Big advances for Democrats in Virginia
Democrat Jennifer Wexton defeated Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia in a district long held by Republicans. Comstock tried distancing herself from Trump but was unable to cover up the substantial support she has given to the Trump agenda. | AP

One of the states where the Democratic Party did best on November 6 was Virginia, which, each year, is turning from being a “purple” state to a “blue” one.

Virginia, population 8 million, entered the election season with two Democratic senators, four Democratic House members, and seven Republican House members. There were no state legislative elections this year except one special one in the area of Roanoke, but there were a number of local ones.

When the dust settled and all the votes were counted and the results announced, Virginia still had two Democratic senators but now seven Democratic House members, reversing the previous ratio. Progressives won several of the local elections.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat and former Virginia governor first elected to the Senate in 2012, was challenged by Republican Corey Stewart, chair of the County Board of Supervisors in Prince William County in the northern part of the state. Stewart has claimed he was “Trump before Trump” and in the 2017 state gubernatorial elections when he was the Republican candidate, ran an irresponsible campaign which hit on many of the same themes as Trump did in the 2016 presidential elections. He slandered and threatened Latino immigrants nonstop, and associated himself promiscuously with the symbols of the Confederate States of America, the lost cause and, without quite saying so, nostalgia for the slavery days.

Stewart’s theatrics on these reactionary themes culminated on August 11 -12, in the University town of Charlottesville in the Appalachian foothills. He associated himself with some of the most extreme characters who organized the “Unite the Right” rally there. The rally, which had taken on an openly fascist and racist aspect (marchers chanting “the Jews will not replace us”), culminated in the killing of a counter-protester and the accidental deaths of two security personnel whose helicopter crashed. Nevertheless, Stewart did not tone down his extremist rhetoric and continued it into this year’s senatorial campaign.

Polls showed Kaine well ahead throughout the campaign. But the Kaine campaign put out a final burst of media messages highlighting Stewart as a dangerous bigot, and there was hope that Stewart would not just be defeated, but crushingly so, so as to dampen any further excursions into electoral politics and maybe oust him from his power base on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors in the 2019 elections.

As it happened, Kaine did defeat Stewart by a large margin, 59.6 percent to 41.2 percent with the balance going to a minor candidate from the Libertarian Party. But even so, it is troubling that someone as extreme and irresponsible as Stewart, who left even some elements of the Republican Party establishment aghast at his antics, could eventually win 1,368,451 votes.

The geographical pattern of the Senate vote was predictable: Kaine won easily in most of the Washington DC suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia, in most cities and especially university towns (including Charlottesville, where Kaine beat Stewart by a margin of 17,604 votes  to 2,343). Kaine also won in the Tidewater area of Southeastern Virginia, with its large African-American population.  In the mostly African-American city of Petersburg, Kaine beat Stewart, 9,161 to 989. Votes.

Stewart got big vote margins in mostly white rural areas, especially in Virginia’s economically depressed Appalachian spine and in the far southwestern part of the state.

In the election to the House of Representatives, it was originally thought that the Democrats could take up to four seats away from the Republicans. They ended up picking up three, quite an achievement in and of itself.  In the 10th Congressional District (D.C. suburbs and exurbs, and extending westward to the West Virginia border) Democratic State Senator Jennifer Wexton handily defeated the incumbent, Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, by a margin of 56.2 to 43.8 percent.  Comstock had tried to portray herself as a moderate and distance herself from Trump, but her record proved otherwise and the GOP lost this seat which it had held for many years.

In the Second Virginia Congressional District, Democrat Elaine Luria, a former Navy officer, squeaked by with the tiniest of margins against the Republican incumbent, Scott Taylor, with 51.1 percent versus Taylor’s 48.9 percent. The district encompasses the Virginia part of the Delmarva Peninsula plus part of the Tidewater region, with its large minority population, across Chesapeake Bay.

Another squeaker was the Seventh Congressional District, in the central part of the state and some suburbs of Richmond, the state capital, where the Democratic candidate, former CIA agent Abigail Spanberger, inched past the far right-wing Republican incumbent, David Brat, by 50.3 percent to 48.5 percent with the rest going to a minor candidate.

A disappointment was the 5th Congressional District, where some polls had shown the progressive Democratic candidate, Leslie Cockburn, in position to possibly win against a far-right Republican newcomer, liquor distiller Denver Riggleman. Cockburn ran a bold and innovative campaign and got support in places like Danville, an economically struggling, half African-American city on the North Carolina border, and Charlottesville at the north end of the district. But Riggleman won by 53.3 to 46.7 percent.

In parts of Virginia, the rising force within the Democratic Party has been its left wing, including in some areas the Bernie Sanders inspired “Our Revolution” organization. However, these new Democratic members of Congress come from more centrist traditions.

Next year, there are state legislative elections in Virginia, for all 40 seats in the Senate and all 100 in the House of Delegates (the lower house). Currently the Republicans have majorities in both houses, but only the slenderest; twenty-one to nineteen in the Senate, and 51 to 49 in the House. The last House of Delegates election was in 2017 and saw a radical change of composition from a huge Republican majority to a tiny one, with many of the new Democrats coming from the left wing of the party. This sea change was the result of a greatly increased turnout of the Democratic Party base. This year again, the turnout was far above what Virginia normally sees in a non-presidential election, at 56 percent of registered voters. If this momentum can be maintained and majorities won by the Democrats in both General Assembly chambers, opportunities open up on improved health care for the poor, restored voting rights for former convicts (a big issue in this  state as elsewhere), a Virginia endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment, and many other things.

And Corey Stewart? He is up for reelection, along with the other members of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors in 2019 also. The signs are not good for him. In the Senate election, Kaine beat Stewart in Prince William County and a progressive candidate, Dr. Babur Lateef, won a special election as head of the Prince William County Board of Education on Tuesday, with 47.8 percent against Allison Satherwaite who got 42.2 percent and Stanley Bender who got 10 percent. Lateef had run against Stewart for the County Board of Supervisors chairmanship in 2011 but did not win.

(Full disclosure:  Dr. Lateef is this writer’s eye doctor). 


CONTRIBUTOR

Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.

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