Volunteer Sharon Canner hosts a phone bank for former Vice President Joe Biden in Reston. Like many Virginia Democrats, she has been spurred to political action by the Trump Administration.
Presidential candidates are preparing field offices, gathering donations and speaking in Virginia weeks before the Commonwealth holds primaries on March 3. Virginia is among 14 states voting on Super Tuesday. This year's primary comes after Democrats took over the General Assembly in November, buoyed by visits from all the top-tier candidates during the 2019 campaign season.
There is no clear favorite after the Iowa caucuses produced inconclusive results, with both former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders claiming victory. Buttigieg dominates Virginia fundraising so far, with $1.8 million, just ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden's $1.6 million, according to OpenSecrets.org. A poll from January showed Biden leading other Democratic candidates, but political analysts said it was too early to be meaningful.
Virginia is the third biggest Super Tuesday state in terms of delegates, after California, Texas and North Carolina, and several candidates consider it a key state to win.
No one has staked more personal treasure on the Virginia primary than former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who skipped the four early states in favor of a concentrated push on Super Tuesday. He says his experience running a city of millions and building a major business makes him the best candidate to defeat the president, and Virginia is a critical test of his pitch.
Renzo Olivari, Bloomberg's Virginia communications director, said the campaign hired 80 full-time staff and opened six offices around the Commonwealth. Bloomberg will speak later this month at the Blue Commonwealth Gala, the most prominent Democratic event of the year. Olivari said Bloomberg will emphasize how his substantial campaign donations helped Democrats flip both houses of the General Assembly in November on a platform of gun control. Now, those lawmakers are advancing gun control bills after years when Republicans in power buried proposals in committee.
"We're seeing gun safety legislation passed out of committee finally," Olivari said, "and we need to make sure it's not only done here in Virginia, it's taken nationally. And Mike is the candidate that will get that done."
In contrast to that heavily financed and technocratic approach, other candidates have invested months of grassroots organizing in Virginia.
At a recent phone bank for Biden in Reston, host Sharon Canner said she supports the former vice president because she believes he has the best chance of beating President Donald Trump. Canner wore election pins with Biden's name, along with another that read "I miss Obama."
"Is Biden charismatic? No, I don't think he's charismatic," Canner said. "I think he's practical. I think, day one, he will be a Commander in Chief."
Canner said Trump's alienation of U.S. allies scared her. She flicked through photographs of her attending rallies to support impeaching the president. Canner's fury is part of a groundswell of Democratic activism during the Trump Administration that helped the party win control of the General Assembly.
Of Virginia's 11 Congressional representatives, only three so far have publicly endorsed a candidate. Congressman Don Beyer offered early support for Buttigieg and Reps. Donald McEachin and Elaine Luria backed Biden.
Political scientist Mark Rozell at George Mason University said he was not surprised to see few endorsements compared to widespread support for Hillary Clinton in her primary contest against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016.
"It is quite common for members to let the campaign play out for a while before making an endorsement," Rozell said. "In 2016 it was a very different story because there was a presumed front-runner with establishment support going against someone who does not even identify with the party."
Still, Buttigieg drew enthusiasm from some Virginia Democrats.
Justin Jones, director of finance for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said both Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg headlined the party's annual gala last year, but ticket sales soared when Mayor Pete was announced.
In his endorsement of Buttigieg, Congressman Beyer of Alexandria compared the 38-year-old candidate with Obama. "With him, I feel the promise of a new generation, and I see a way out of the darkness," Beyer wrote in April 2019.
As primary season gets fully underway, Buttigieg's campaign is organizing Virginia events called "Pete-ups" in bowling alleys and at trivia nights, but his campaign has delayed hiring staff on the ground in Virginia while he focuses on early primary states. However, Buttigieg plans to speak at a Fairfax County town hall later this month.
Sanders continues his appeal to diverse and immigrant communities to add to his base of young supporters. His campaign organized a "Muslims4Bernie" event at a Falls Church mosque and hosts regular events to connect with Latino, African-American and rural communities.
Massachusetts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren aims to win over African-American voters via events at historically black colleges and universities and happy hours geared toward black professionals.
"The Warren campaign is not taking for granted the backbone of the Democratic parties that are black voters and specifically black women voters," said Alencia Johnson, Warren's national director of public engagement.
A spokeswoman for Klobuchar's campaign did not respond to an emailed interview request.
Virginia voters can register by mail, in person or online; the deadline for online registration is a minute before midnight Feb. 10.
Voters do not need to be registered with a party to vote in their primary, which can lead to mischief by activists crossing party lines.
The specter of Iowa's caucus debacle looms over upcoming primaries. The Iowa Democratic Party ran that contest and used a mobile phone app that malfunctioned, delaying the results for days. Grant Fox, communications director for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the state's Board of Elections runs the primary using paper ballots and electronic scanning. He said no app-based voting system will be used in the Virginia primary.
"The problems in Iowa are unique to Iowa and the caucus system," he said.