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Virginia Democrats are holding a slim lead as voters head to the polls on Tuesday to select their next governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and House Delegates — a development that may prove beneficial to LGBTQ candidates seeking office.
In the governor’s race, a poll released by Christopher Newport University on Monday showed Democrat Ralph Northam holding a 51%-45% edge over Republican Ed Gillespie.
Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy used historical trends showing undecideds breaking heavily for the Republican candidate. They expect Northam to prevail with about 51% of the vote, compared to Gillespie’s 47%. Libertarian candidate Cliff Hyra is expected to garner between 1 and 2 percent of the vote.
That news will come as a relief to Democrats — and to LGBTQ Democrats, in particular, given the stark contrast between the two candidates on issues like marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist and Army veteran who currently serves as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, has consistently favored expanding LGBTQ rights since he was first elected as a state senator in 2006.
Gillespie, a former lobbyist who ran the Republican National Committee during the George W. Bush administration, has largely opposed LGBTQ rights, though he promised not to sign a “bathroom bill” restricting transgender restroom access should the GOP-dominated General Assembly send one to his desk.
Recent polls released prior to Monday appeared to show Gillespie surging, benefitting from greater party unification following a contentious primary with Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart, and benefitting, in part, from running ads hammering Northam for allegedly supporting “sanctuary cities” (Virginia has none) and, in some downstate markets, ads criticizing Northam for wanting to remove Confederate war memorials.
Some national Democrats even fretted that a lackluster performance by Northam at the top of the ticket would create a drag on Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates and prevent the party from clawing back from its 66-34 deficit in the lower chamber — something essential if any bill expanding LGBTQ rights is ever to succeed.
The CNU poll also predicted Democrats will win the lieutenant governor’s contest by about a 4-point margin, with Justin Fairfax topping State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Upperville). Fairfax currently holds a 5-point edge and Herring a 4-point edge in polling, but CNU predicts that most of the undecided voters are more likely to break for Republicans in the final days of the campaign.
In addition, Attorney General Mark Herring, another longtime proponent of LGBTQ rights, will narrowly defeat Republican challenger John Adams by a 2-point margin.
Where Democrats have placed the bulk of their efforts is recruiting candidates to run for the House of Delegates, where 17 Republicans sit in districts that were won by Hillary Clinton last year.
While Democrats are not expected to win all 17 races, if they can win between 6-10 seats, it will not only substantially cut down the margins in the House — impacting the fate of pro-LGBTQ legislation — but would also send a message that the Democratic Party is resurgent under the Trump administration. The GOP, meanwhile, is hoping to limit its losses and maybe even seize back a couple of Democratic-held seats to prove that the president is not a liability in swing states.
Democrats have been successful in recruiting and encouraging candidates to run for office, contesting 54 Republican-held seats while only having to defend six incumbents from Republican challengers.
Seven Democratic candidates — two incumbents, and five challengers — are LGBTQ individuals, with the most prominent being Danica Roem, a journalist running against the vehemently anti-LGBTQ Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas).
If elected, Roem would become the second out transgender person elected to office and the first in the country to serve in a state legislature.
By all accounts, Roem has run a strong campaign operation, earning praise from Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, for her efforts and her disciplined campaign messaging, even in the face of personal attacks by Marshall and his allies.
In mailers paid for by the Republican Party of Virginia, Marshall has misgendered Roem, referring to her with male pronouns, and has attempted to paint her as a fame-seeker who has made her gender identity the center of her campaign.
The mailers also distort comments Roem made to imply that she supports teaching kindergartners about transgenderism, and knocks her for supporting the current Virginia High School League policy that allows transgender students to compete for sports teams geared towards the gender by which they identify.
“Republicans are trying to make the race in that district about [Roem’s] being transgender. But Danica has never run just to promote her gender. It’s all about transportation and education and the issues that people in the commonwealth feel are important,” Toscano says in praising Roem. “Marshall tried to make it about her, she’s trying to make it about us.”
Roem says she has “no regrets” as the campaign heads into its final hours.
“I know we’ve run the best campaign that has ever faced Del. Marshall. If we win, it’s because we outworked him,” Roem says, noting that she had more than 300 volunteers knocking on doors throughout the district on behalf of her campaign the weekend leading up to the election. “If he wins, it’s because no one can beat him. We’ve worked as hard as we possibly could, and, as of tomorrow, it’s in the voter’s hands.”
The four other LGBTQ challengers — all in districts that are more Republican-leaning than Roem’s — hoping to pull off upsets include Dawn Adams, running against Del. Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond); Ben Hixon, running against Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper); Kelly DeLucia, running against Del. Brenda Pogge (R-James City), and Rebecca Colaw, running for an open seat in the Tidewater region. Colaw, in particular, has earned praise for her campaign and has been endorsed by both The Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot, no small feat for a political newcomer, particularly a Democratic one.
Toscano calls the number of LGBTQ candidates who ran this year a “hopeful sign for Democrats.”
“The fact that a number of are offering themselves in district, some of which have not been very hospitable to Democrats in the past, is suggestive of this change that is happening in the Democratic Party where people are standing up and saying ‘We cannot let this happen to our country,'” Toscano says, pointing to the Trump administration’s actions. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to get in the game and run for elective office.'”
In terms of Democratic victories in the House, districts to watch for seats flip include the 13th District race between Roem and Marshall, the Fairfax-based 42nd District, where Democrat Kathy Tran is seeking to replace retiring incumbent Del. Dave Albo (R-West Springfield), the Prince William-based 2nd District, where Jennifer Carroll Foy is running to replace the retiring Del. Mark Dudenhefer (R-Stafford), the Prince William-based 31st District, where Elizabeth Guzman is challenging Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Woodbridge), the Loudoun-based 32nd, where David Reid faces Del. Tag Greason (R-Potomac Falls), and the Fairfax-based 67th District, where Democrat Karrie Delaney faces off against Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-Oak Hill).
Other potential Democratic pickups include the Blacksburg-based 12th District around Virginia Tech, where former newscaster Chris Hurst faces off against Del. Joseph Yost (R-Pearisburg), the 21st District, where Kelly Corvins Fowler faces off against Del. Ron Villanueva, the 40th District, where Donte Tanner faces Del. Tim Hugo (R-Centreville), the 51st District, where Hala Ayala faces Del. Rich Anderson (R-Lake Ridge), and the open 72nd District, in the Richmond suburbs, where Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg faces off against Republican Eddie Whitlock.
Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping to take back the Loudoun-based 87th District seat held by Del. John Bell (R-Sterling), the 34th District seat held by Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-McLean), and the 93rd District seat held by Mike Mullin (D-Newport News).
Toscano says that he has been impressed by the level of enthusiasm he has seen as he travels around the state to competitive House districts. He says the party’s coordinated campaign has knocked on twice as many doors as the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign did last year, when she won the state by 5 points.
“The energy really gives me cause for hope that we’re going to win a bunch of these seats,” Toscano says. “Typically, you see a drop-off [in support] from the governor’s race to the delegate races. But there’s an interesting dynamic happening this year, partly because of the nature of our candidates. Five of our challengers are openly LGBTQ, 17 are millennials, about a quarter are people of color, and more than half are women. And they energize a constituency that may not typically come out for a governor’s race. So turnout can be generated at the lower-level races that could have an impact on Northam’s numbers. And we’re seeing that in some of the polls where we’re seeing our delegates run ahead of Ralph Northam.”
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