Virginia primary puts Democrats’ spirit of ’17 to the test

For Democrats in Virginia, the legend of last year’s general election, when the party romped statewide, has been burnished to a golden glow. If there is a blue wave nationally in the midterms, many will look back to Virginia in 2017 as an early sign. 

But the state is going to the polls again for primaries on Tuesday, at a moment when some analysts suggest the wave could be flattening to a ripple. President Donald Trump’s job approval rating has ticked up and the unemployment rate is the lowest in nearly two decades. 

Whether Democrats’ zeal to rebuke Trump remains strong will be closely scrutinized as Virginians vote in contested primaries for nine of the state’s 11 congressional seats. The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia calls it the busiest federal primary day in the state’s modern history. 

The results will be sifted for hints of what to expect in this state and across the country in November, when Democrats hope to win control of the House of Representatives as a check on what they see as an increasingly reckless White House. 

“I know a lot of people are engaged, excited and want to fight back against Trump,” Jennifer T. Wexton, a state senator who is running for Congress in Northern Virginia, told campaign volunteers Saturday. 

At least three Republican-held House seats in Virginia are likely to be in play in the fall, which should energize Democratic turnout Tuesday. 

For Republicans, the main event in the state is a U.S. Senate primary with three candidates each vying to be the most conservative. The winner will face Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2016. 

Virginia Democrats insist that enthusiasm remains as high today as last year, when the party swept statewide offices and nearly flipped control of the House of Delegates. That contention is supported by the party’s strong fundraising totals in many races, by its armies of volunteer door-knockers and by some of the limited amount of public polling. 

“People are on fire down here,” state delegate Schuyler T. VanValkenburg said during a house party in Midlothian Saturday evening for Abigail Spanberger, one of the two Democrats competing to challenge Rep. Dave Brat, a Republican, in the Richmond suburbs. 

Brat’s congressional district, the 7th, was long thought to be impregnable to Democrats. But today, shifting demographics have made it a little less of a fortress. 

Spanberger, 38, is typical of the youthful candidates Democrats have fielded in Republican-held districts around the country who appeal to voters’ patriotism. She gives equal billing on her résumé to her work overseas for the CIA fighting terrorism and to starting her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. 

“Historically, this has been an unwinnable district,” she said, “but it’s a different place now, there’s a different energy here.” 

Republicans make the case that in the three targeted House districts, their incumbents won in 2016 even though Trump lost Virginia, and that Democratic gains in 2017 came almost entirely in parts of the state that Hillary Clinton had won. 

“I have a hard time believing the Democratic spin, if their high-water mark was 2017,” said Matt Gorman, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

Besides Brat, Democrats believe they can unseat Reps. Scott Taylor and Barbara Comstock. 

Taylor’s district — the 2nd, centered on Virginia Beach — was carried last year by Gov. Ralph Northam. Of the two Democrats in the primary this year, the national party is supporting Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander. 

Comstock is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country. Her district, the 10th, covers a swath of wealthy Washington suburbs and more rural enclaves that Clinton won by 10 percentage points in 2016. Still, Comstock is a hardworking campaigner who has won twice before in an increasingly blue-hued district. 

A poll of the state in March by Christopher Newport University found that Democrats enjoyed a large “enthusiasm gap” over Republicans. Driven by antipathy for Trump, 60 percent of the Democrats who responded said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting in the midterms, compared with 45 percent of the Republican respondents. 

“The gap emerged pretty dramatically in 2016, and it hasn’t really disappeared,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the university’s Wason Center for Public Policy, which conducted the survey.  

Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who has led his party’s congressional election strategy, fretted that Republican turnout Tuesday and in the fall could be dampened by the lack of a centrist candidate in the party’s marquee race, the Senate primary. 

“I worry about, when everybody in the Republican Party is running to show how conservative they are, moderates don’t show up at all,” he said.  

The contest features three hard-right candidates. The top two are Corey Stewart, who promises a “vicious and ruthless” fall campaign against Kaine, and Nick Freitas, a state delegate who has attacked Stewart for his associations with white supremacists. 

Stewart, who nearly won the GOP nomination for governor in 2017, held an event last year with one of the men who went on to lead the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville that ended in deadly violence. 

Freitas, a former Green Beret, drew national attention for a fiery speech he gave after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in which he defended gun rights and said abortion was to blame for societal breakdown. 

Virginia Republicans have not won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and centrists like Davis point to the Senate primary field to explain why. 

There is no question that the most closely watched race on Tuesday will be the Democratic primary to face Comstock. 

Wexton, the state senator, who is seen as the front-runner, is a former prosecutor from Loudoun County, which is also Comstock’s base. That is one reason the governor and other Democratic officials are backing Wexton, 50, as someone who might finally unseat Comstock. 

Still, in the crowded field of six Democrats, four have raised more than $1 million and can also claim substantial grass-roots enthusiasm. Some 200 people came out in a road-flooding downpour last week for a rally for Lindsey Davis Stover in the western part of the district.  

At a house party in McLean on Friday evening, also for Davis Stover, about 30 parents from a private elementary school — the men in blazers and the women in heels, though one wore hospital scrubs — listened to the candidate contrast herself with Wexton. 

Davis Stover, 40, who has worked as a senior aide on Capitol Hill and at the Department of Veterans Affairs, criticized Wexton for voting in the state Senate to allow concealed-carry permit holders from other states to carry hidden handguns in Virginia. “It adds guns to the streets of Virginia,” she said. “Under no circumstances would I have ever voted for that.” 

The issue has surfaced in the final stretch of the primary race as Wexton’s rivals have tried to chip away at her. 

The Wexton campaign added a new script over the weekend for door-knockers going house to house to address the issue. The script explains that the law in question, passed in 2016, was the product of a deal struck by Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor at the time, and the Republicans who controlled the legislature. Though it includes the concealed-carry provision, the law also allows guns to be taken away from domestic abusers and partly closes a loophole for sales at gun shows. 

Speaking in her campaign headquarters on the third floor of a building in an office park, Wexton charged up her volunteers. 

“Who’s ready to repeal and replace Barbara Comstock?” she shouted. 

“I can and I will,” she said. “Let’s go knock some doors.”

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