ROUND HILL, Va. – A ram with hulking shoulders, a thick mat of wool and curled horns, each of them as big as a human face, is leering at us from the edge of Tia Walbridge’s farm. He’s friendly, Walbridge assures me, and is only penned off to keep him from rutting with her dozen sheep. She usually mates her small flock in August, but this year’s different: Walbridge is running for office for the first time, and if she’s away legislating come January she doesn’t want her husband to have to deliver a dozen or more fragile, slippery lambs by himself.
This can happen at any time, which Walbridge learned the hard way when she arrived home from a training session for candidates earlier this year in a suit and had to immediately reach inside a ewe in labor to deliver a stuck baby lamb, which she does with her bare hands.
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Walbridge, a short-haired, blue eyed woman of 37 years old, talks about her sheep farm any chance she gets as she campaigns for a state legislative seat in pastoral northwestern Virginia. She’s not your stereotypical farmer: In February, spurred by Donald Trump’s election victory to get more involved in politics and put off by her own representative, she dyed her bright blue hair to a more palatable shade of platinum blonde and launched a bid for office.
Walbridge doesn’t talk about Trump much when she’s out knocking on doors or passing out flyers splashed with a photo of the sheep field. She’s running a hyperlocal campaign, with a focus on preserving rural areas from encroaching suburban development. “I’m really unhappy with how he’s representing our district. I don’t think he listens,” Walbridge says of her opponent, Dave LaRock, while walking around her farm on a bright October morning.
But those flyers don’t mention a key fact about Walbridge: She’s a Democrat. They also don’t mention that she bears endorsements from powerhouse progressive groups like Planned Parenthood. That’s because, though her district contains stretches of swingy Loudoun County, it voted 55-39 percent for Trump last November.
Democrats across the country, reeling from last year’s election loss, are investing their hopes in novice candidates like Walbridge—not just to make gains in a bellwether state like Virginia and send a message to Trump, but to claw out of the enormous hole that their long, nationwide neglect of local races has dug for the party.
In Virginia, at least, it’s going to be an uphill climb. For years, Democrats haven’t even managed to field candidates to contest every seat. In 2017, Democratic candidates have stepped up to run for 54 of the Republicans’ 66 seats in the state legislature—more than double the number of challengers for those seats in 2015—in an attempt to break the GOP’s 20-year grip on the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of Virginia’s General Assembly. The surge of interest, driven by antipathy to the president, has drawn support from national groups—both traditional Democratic organizations like EMILY’s List and new-wave “resistance” operations like Flippable—which are pouring resources into helping even long-shot challengers like Walbridge.
“Virginia has been the first sign of women jumping up and saying, ‘I’ve got to run,’” says EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, who spent recent weeks criss-crossing Virginia rallying candidates and volunteers. “This is the next decade of candidates. The future leaders who are going to be running the state and our country.”
The math seems simple enough: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won 17 seats held by Republican delegates in 2016, and Democrats need to claim 17 seats to win back control of the chamber. But this is not a presidential election year, when Democrats usually enjoy a higher turnout all over the country. And no party has picked up more than seven seats in a single House of Delegates election since 2001. Republicans now predict they’ll limit losses to four seats or fewer, while Democrats think they have a chance to pick up as a many as 10. In either scenario, Republicans will retain their majority—but even a small a Democratic surge would be read nationally as a harbinger of a blue wave to come.
In Virginia, the political impact could last years. If the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, can win the governor’s seat, and Democrats can make pick-ups in delegate races in 2017 and 2019, they’ll have the power in 2021 to undo the GOP gerrymander that was instrumental in creating the Republicans’ 66-seat supermajority. Across the country, for Democrats to start exercising real power, they need to regain control of legislatures in blue-tinted swing states like Virginia. But the party has yet to find a way, in Virginia or elsewhere, to reverse its perennial tendency to lose during off-year elections.
“This race, and any future races leading up to a redistricting are vital—they’re absolutely vital,” said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. Gilmore would know: As governor in the late 1990s, he successfully worked to win Republicans the Virginia House of Delegates and flip decades of Democratic gerrymandering in the state in the GOP’s favor. “Vital. Everything. I’m using the strongest words I can dream up.”
The mastermind of Republicans’ dominance over state legislatures nationwide is none other than Ed Gillespie, this year’s Republican candidate for Virginia governor.
Today, Gillespie is locked in a tight campaign against Northam, a former army doctor, for the governorship. But back in 2010, Gillespie worked to steer millions into traditionally overlooked Republican state legislature campaigns from his perch as head of the Republican State Leadership Committee. The strategy, dubbed REDMAP, helped Republicans capture more than 700 state legislature seats that year alone, giving Republicans new power they used to redraw both state and congressional maps in their favor. Democrats have never recovered.
In Virginia, Republicans had initially redrawn their legislative maps 10 years earlier, when the party had full control in Richmond for the first time and decided to reverse years of Democratic gerrymandering. Since then, Republicans have slowly grown their edge in the House of Delegates into today’s 66-vote supermajority. They’ve used that hefty majority to pass bills requiring proof of citizenship to vote and restricting abortions, but Democrats in the Senate have blocked the House’s efforts.
These advantageous districts have helped the GOP increase its control over state legislatures across the country. In 26 states, Republicans now control both the executive and the legislative branches of state government; Democrats currently only hold such control in six states. (Republicans can add to this total if Gillespie wins the governor’s race; Democrats are expected to assume full control in Washington State and New Jersey.) The party controlling a state’s government during redistricting can also reshape boundaries for U.S. House of Representatives districts in its favor— a critical tool that has helped Republicans maintain control over the U.S. House in recent years. Democrats are desperate to gain ground over the next several years because if they can’t do so before redistricting starts in 2020, they’ll lock in this fate for another 10 years.
Virginia Republicans benefit from both advantageous district boundaries and a favorable crowd during their odd-year elections, when young people and racial minorities are less likely to vote. (In 2013, the year after Obama was reelected, for example, only 43 percent of voters turned out, down from 71 percent the previous year.) Incumbents also start out the cycle with more experience, greater name recognition and an established donor base—so they generally don’t have to do much in their campaigns aside from not mess up.
“What it becomes is not necessarily a referendum on the national climate, but whether or not these folks have had a good ground game, whether their party apparatus is getting out the vote,” says Republican blogger and podcast host J.R. Hoeft.
Democrats’ best chance to pick up seats may be in Prince William County, a suburban area west of Washington that Clinton won last year by 20 points. Five Democratic challengers are trying to flip GOP-held seats—and Republicans are taking the call to arms seriously. Republican volunteers have knocked on more voters’ doors during the last three months than in any other county in the state, according to the Prince William County Republican Committee. The GOP delegates are meanwhile keeping their heads down and focusing on examples of when they’ve helped their district in practical, concrete ways.
“The Democrats are trying to talk about Trump, and his tax reform plan to benefit the wealthy. And they’re trying to talk about Obamacare repeal and the fake Muslim ban, while our candidates are talking about neighborhood improvements and local infrastructure and local pay. That’s why we think we’ll be successful on election day,” says D.J. Jordan, vice chairman of the Prince William County Republican Committee.
The inexperience of many of the Democrats’ new recruits is also tripping them up at times. At a recent candidate forum, I watched fresh-faced Donte Tanner—a tall, well-clad veteran who has raised a staggering $656,336 since entering his race in May—work to build a case for why he should be elected over one of the most powerful Republicans in state politics, GOP caucus leader Tim Hugo.
In a florescent-lit meeting room in a fire station just south of Dulles Airport, Tanner sped awkwardly through a series of prepared remarks. He neglected to pause for laughs after his best joke, a bit about applying for the Air Force Academy at the tender age of 11 and getting rejected. He steamrolled through a riff about wanting his 3-month-old daughter to grow up in a better world, and stuttered in his conclusion: “Together, united, we can make this, make this commonwealth one that, one that—our kids can be proud of.”
Hugo rose next. Relaxed and breezy, he listed off issues he’s worked to fix for the district— so many road repairs that they call him the “pothole delegate.” Even though he’s one of the most powerful politicians in Virginia, his rhetoric is relentlessly local. “Some people get wrapped up in the national issues and everything that’s wrong in Washington,” Hugo said. “I focus on the day to day.”
In the weeks ahead of Tuesday’s vote, top national Democrats have been repeating a mantra: If the party wants to create a wave next year, it starts in Virginia. Unlike the much-hyped special elections in Georgia and Montana earlier this year, where Republicans had built-in structural advantages, the governor’s race and delegate contests are taking place on relatively even political ground.
Democratic groups have been eager to use the off-off-year election as a petri dish to experiment and predict what will happen in 2018, occasionally to the annoyance of Democratic campaigns. But most of the money and new technology has received a warm embrace: Obama’s national redistricting group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has spent more than a million dollars in Virgina, much of it towards piloting a program with MobilizeAmerica, another new group, allowing out of state volunteers to phone bank and canvas for candidates. Jason Kander’s voting rights group, Let America Vote, opened up its first field office in the state this year.
The night after his halting faceoff with Hugo, Tanner—this time, relaxed, chatty and insistent that he hadn’t been nervous the night before—mingled at an event hosted by one such experimental out-of-state organization, Silicon Valley-based Win the Future, at George Mason University. The group was cofounded earlier this year by Netflix founder Reed Hastings and a cohort of other executives and activists, who hope to mine Virginia voters for technology-based answers to the Democratic Party’s electoral ills.
The event was arranged into stations manned by volunteers with laptops teaching people to make GIFs, memes and other share-able ways to spread enthusiasm for a candidate. About two dozen students, many of them from George Mason’s art and design program, circulated. Adam Werbach, a California-based activist and cofounder of Win the Future, told me that campaigns tend to embrace “innovation cloaked in what worked in a different industry 10 years ago.” The group is working to collect data at events like this on new approaches to getting out the vote. On this night, data collection ends early: The event was scheduled to end at 7:45 but cleared out half an hour earlier.
There are some signs that this year will be different for Virginia Democrats. In the state house, Democrats lead Republicans 49 percent to 38 percent in a generic ballot match-up between the two parties, according to October polling by Christopher Newport University. Some local elections have also shown promise: In an open contest to replace a Republican-backed school board member in Prince William County in August, a candidate backed by Democrats won with twice the number of voters as her opponent. Volunteers are in Virginia, too: volunteers and staff working with the state party made more than 200,000 phone calls on behalf of Democratic candidates as of the end of October, for example, more than three times the number they’d made at that point in 2013.
There’s also a wild card: No one knows what the impact of new grassroots groups like Indivisible will be. The Northam campaign and other Democratic campaign groups are planning on an electorate that doesn’t look much different from 2013. But it’s not hard to imagine Democratic turnout surging in certain areas. In tiny House of Delegates races, just a couple hundred votes could be enough to change an outcome.
But the surge of national interest in these local contests carries risks for Democrats, too.
Tia Walbridge’s opponent, Dave LaRock, said he sees “a lot of Democrats trying to make an example of Virginia. Not just Democrats, but out of state liberals.” He sounded impressed with her canvassing volunteers, who he’s spotted frequently, as well as by the large sums of money Walbridge has raised and the frequent mailers she sends out to constituents.
“Honestly, we’ve stayed away from the negative politics. She is a very radical feminist, extreme pro-abortion, and you know, I could go on, but it’s a very distinct contrast and I’ve refrained from highlighting that, though I think it makes her incompatible with the district,” LaRock said. “She campaigns with Tom Perriello; I campaigned with Ken Cuccinelli.”
The thing that Democrats have discovered most clearly in Virginia this year is that they don’t yet know how to win races in the age of Trump.
“My theory of the case is that we do best when we can link our opponent to Trump as if they’re acting like him,” explained David Toscano, the Democratic leader in the House of Delegates. “When we can make that link, our message is so much stronger.”
Toscano has spent much of this year advising candidates for the House of Delegates and helping them organize. Some candidates have heeded his advice and worked to Trumpify their opponents, while others have struck to local concerns.
“There’s no unified theory of the election this year on the Democratic side,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “There is the shadow over the election, which is 2016 and Trump, but it’s only a shadow. It isn’t anything more than that in most places.”
As in Washington, where wars between factions of the Democratic Party have raged throughout the year, Democrats have been divided all year over what to do in Virginia. In interviews, Democrats representing national and local groups described a hodgepodge of contrasting solutions to fix the party’s ills.
Voters in Virginia are starved for “real conversations about racial and economic justice,” said Annie Weinberg, electoral director for Howard Dean’s Democracy for America. The party’s message has been “too risk averse,” said a national Democratic strategist who has worked for the party establishment, leading to television ads that feel “like the same mistakes that Democrats have made in the past.” Toscano, who supports linking Republicans to Trump, also cautioned that campaigns also have to give moderate voters outside the Democratic base “something else they can vote for and feel good about.”
At a recent Democratic event at a volunteer firehouse in Prince William County, these disparate strategies were all on display. Danica Roem, a former reporter, is a history-making transgender candidate who is running on fixing a major local traffic issue. Hala Ayala, who would be Virginia’s first Latina delegate, wouldn’t even say Trump’s name and spent much of her speech praising former President Barack Obama. Lee Carter, a Marine veteran, said they needed Democrats with “fire in the belly.”
Tanner is meanwhile emphasizing his military service, and running a television ad that says Hugo voted against programs designed to protect kids from sexual harassment. And Walbridge continues to burn long hours driving down dirt roads with her volunteers to houses tucked away in the hills of Loudoun County, where she waxes poetic on preserving the area’s rural heritage.
But campaigning for House of Delegates is a full-time job, so the farm has taken a backseat for a while: Walbridge put field maintenance on hold, as well as a plan to buy more goats and start making cheese. A fox looted the flock of birds earlier this year and heisted 20 chickens and several of the fluffy white ducks, whose eggs fetch $5.00 a dozen, and there’s been no time to replace them. Her draft horse is putting on weight because no one has time to ride her.
“On November 7th,” Walbridge said, “she gets an exercise plan.”