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Virginia Democrats See Opportunity in GOP Convention

Trump signs card at rally in Richmond
Then-candidate Donald Trump makes the rounds at a rally at the Richmond Raceway in 2015. (Craig Carper/VPM News)

As Republicans gather in Charlotte to begin an unusual convention, Virginia Democrats say they welcome an opportunity to draw the spotlight to a man who has boosted their electoral fortunes.

President Trump now trails his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, by at least 10 points in two recent polls of Virginia voters. His presidency is seen even by some Republicans as having helped Democrats retake the commonwealth’s suburbs, picking up control of the General Assembly and three Congressional seats in the process.

The Biden campaign and the Democratic Party of Virginia will attempt to pivot the limelight from Trump’s daily convention appearance toward a handful of virtual roundtables, press calls and op-eds that they say highlight Trump’s failures on key issues ranging from health care to unemployment.

With the election less than three months out, Biden backers like Rep. Donald McEachin (D-4th) feel good about the former vice president’s odds in Virginia.

“I don't have any concerns about viability here at all,” McEachin said in an interview. “I think this longing that you see in the country for a return to normalcy and then to build back better is born out of the incredibly bad presidency that Donald Trump has had.”

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has been door-knocking in Virginia -- a tactic Biden’s team has no plans to try during the pandemic -- and has so far hit over 180,000 homes in the commonwealth and made over 1.5 million calls since January 2019, according to a campaign spokesperson. Democrats' coordinated campaign has made over 550,000 calls and held 2,000 virtual events in Virginia since the start of 2020, according a spokesman for the DPVA.

The GOP Virginia campaign messaging reinforces Trump’s national rhetoric: that a Biden presidency would bring ruinous socialist-inspired policies and lawlessness. The campaign is also hosting an in-person watch party at Atlas 42 restaurant in Glen Allen on Thursday night when Trump will accept the party’s nomination.

In a press call, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-9th) contended that it was Democrats who struggled to connect with “most of America” and his mostly rural district in Southwest Virginia, where he said Second Amendment rights, job creation, and countering China’s trade policies took precedence.

“We’ve got the COVID issue we've got to try to get through,” Griffith said. “But the economy was doing great. The economy was going gangbusters. The [2017] tax cuts were working, and in my district jobs were being created and are still being created.”

The economy will likely be a top talking point for both parties this week, with Democrats highlighting Virginia’s 8% unemployment rate -- roughly triple the level of July 2019. Democrats plan on connecting Trump's "corporate agenda" to the struggles of small business owners and workers, and highlighting the administration's attacks on the Affordable Care Act.

While McEachin said Trump wasn't to blame for the virus, he said the president had exacerbated the pandemic at every turn.

“He has to be blamed for dismantling the Obama-Biden pandemic team,” McEachin said. “He has to be blamed and held accountable for all the various voodoo remedies he's tried to come up with the suggestion that it'll just disappear.”

Republicans hosted their own counter-programming during last week’s Democratic convention, including in-person gatherings in Mechanicsville and Virginia Beach. The latter event included appearances from Congressional hopeful Scott Taylor, Republic National Committee co-chairman Tommy Hicks and Trump campaign advisor John Pence, nephew of Vice President Mike Pence.

“We need four more years of a president who puts America first,” Pence said, according to a clip from local TV station WVEC he posted to Twitter. Most of the attendees, including Pence and Taylor, did not appear to wear masks in the indoor event.

Democrats held a socially-distant drive-in watch party in Prince William County last week to watch Biden accept the nomination. They also held vritual panels and press interviews featuring top Democrats like Sen. Mark Warner and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe throughout the week. Trump's name inevitably came up.

"We are the symbol of the greatest democracy in the world, and he is ripping it to shreds," McAuliffe said in an interview last week.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include numbers on the Biden campaign's outreach in Virginia and information on their programming during last week's Democratic National Convention.

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