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Battle of the Burbs: 2019 Elections May Hinge on Suburbs Like Henrico

Volunteers gather campaign flyers before canvassing at a Henrico County campaign headquarters for Democrats. (Ben Paviour/VPM News).
Volunteers gather campaign flyers before canvassing at a Henrico County campaign headquarters for Democrats. (Ben Paviour/VPM News).

Salaar Khan has the look of a guy who’s going places. At a recent Saturday morning pizza party, the 18-year-old seemed ready for a board meeting: checkered blazer, pressed shirt, dress pants.

Khan leads a group of 200 or so high schoolers hoping to elect Henrico County Democrats to the General Assembly. A couple dozen of them stopped by for the pizza party at a Democratic campaign headquarters to meet candidates before they go canvassing. Four years ago, Khan said he'd be lucky if two or three other students showed up.  

“We as a campaign have the power to flip the entire direction of our General Assembly,” Khan told his peers. “Which means our program, the high school students, have the power to do that.”

The group is part of a larger Democratic push to win Henrico County and suburbs across the state. Those districts are critical to the party’s efforts to retake control of the state legislature for the first time since 1995.

Henrico County was once reliably red. The GOP has controlled the 12th Senate District, most of which falls within the county, by large margins since they flipped the seat by less than 1,000 votes in 1987. And the party has done well in low-turnout, off-off year elections like the one this year.

But in 2017, a band of Democrats flipped 15 seats in suburbs across the state, nearly winning control of the House of Delegates. That includes Del. Debra Rodman, who is now running for the 12th district seat currently held by Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant. The race is one of the most expensive campaigns in state history; the candidates have collectively raised over $5 million.

Rodman rattled off a wish list common to suburban Democrats running for office this year: adding gun control restrictions, raising minimum wage, and addressing climate change.

“I’m a professor of anthropology and have been working in countries where we have been seeing the devastation of climate change for decades now,” she told the students.

Not everyone is sold. Republicans like Lisa Marshall are concerned about the possibility of a remade legislature. She hosted a meet-and-greet for Dunnavant and Mary Margaret Kastelberg, a Republican candidate for the House, at her home on a quiet cul-de-sac last week. The former Tuckahoe school board member cooked up a feast of hors d'oeuvres: cocktail shrimp, ham sandwiches, and bean dip.

Marshall said she is concerned Democrats wouldn’t be good stewards of the state finances, a point echoed by several other guests.

“I think they’re very caring people, and I think they want to meet the needs of everybody,” Marshall said. “But I just don’t see how we can afford it.”

Dunnavant also didn't dwell on hot-button issues, telling the dozen or so voters that she’s focused on pocket-book items like healthcare and higher education.

“I’m just a practical problem-solver, and I believe that’s what we need more of in our leadership,” she said.

Suburban Republicans across the state are making a similar case, describing themselves using words like pragmatic and bipartisan. They've embraced a number of issues that the Democrats had won on previously and rarely, if ever, mention party affiliation, according to Bob Holsworth, a former VCU professor and political analyst.

“The Republicans believe that they do best right now if they're not reminding people that they're Republicans,” he said.

But Richmond's Capitol Square is now almost as partisan as Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hill; politicians generally vote in lockstep with their party on major issues. In Dunnavant's case, her vote against Medicaid expansion, which was passed after a handful of GOP lawmakers crossed the aisle, has been a source of attacks by Rodman's campaign. Holsworth says running as “Democrat lite” is a tough sell for voters who associate Republicans with, say, lowering taxes rather than the cost of healthcare.

Dunnavant's attack ads claim Rodman opposes adoption as an alternative to abortion in the event of unplanned pregnancies, a claim Politifact deemed false. Rodman's campaign got it's own false rating for an ad claiming Dunnavant voted to allow insurance companies to strip coverage for pre-existing conditions. Dunnavant has also attacked Rodman for supporting a bill that would allow 16 year-olds to vote, warning that people that age “do crazy things.”

“What [Republicans] have now done is to basically say, we're still moderate, but the Democrats are absolute radicals that you can't trust,” he said.

Holsworth believes those claims are a stretch. But he thinks Democrats would probably move quickly on issues they’ve campaigned on, like undoing some restrictions on abortion. And they would have unfettered legislative power for the first time since the early 1990s, breaking a pattern of two-party governance that has moderated both parties' ambitions for most of the last 25 years. 

One factor working against suburban Republicans is demographics. About half of Henrico County is white, down from 77% in 1990. Holsworth says the GOP has struggled to win over minority voters.

“And then finally, I think particularly among educated women, the antipathy to Donald Trump is extraordinarily significant,” Holsworth said.

Exit polling from the last two Virginia elections show at least 60% of women voted for Democrats.

But meet-and-greet guest Stacey Wood said she was still making up her mind this year. She popped over to the gathering from her home down the block to see Dunnavant, whom she knew through work. Wood said she tends to vote Republican, and described herself as fiscally conservative but socially moderate.

“The world is changing,” Wood said. “We can’t live in a little bubble. We have to accept everyone for who they are. And so that’s highly important to me.”

Several races in 2017 were decided by a few hundred votes. In the end, Republicans only won the House after their candidate’s name was drawn from an artisanal bowl.

Both parties are hoping for a more decisive win this year. Their success may hinge on courting suburban voters like Wood.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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