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With election stakes high, even local Virginia contests draw national volunteers and attention

With election stakes high, even local Virginia contests draw national volunteers and attention
Supporters attend a recent campaign event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam in Virginia. The state's election has drawn national attention and volunteers. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The test of whether the nation’s Democrats can turn enthusiasm into tangible victories rested on a pingpong table in the basement of a home in Leesburg, Va., where breakfast sweets vied for space with scores of election packets that dozens of volunteers gathered to deliver to homes of potential voters.

The candidate the volunteers were there to support in a race for the commonwealth’s lower legislative chamber was Wendy Gooditis, one of scores of first-timers drawn to the 2017 state races out of frustration over the presidential election and the conservative bent of Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature.

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While her campaign is decidedly local, it and others like it around the state carry weight: Virginia represents a nationally watched early test of whether Democrats can halt a series of ignoble defeats and craft a template for the 2018 congressional and gubernatorial elections.

The gathering on Saturday morning testified to the attention Tuesday’s election has attracted: The volunteers came not only from Virginia but from New Hampshire, Ohio, Maryland, Texas and Tennessee. The state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, and Dorothy McAuliffe, wife of the governor, rallied volunteers. As they scurried out a few minutes later with packets in hand, Gooditis, a former teacher and real estate agent, expressed confidence that victory would be found among the 70,000 doors on which her troops already had knocked.

Virginia House of Delegates candidate Wendy Gooditis speaks to volunteers in Leesburg, with state Atty. Gen. Mark Herring and Dorothy McAuliffe, wife of Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia House of Delegates candidate Wendy Gooditis speaks to volunteers in Leesburg, with state Atty. Gen. Mark Herring and Dorothy McAuliffe, wife of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Cathleen Decker / Los Angeles TImes)

“I think we can be the impetus for the rest of the country,” she said. “Let’s just get it done, and ultimately, you know, if we can change the culture in this country, then we will have an effect globally too.”

“Not very grandiose,” she added, laughing.

That can be forgiven here in Virginia, where people routinely remark on the spotlight that has fallen on their election.

“The eyes of the world are on us right here in Virginia, right now,” the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, exclaimed Saturday afternoon at a volunteer meeting in Woodbridge, an hour to the south of Leesburg, for another first-time delegate candidate, Elizabeth Guzman. “Right now they are looking for a sign of hope … in this political darkness.”

At a volunteer gathering in Woodbridge, Va., House of Delegates candidate Elizabeth Guzman applauds the audience. With her are DNC Chair Tom Perez, left, former Delegate Michael Futrell and Justin Fairfax, right, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
At a volunteer gathering in Woodbridge, Va., House of Delegates candidate Elizabeth Guzman applauds the audience. With her are DNC Chair Tom Perez, left, former Delegate Michael Futrell and Justin Fairfax, right, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. (Cathleen Decker / Los Angeles Times)

So far, for Democrats, the tale of 2017 has been mixed. The party has won a string of off-year legislative contests that flew below the national radar, but failed in some high-profile races, most notably a congressional battle in the outskirts of Atlanta that, as in Virginia, drew millions in donations and an outpouring of volunteers.

As Tuesday’s election neared, national Democrats were reviving their internal feud over the 2016 campaign, prompted by claims that former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile made in a new book in which she said Hillary Clinton negotiated an unfair advantage over her challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Meantime, in Virginia’s toss-up race for governor, Democrat Ralph Northam’s campaign has wobbled under a withering assault from Republican Ed Gillespie.

But candidates and volunteers battling lower on the Democratic ladder dismissed concerns that problems higher up would undercut the party’s showing.

“When you talk to voters one-on-one, you cut through any noise they’re hearing from outside,” said first-time candidate Donte Tanner, a businessman and Air Force Academy graduate campaigning in Clifton, in northern Virginia.

In his race and other delegate contests, the focus is more prosaic: how many doors can be knocked on, how many phone calls made, how many leaflets passed out, how many of the voters who usually don’t show up for off-year elections can be persuaded to vote because of bread-and-butter issues like healthcare, education and traffic.

Despite a string of Democratic victories statewide in recent elections, Republicans hold a 2-1 advantage in Virginia’s lower house — one vote shy of a supermajority able to override vetoes. In part because the state’s legislative lines strongly benefit Republicans, GOP legislative candidates have often run unopposed in recent elections. This year, by contrast, only 12 Republicans are running unopposed; in 2015, the figure was more than 40.

What the party is going through now is “part of a rebuilding,” Guzman said. “I think that we have just been playing safe for so many years, and we have to be in the situation we’re in today to realize that there are people out there with the same values, but they just don’t know it.”

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Guzman is not playing safe. A social worker who immigrated from Peru 19 years ago with a high school education and 6-year-old daughter, she now holds two masters’ degrees and is a mother of four who calls herself “proud brown and a proud union member.” She is one of two Democrats seeking to become the first Latina to serve in Richmond’s House of Delegates.

“I think I can represent what an immigrant can do when opportunities are presented to them,” she said. “I want people to know that if they are willing to work hard and sacrifice, they will be able to achieve the American dream.”

Guzman is typical of the new wave of Democrats in Virginia’s races. Of the 2017 crop of candidates, more than half are women, many nonwhite and most newcomers to seeking political office. A survey by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey found a 60% increase in the number of women running in Virginia’s general election, compared with contests in 2013 and 2009. Most of the increase came among Democrats.

Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers political scientist, compared the boost of enthusiasm to 1992, when female candidates were spurred to run after the national debate over accusations of harassment leveled by Anita Hill against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

But that election, she notes, followed a redistricting which diminished many of the advantages held by incumbents. This year’s races will be held in the same districts where incumbents have repeatedly won.

“This is a moment when the sort of outsider newcomer is quite attractive to the electorate,” she said, but “none of these are easy races.”

National groups have flooded into Virginia to try to improve the odds. Sister District, a Bay Area-based group that puts Democrats who live in party strongholds to work helping those running in contested districts elsewhere, has most of its 25,000 volunteers either making calls or sending mail in 13 Virginia races that it believes are winnable but are usually “undernourished and under-resourced,” said one of the group’s founders, Lala Wu. Wu was among hundreds of group members in Virginia last week.

As Guzman arrived in Woodbridge, where DNC Chair Tom Perez was one of the speakers, she was approached by three young men.

“Are you guys from Flippable?” she asked, referring to another group whose members are helping in the state. “No, we’re from ‘Let America Vote,’” one of them replied, citing a third.

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“I couldn’t stay in Arizona and sit this one out,” said Sierra Yamanaka, 23, from Tucson, who was among two separate groups of Arizonans at the event. Yamanaka, who works for her state’s Democratic Party, said she was hoping for a victory that would push momentum west.

She repeated the common refrain: “All eyes are on Virginia.”

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