upset by President Donald Trump’s victory and shaken by the feeling that the things she believes in could no longer be taken for granted, she vowed to stay active.
She marched with hundreds of thousands of other women in D.C., then got together with small groups of other activists to talk about what to do next.
“It’s so clear what we need to do,” Sheeley said. “We need to look at what is going on locally. And we need to change the balance of power in the General Assembly.”
Instead of making calls and knocking on doors for someone else, Sheeley, 61, is running for office herself, part of an unprecedented rush of candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates this year fueled largely by opposition to Trump.
Republicans hold a dominant 66-34 majority in the House, but Democrats hope the swell of anti-Trump activism in Virginia, the only Southern state Trump did not win, could lead to a 2017 wave in down-ticket House races as Virginians elect a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
As of late last week, Democrats said they had candidates running in 43 of the 66 House districts that Republicans currently represent, more than double the 21 GOP districts Democrats contested in 2015. So far, Republicans have five challengers among the 34 Democratic-held districts.
Hoping to channel the energy of women’s marches and Indivisible groups into an anti-Trump wave, Democrats have challengers in all 17 GOP-held districts that went for Clinton.
“I have not seen this before,” said Del. Charniele L. Herring, an Alexandria Democrat and chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, of the phenomenon she described as a “huge organic surge.”
Sheeley, a former environmental lawyer for the state who retired from Dominion Energy, is hoping to go up against Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, a Richmond Republican whose 68th District is among the 17 that favored Clinton. First, Sheeley has to get past two other Democrats, Ben Pearson-Nelson and Dawn Adams, who want the same chance.
“They’re awakening parts of people that have always existed but they forgot,” said Adams, a 52-year-old state health official who said she wants to “start bringing some compassion” to a political environment marked by extremism.
Roughly a dozen Republican districts have multiple Democratic candidates who will have to earn the right to try to flip a seat by winning their party’s nomination. That is a previously rare scenario, occurring in just one or two districts per cycle, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
With major filing deadlines still weeks away, the candidate lineup remains fluid. Democratic nominating contests this spring and summer will help to reveal whether the huge field of candidates will produce quality, well-funded candidates who can credibly compete.
‘In for a rude awakening’
Republicans do not dispute the swell of activism on the other side, but they doubt it will easily translate to GOP incumbents being dislodged en masse.
“They have no clear message or clear reason for taking their frustrations out on Virginia Republicans,” said Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck. “It seems to be all driven by the national political scene. But I think they’re in for a rude awakening when they see that Virginia voters care about Virginia issues.”
Even if the political playing field has shifted in response to Trump, General Assembly incumbents are notoriously difficult to beat. During the 2015 legislative races, 122 lawmakers sought re-election and not a single incumbent from either party lost, a statistic anti-gerrymandering advocates have used to argue that legislative lines are drawn to protect those already in power.
Republicans have pushed back on the notion that their majority rests on a rigged map. House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, a Colonial Heights Republican poised to become the next House speaker in 2018, said Republicans win because they know their districts.
“They know their folks, and they serve them well. A lot of times in state-level and local-level elections, that’s how people vote,” Cox said in an interview last month after being named the successor-in-waiting to retiring House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford. Despite Cox’s status as the soon-to-be top Republican in the House, he’s facing a Democratic challenge for the first time in decades from Katie Sponsler, a former park ranger turned stay-at-home mom.
With two redistricting lawsuits pending in federal and state courts that could reshape the House map in Democrats’ favor, even small gains for the minority could precede bigger political shifts in the years ahead. Against the backdrop of Virginia’s closely watched governor’s race, both parties will be looking to energize voters wherever they can.
Democratic targets mostly in N.Va.
Though Democrats have said they are prioritizing the 17 GOP-held districts Clinton won, many observers feel that picking up five to six seats is a more attainable goal.
The prime targets are mostly in the Northern Virginia suburbs, including the 2nd District seat coming open after Del. L. Mark Dudenhefer, R-Stafford, who won narrowly in 2015, announced he will not seek re-election this year. Another seat could open in the nearby 50th District if Del. Jackson H. Miller, R-Manassas, wins his bid for Prince William County clerk of court in an April 18 special election.
Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth said Democratic challengers will face an “uphill climb,” but the mobilized opposition to Trump could lift their chances in low-turnout races that normally favor Republicans.
“Democrats really believe that Trump will enable them not to have the kind of dropoff that normally occurs in participation in off-years, especially in Northern Virginia,” Holsworth said.
Progressive groups working outside the traditional party/caucus structure are trying to focus attention on the House races and assist candidates who would not typically draw much party support.
Activate Virginia, an organization founded by a former Bernie Sanders delegate, has worked on its own to recruit candidates and provide basic guidance, connect Indivisible groups — the left’s emerging version of the grass-roots tea party movement — and offer basic guidance and logistical support.
Josh Stanfield, the 30-year-old Yorktown-based activist behind Activate Virginia, said he’s essentially building a “counter-caucus.”
“I saw that there was a real opening for normal people that were not connected,” Stanfield said.
Three of the 17 Clinton-friendly Republican House districts lie in the Richmond region’s western suburbs.
“I think November obviously shocked a lot of people,” said Schuyler VanValkenburg, a 34-year-old government teacher at Glen Allen High School running against Del. Jimmie Massie, a Republican businessman who has represented western Henrico County’s 72nd District for nearly a decade.
In Henrico’s 73rd District, four Democrats are lining up for the chance to take on Del. John M. O’Bannon III, a Republican neurologist who has faced Democratic opposition just once since taking office in 2001.
“I think this movement of people, especially women like me, is not just about resisting. It’s about advancing,” said Debra H. Rodman, a 44-year-old Randolph-Macon College professor running in O’Bannon’s district.
O’Bannon’s would-be challengers also include Chelsea Savage, a 46-year-old nurse; Sarah Smith, a 30-year-old state health worker; and Bill Coleman, a 38-year-old IT project manager.
Farther west of Richmond, another Republican seat has opened after Del. Peter F. Farrell, R-Henrico, announced that he will not seek re-election. Farrell’s 56th District is solidly Republican, but Democrat Lizzie Drucker-Basch is contesting the district for the first time since 2009.
Graven W. Craig, a Louisa County trial attorney and the county Republican chairman, announced for the GOP nomination several hours after Farrell disclosed Friday that he plans to retire.
Two Democrats have filed to challenge Del. Riley E. Ingram, R-Hopewell, in the 62nd District. Businesswoman Sheila Bynum-Coleman, who lost to Ingram in 2015, is seeking a rematch, but she will compete with Tavorise K. Marks, a police captain at Central State Hospital, for the Democratic nomination.
The burst of Democratic interest also may bring complications for some Democratic incumbents.
Alex Mejias, a 38-year-old business strategist at a Richmond web development firm, is mounting a primary challenge against Del. Delores L. McQuinn, a Richmond Democrat who has represented the East End-centered 70th District since 2009. He declined to comment on McQuinn’s representation of the district, but said the unusually energetic atmosphere of the Trump era is part of what inspired him to run.
“I see competition as something that fuels creativity and innovation and is an essential part of our government working well,” Mejias said. “This campaign is meant to really engage the district.”
Though the strength of the Democrat field is difficult to measure early in the cycle, party leaders say they feel good about what they are seeing.
“We feel that we’re on the right track to run a record number of candidates,” said Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker.
Whitbeck, the Republican Party chairman, said his party is taking the “surge in enthusiasm by hard-core progressives” seriously. But Virginia voters, he said, will expect more than a message that he said boils down to “We hate Donald Trump.”
“We’re definitely ready for the fight and are going to relish it,” Whitbeck said. “It’s going to be the biggest battle the commonwealth has ever seen.”