Spurred to action in part by the "resistance" movement that took shape after President Trump's election, there are a record number of women running for the Virginia House of Delegates this year. And as some of the same women who marched on Washington on Jan. 21 take to the polls on Nov. 7, both they and party leaders are looking toward Virginia's off-year election as the best indicator of how Democrats might fare in 2018.
All 100 seats in the Virginia House are up for re-election Tuesday. Democrats need to win 17 seats to take the majority in the House; right now, they're in the minority in the state legislature overall, despite having a Democratic governor in office. A record 43 women are running as Democrats for the House, along with nine Republican women and one independent. Many are first-time candidates.
Virginia, along with New Jersey, holds elections in odd-numbered years. That means candidates can't rely on enthusiasm for a presidential or U.S. Senate candidate to draw voters to the polls. But an off-year contest still draws national attention, and Democratic groups are pouring money and resources into Tuesday's contests in hopes of gathering momentum to retake Capitol Hill in 2018—and to unseat President Trump in 2020.
"Women Have Stepped Up Like Never Before"
Jess O'Connell took the helm of the Democratic National Committee as CEO after its role in the 2016 election season exposed deep divides between Hillary Clinton supporters and the Berni e Sanders wing of the left. Now, she's aiming to reunite the Democratic Party and its voters, starting with a $1.5 million dollar push to support candidates up and down the ballot, many of them women seeking a seat in Virginia's lower chamber.
"This is the largest investment we have made in any campaign to date since the new leadership has come on board," O'Connell tells Bustle. "We're in at every level. This is unprecedented for the DNC, but this is the new DNC."
While leaders hone their message on what the party stands for, it's clear what it's against: the policies of President Trump, whose approval rating slid to its lowest level yet, 38 percent, in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. That's in line with Trump's 37 percent approval rating in Virginia. Yet among Republicans nation-wide, his approval stands at 81 percent. Among women, it's slipping: They are less likely to approve of Trump's handling of the presidency and more likely to favor impeachment. The 2016 election results — which came out just weeks after audio surfaced of Trump bragging that his celebrity status entitled him to grab women's genitals without their consent — showed one of the widest gender gaps in history.
"People came out and decided to translate their resistance into running."
Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, tells Bustle that Tuesday's election is "a high-water mark for women running in Virginia." "It really means that people came out and decided to translate their resistance into running," she says. That doesn't just go for the candidates: Post says volunteers and campaign staff knocked on more than one million doors in support of House candidates, doubling the state-wide record set in 2016.
The historic number of female candidates is notable because political participation among women has been chronically low. Only one in five members of Congress are female, and close to half of states never have elected a woman to the governor's mansion. Yet female voters outnumber male voters, women are more likely to vote and they're even more likely to register to vote. With a record number of them running for public office, the country could be turning a corner. "Women have stepped up like never before," O'Connell says.
The day after Trump was inaugurated, millions of women protested in Washington in the largest demonstration in the country's history. "Women were inspired to run," Post says. "After they marched, many of them ran."
Fighting A Race That's Considered "Not Winnable"
Candidate Cori Johnson knows a lot of people are betting against her. She's the first Democrat in a decade to compete in her district — Virginia's 97th, northeast of Richmond — which voted 70 percent for Trump last year. Moreover, she's running her campaign on less than $34,000, which is the median per capita income among her residents in her district. Johnson's family is living solely on her husband's income, since she paused her career as a firefighter and paramedic when she started campaigning full-time.
"You could say pretty much anybody involved in politics has considered my race not winnable," Johnson tells Bustle. "People have said I'm completely crazy, and I've said 'probably,' but they said that when I ran into burning buildings that everybody else was running out of. So I see those as the same kid of crazy. Somebody has to do it."
"Being a woman, it means that I have a chip in the game."
Johnson is betting her candidacy on a data point dated back more than ten years ago, when her opponent first got elected to the House. "When he did have a Democratic opponent who ran a competitive race, there were a lot of Democrats willing to vote," she says. Despite "entrenched" support for her Republican opponent, Johnson is hoping other Virginians who are turned off by Trump's young presidency will vote for change.
"A lot of people describe it as having woken up after Trump was elected," she says, "because we realized just what can happen when we don't actively participate in our communities."
Women Have Skin In The Game
Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson remembers from working in Virginia's legislature during 2007's off-year election that "women candidates in that cycle were a rarity and now they’re becoming the norm." Ferguson, who was involved in Virginia politics for a decade before serving as the senior spokesperson for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, notes that 11 of the candidates currently running in the 16 Virginia districts Clinton won last November are women.
"I think the awakening that started somewhere between Secretary Clinton’s loss on Nov. 8 and the Women’s March on Jan. 21 has propelled a new generation of women leaders to step up to run or join the fight in a way that we haven’t ever seen before," he says.
Since January, Congress has repeatedly tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That's thanks in large part to opposition from a small group of Republican senators including Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who opposed cuts to Planned Parenthood and argued that repealing the law would hurt older Americans as well as those with pre-existing conditions. One attempt drew backlash because the bill was written behind closed doors by 13 men, while another attempt restricted abortion while including virtually zero nods to women's health care needs. A majority of calls to Congress criticizing those repeal efforts came from women.
"We have legislators that want to make decisions for women about their bodies, decisions that should be made between you, your partner, and a doctor."
"The Republicans are obsessed with legislating against women right now and I think that the record number of women running in Virginia and all over the country is a response to that," O'Connell, the DNC chief executive, says.
In the Virginia House, where women hold fewer than 20 percent of seats, lawmakers passed a bill this year to designate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade as the "Day of Tears" and encouraged residents to fly flags at half-staff. The state legislature also tried to pass a bill to defund Planed Parenthood (it was vetoed by the governor) and introduced a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks (the state attorney general said the move was likely unconstitutional).
"Being a woman, it means that I have a chip in the game," Johnson says. "Men’s health never seems to make it to any laws, yet we still feel the need to legislate women’s health that affects me directly."
"We have legislators that want to make decisions for women about their bodies, decisions that should be made between you, your partner, and a doctor," says Elizabeth Guzman, who is running in Virginia's 31st district, which stretches from Arlington past Great Falls. "They want to tell you when you should be ready to start a family, and I don't think these conversations would happen when we have more women members in the House of Delegates."
Women's Issues Impact Entire Communities
When Republican Governor Bob McDonnell signed a bill requiring women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion, candidate Kathy Tran decided she'd had enough. "That’s absolutely ludicrous and is something that I would have stood firmly against," she tells Bustle. Tran is running in Virginia's 42nd district, which includes the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Springfield, Lorton, Fairfax Station, and Mount Vernon.
A working mother of four, Tran describes herself as an immigrant and a refugee. She firmly opposes a bill introduced this year in the state legislature requiring all refugees in Virginia to be included in a public registry. "We’re talking about people who are escaping violence and terror and we don’t have a registry of regular community members anywhere in the country," she says.
Tran could soon become the first Asian-American woman and the first Vietnamese-American elected to state office in Virginia. Tuesday's vote also could usher in the first Latina members of the House and the state's first transgender lawmaker. A wave of wins might push the number of women who hold office in Virginia past the national average of 25 percent.
"There are certain policies that I think are things that people think of as women’s issues," Tran says, citing education, transportation, and gun violence. "But I think we need to remember that our issues are also men's issues, and that our issues are family issues, and that they’re also broader community issues."
Virginia Is An "Early Warning System" For 2018
Ferguson sees Virginia's off-year elections as "an early warning system" for next year's midterms. "I think of it like the early warning systems that the weather service has that tell you which direction the electorate wants the country to go," Ferguson says. "And in this election in Virginia... I hope it’s a warning that voters want democratic leadership and voters want more women at the table."
Virginia is a mix of urban and suburban areas, progressive centers and coal country, and it has a growing share of Latino and African-American voters in addition to a large number of veterans. That makes the state "a petri dish of every type of voter that we're going to see spread out around the country in the midterms," Ferguson says. That diversity could help Democrats carve a path to regaining the majority in Congress next year.
"We need to remember that our issues are also men's issues, and that our issues are family issues, and that they’re also broader community issues."
"I think the things that make Virginia a bellwether are some of the things that we've been seeing with Democratic enthusiasm and Democratic voting," Post says, noting incumbents do have an advantage on Tuesday. "You have to remember that the Republicans drew this map. We went into Virginia never thinking that we could win back the chamber but that we would make meaningful gains on the way to redistricting."
Tran hopes the record-setting group of women candidates on the ballot Tuesday marks a gain for years, even generations, to come. "The statistic is that you have to ask a woman seven times before they will consider seriously running for office," she says. "For my baby girl Elise and my daughter Charlotte, and so many of their friends [my hope] is that they will never have to be asked, that they will know inherently that they can run and that they can win and they have and should have and should demand that seat at the table in order to make their voices heard and fight for their values."