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Virginia Republicans Are on A Losing Streak. Could Other States Be Next?

Amanda Chase holds microphone speaking to gun rights supporters
Sen. Amanda Chase addresses supporters at a pro-gun rights rally on Saturday. Earlier in the day, several attendees at the rally gave Nazi salutes in response to a question posed by the speaker if there were any racists in the crowd. (Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

When Toni Schmiegelow moved to Henrico County 20-odd years ago from New York City, Republicans ruled the roost.

“It was very, very conservative,” Schmiegelow said in an interview last week.

Schmiegelow, a retired federal employee who describes herself as an independent, found that local lawmakers were relatively accessible and willing to work across the aisle -- at least until they got primaried. She was shocked when her Congressman, Eric Cantor, one of the top Republicans in the House, lost his seat to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat.

“I was supporting them,” Schmiegelow said. “They moved away from me.”

Suburban voters like Schmiegelow represent an existential challenge for Virginia Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. They’ve lost control of the executive mansion, the state legislature, and a majority of the state’s congressional seats.

The latest blow came last week when almost 1,300 bills passed by the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly went into effect. Republican laws on everything from abortion to voter ID were wiped off the book.

Part of the problem for Virginia Republicans is the president, according to Shaun Kenney, the former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.

“The suburbs just do not react well to Donald Trump in the White House,” Kenney said. “There's just no way of getting around that.”

But Kenney said Republicans also keep choosing unelectable candidates. Corey Stewart made defending Confederate statues a central plank of his failed 2017 gubernatorial bid and 2018 Senate run against Democrat Tim Kaine.

More recently, state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), the only 2021 GOP gubernatorial candidate to formally announce her bid, decried the takedown of Confederate statues as the erasure of “the history of white people,” equated statue-topplers to the Taliban, and addressed a July 4 gun rally whose attendees included white nationalists and Boogaloos, a group that advocates civil war.

“Nobody's going to vote for somebody waving a little Confederate flag around and saying it's either me or the Democrat,” Kenny said.

That’s especially true in the diversifying, fast-growing suburbs around Richmond, Northern Virginia, and Hampton Roads. The state GOP’s institutional structure, which makes key decisions related to nominating candidates, is weighted to regions where Republicans remain strong, particularly the western part of the state. Kenny said that area’s political culture may be closer to Alabama than to Northern Virginia.

“It's a very cosmopolitan, urbane, college-educated state now, and it's the western part of the state that, frankly still is that Virginia of 25 years ago,” Kenney said.

Similar demographic shifts are emerging across the sunbelt. GOP pollster Glen Bolger said Republicans have avoided deeper losses by turning out their base.

“The way the Republicans held down states like North Carolina and Georgia and Texas is they've done a really good job of running up turnout in the more rural areas,” Bolger said.

That was the plan in Virginia, too, according to a 2017 party memo obtained by the Washington Post. But it didn’t work. And Bolger said Republicans will face headwinds if they don’t reach more non-white voters.

“The math for Republicans gets harder and harder as the percentage of the electorate that's white drops,” he said.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) is part of that new arithmetic. She moved to Northern Virginia over 20 years ago from Peru as a single mother. When she ran for Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2017, Republicans sent mailers depicting guns and shot-out windows -- the probable result, they warned, of her push to allow undocumented immigrants to access driver’s licenses.

“But my district is incredibly diverse,” Guzman said. “In my district -- Black, brown, white, Asian -- we're all neighbors and we respect each other. So that message didn't work.”

Guzman flipped a seat Republicans held since 1993, in what is now one of the fastest-growing and most diverse counties in Virginia, and a new hotbed for progressives like Guzman, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), and Del. Lee Carter (D-Prince William). Corey Stewart, who  pushed Trumpian policies on immigration during his stint on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, is now Guzman’s constituent.

Guzman said Democrats won by choosing diverse candidates and stressing an inclusive message.

“This is your party. We will fight for you,” Guzman said. “‘Este es su partido. Vamos a luchar por usted.’ So that's important to people.”

Since Guzman was elected in 2017, Virginia Democrats have passed Medicaid expansion, approved a minimum wage increase, and expanded access to abortion. Virginia has become a template for what the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee hopes to do in GOP-held statehouses from Michigan to Arizona.

The paint is still wet on Virginia Democrats' victories. Shaun Kenney predicts an eventual backlash.

“I firmly believe that Virginia is not a blue state,” Kenney said. “We're just a red state that can't get its act together.”

But to do that they’ll have to reach suburban voters like Toni Schmiegelow. The Black ex-New Yorker knew Trump from her days in the city. While she didn't support him, she held out hope for a relatively normal presidency; she said she couldn't believe his rhetoric was sincere. Now she believes Trump race-baits his base. She tells GOP politicians she likes to chart their own path.

“If it's somebody that I support in the Republican Party, I say, you know, ‘You need to step away from [Trump]’” she said. “Step away from him. Run on your own.’

The politician she’s most excited about now is Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th), who now holds Cantor’s old seat. Schmiegelow praises Spanberger for working across the aisle. It’s something she said she doesn’t see enough of from Republicans these days.

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