RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Blackface scandals, sexual assault, a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, abortion laws new and old and Medicaid expansion: Virginia’s primary voters have plenty to consider when they pick candidates to run for the 140 open House of Delegates and Senate seats Tuesday.
Once known as the home of the Blue Wave thanks to Democrats picking up 15 seats in the 2017 House races, Virginia’s political climate has been a classic example of gerrymandered division, with folks on the left picking up every statewide seat in the past decade while the legislative branches have stayed red.
But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, those legislative maps were redrawn before this year’s races, affecting more than a dozen districts, making things more challenging for the once-powerful Virginia Republican Party, still reeling from last year’s Senate race in which incumbent Tim Kaine trounced his opponent, Trump acolyte Corey Stewart, by 16 points.
Things aren’t looking great for Democrats, either, though, as blackface scandals have plagued the state’s most powerful executives, Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, and sexual assault accusations have been lobbed against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, also a Democrat.
These incidents were believed to have shaken the party to its core and result in diminished fundraising — a role usually championed by such higher-ups — but the predictions appear to have been overblown.
New fundraising data from the Virginia Public Access Project shows the House of Delegates fundraising gap that had Republicans ahead by about $4 million at this point in the 2017 election cycle has narrowed to less than $1 million, thanks in part to small donation gains from Democrats.
“A number of potential donors see Democratic legislative majorities in Richmond as a real possibility,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.
Many see 2019 as the first chance in almost 20 years for Virginia Democrats to take both the state House and Senate, thanks to the 2017 blue wave, which left the House two seats away from flipping red to blue and a near-guarantee in the Senate, thanks to anti-Trump sentiment expressed in relevant districts during the 2018 congressional races.
And while much of the action will happen after Tuesday, there’s been plenty to watch as incumbents face challengers form more extreme coalitions within party ranks.
This is best highlighted on the right in Senate District 24, where military mom Tina Freitas is waging a fire-and-brimstone campaign against sitting Sen. Emmett Hanger.
Hanger has served his district since the early ‘90s and survived challenges before, but his vote to expand Medicaid last year as well as other challenges to his conservatism have been battle cries for Freitas.
“Why let healthy people get in the way of principals?” joked Shaun Kenney, a former leader in the state Republican Party, who noted the district’s rural, lower-income residents were among those who benefited from expanding the Affordable Care Act policy which Freitas and other, more conservative candidates have shunned.
This tension, and the low turnout usually expected in party primaries, has Kenney unsure if Hangar will keep his seat, but he also cited the Freitas campaign’s use of staff and strategies employed by her husband, Delegate Nick Freitas, in his failed 2018 Senate primary bid.
“Freitas’ guys are the same ones helping Tina, and their numbers expected them to do a lot better in his senate race,” Kenney said, “so did they learn from their mistakes?”
A representative for Freitas disputes that any vendors shared between the two campaigns qualify as staff.
Meanwhile, on the left, 40-year legislative veteran Senate Minority leader Dick Saslaw is facing the first primary challenge of his career in human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb in Virginia’s 35th Senate District.
Taeb, who ascribes to Medicare-for-all and other, further left ideals, has attacked Saslaw for taking money from the state’s largest power company, Dominion Energy, a point Farnsworth said was a trend among Democratic hopefuls who hope to unseat longtime incumbents.
“What you’re seeing is efforts to redefine both parties,” Farnsworth said.
While there are plenty of other notable battles Tuesday, politicos are looking forward to Wednesday morning before they start gazing into the tea leaves for November. But there’s still some bellwethers to keep an eye out for, according to Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director at the Norfolk-based Wason Center for Public Policy.
“Democrats will be looking for solid turnout in these primaries as a sign that there will be a Trump effect in this cycle,” said Bitecofer in an email. “[Republicans’] best hope for holding onto the chambers is if Democrats fail to pay attention to these elections.”
Virginians go to the polls Tuesday, June 11.