We're just five weeks away from Election Day 2017, and the eyes of the country will be on Virginia's races with state offices ranging from Governor to Attorney General commanding the nation's attention. But this year Democrats finally have realized that the GOP was able to take over America by winning at the state legislature level, and in the Trump era, Team Blue is looking to take states back one by one ahead of 2018 and 2020's crucial battles.
If you want a sneak preview of how the 2018 election is shaping up for Democrats, you should pay attention to people like Schuyler VanValkenburg.
The 32-year-old VanValkenburg is a high school civics teacher at a public school in Henrico County, Virginia. As part of his civics duties, he coaches his team in a statewide “We the People” constitutional competition, in which students are grilled, Senate-hearing-style, by a panel of judges about America’s system of governance. “I’m teaching this really idealistic and really sophisticated program, and the kids are working at a really high level—really taking in the Constitution and working with it—and meanwhile they’re seeing this election going more and more into the gutter,” he says. So not long after President Donald Trump won, with prodding from another teacher and support from a new progressive political outfit called Run for Something, which helps first-time millennial candidates do exactly that, he decided to run for the House of Delegates in the state’s 72nd district.
Even in an off-year, elections have consequences. On November 7 voters will go to the polls to pick mayors in New York, Atlanta, Detroit, and Birmingham. New Jersey will get a new governor, and a state Senate election in Washington state could give Democrats full control of the state government. But the elections in swingy Virginia, where all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for grabs (along with the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), could be the clearest demonstration yet of Democratic political power in the age of Trump—and a barometer for the party’s strength heading into next year’s midterm election. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Virginia Senate but a 2-to-1 supermajority in the House of Delegates, and have used their numbers to block term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe from expanding Medicaid in the state. Taking back the House of Delegates is a long shot, but candidates like VanValkenburg demonstrate how they’ll try.
VanValkenburg’s platform is what you’d expect from a suburban Democrat running against intransigence—he’s pledging more money for public schools, passage of Medicaid expansion, and a rejection of the conservative culture war. What’s different is that it’s happening in Henrico. The 72nd, which comprises the northwest suburbs of Richmond, is Republican by habit. Three years ago, Republican primary voters in Henrico County replaced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor with Ayn Rand-quoting economics professor Dave Brat. Democrats have long approached the district with the attitude that you can’t lose a fight you never join. The current Republican delegate Jimmie Massie, who is retiring at the end of this term, won reelection in 2015 without any Democratic opposition. Just like the Republican nominee in 2013. And 2011. And 2009. And 2005. And 2003. And 2001. And 1999. And 1997. And 1993. And 1991.
But this year, Democrats have put the 72nd in their sights. VanValkenburg has raised $150,000 as of September, nearly as much as his Republican rival, Eddie Whitlock. The Cook Political Report named his race a “toss-up,” the outcome of which will hinge on the strength of the Democratic Resistance. After the disappointment of 2016, progressive politicos sought to rebuild their party’s bench through strength in numbers—by coaxing a record number of candidates to seek down-ballot offices. (Run for Something, which was founded by a Hillary Clinton campaign alum, has assisted seven Democratic delegate candidates in Virginia alone.) Seven Republican retirements have strengthened Democrats’ chances there. Virginia will be the first real test of whether the strategy is working.
Democrats have had very good success in state-level special elections so far. If they can do well next month in Virginia's House of Delegates, it just may be the turning point that leads to another 2006 and 2008 model of victories across the country. 2005 saw Tim Kaine winning the governor's race, and hopefully 2017 will see Ralph Northam win as well.
I'm betting it will be a good day for Democrats.