Energized By Trump, Democrats In Virginia Try To Make Ground In The Statehouse Elections in Virginia this fall are the first big test for state-level Democrats in the Trump era and whether they can use the president's unpopularity to gain ground in the state legislature.
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Shut Out Of Power In D.C., Democrats Try To Make Inroads In Virginia This Fall

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Shut Out Of Power In D.C., Democrats Try To Make Inroads In Virginia This Fall

Shut Out Of Power In D.C., Democrats Try To Make Inroads In Virginia This Fall

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Although Republicans hold a big majority in Virginia's legislature, Hillary Clinton won the state last year. Now Democrats hope to use President Trump's unpopularity to gain ground in the Commonwealth. Virginia is just one of two states holding statewide elections this fall, and local Democrats are trying to prove they can channel national energy into state elections. Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF reports.

SCHUYLER VANVALKENBURG: Hey, how's it going? Hey. My name's Schuyler VanValkenburg. How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm good. How are you?

VANVALKENBURG: I'm running for the House of Delegates this upcoming November.

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: VanValkenburg is the first Democratic candidate vying for the state's 72nd district outside of Richmond in a decade.

DIANE ROBINSON: Take care, and good luck to you.

VANVALKENBURG: Thank you. I appreciate it.

ROBINSON: I'm going to go on your website and check you out, buddy.

NOE-PAYNE: Voter Diane Robinson has lived here for years. But between raising three kids and working, she hasn't had time for local politics. She didn't even know her state delegate was a Republican. She says that might have been different if a Democrat had come knocking earlier.

ROBINSON: But it's been 10 years. I feel like the wool's been pulled over my eyes. So maybe we need them to come over here and see what they can do instead of throwing the towel in because that's not giving me or any other Democrat a chance to vote.

NOE-PAYNE: So that's what VanVolkenburg is trying to do. He's never run for office before. He teaches high-school students government and history at a nearby public school.

VANVALKENBURG: I literally teach them, like, democratic citizenship and how to be a democratic citizen. That's, like, my day to day life, is doing that. And so I had never thought I'd run. But after November, it just seemed like the right thing to do and hopefully bring good to a community.

NOE-PAYNE: Across the state, Democrats are now fielding candidates like VanValkenburg in districts they weren't contesting. Thomas Bowman is a legislative aide for a state delegate. He ran the numbers and found that by just putting a Democrat on the ballot, the party could win as many as 4,000 more votes per district, half of whom used to vote Republican.

THOMAS BOWMAN: Because if you don't have a candidate representing your party, you can't have a dialogue, and you're telling that whole area that you don't care about them.

NOE-PAYNE: So last October, Bowman co-founded a political action committee that will offer money and expertise and make it easier for new candidates to run for office. Since President Trump's victory, Democrats have had no trouble recruiting those candidates. Last election, only 39 of the 100 state legislative seats were contested. This year, 67 are.

But Virginia's Republican Party Chair John Whitbeck isn't worried. He says Trump hate alone isn't enough to appeal to moderate voters.

JOHN WHITBECK: You can have a, you know, county supervisor in a Hillary Clinton-district that wins as a Republican because they're talking about the issues that matter to those voters.

NOE-PAYNE: And Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg actually agrees. Knocking doors, he says getting voters to the polls rests on him, not Donald Trump.

VANVALKENBURG: It's actually very rare that I hear about Donald Trump, which I actually think is nice. (Laughter). You know, I think that speaks to voters' sense of, you know, that's not what it's about. It's about this race, it's about the local community, and I think everybody realizes that you have to be looking forward.

NOE-PAYNE: Voters here will also be electing a new governor this fall, a race Democrats are cautiously optimistic about. But long term, Democrats say winning local races like this one is key to rebuilding their party. For NPR News I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Richmond.

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