2017 down-ticket races approach finish line in Virginia
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, right, gestures during a debate with Democratic challenger Ralph Northam, left, at University of Virginia-Wise in Wise, Va., Oct. 9. | Steve Helber / AP

On November 17, Virginia voters will elect a governor to replace the incumbent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who, by law, cannot succeed himself. This election is being closely watched from coast-to-coast as a possible harbinger of things to come in the national midterm elections of 2018. The current lieutenant governor and Democratic candidate for governor, Ralph Northam, is ahead in the polls, but not by a comfortable enough margin to assure his victory over Republican Party candidate Ed Gillespie,  a party functionary.

But there are other electoral races to watch down ticket that are also important for workers, minorities, women, LGBTQ folks, the poor, and the environment in Virginia. These, too, may be seen as harbingers for things to come nationally.

As Northam will no longer be the lieutenant governor, the Democrats chose Justin Fairfax as their candidate for the position in the June primary election. Fairfax is a 38-year-old lawyer and former U.S. attorney who, if he wins, will be the first African-American lieutenant governor in Virginia’s history and only the second African American to win statewide executive office in Virginia’s history.

The Republican Candidate is State Senator Jill Holtzman Vogel, from Fauquier in the far Northwestern part of the State. She, like Fairfax, is a lawyer. She bills herself as specializing in legal matters concerning charitable organizations, but the Democrats question what she means by a “charitable organization.” In fact, it appears that Vogel’s law firm—Holtzman, Vogel, Josefiak, and Torshinsky—has been closer to corporate lobbying PACs for big business interests and the Republican Party itself than to any beleaguered not-for-profit working for human betterment.

Some of the major entities that Vogel’s law firm has represented are seen as basically money laundering operations set up to help major contributors to the Republican Party conceal their identities from the public. One which Vogel’s firm has represented is the American Crossroads PAC (Political Action Committee). According to a December 2013 article by Lee Aitkin in The Atlantic magazine, calls the activities of this kind of PAC “the new dark money shuffle” made possible by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

The “Leadership Team” of American Crossroads is full of Republican Party hacks and shills for big business. The founding chairman, Mike Duncan, for instance, is connected with the banking and coal sectors and has been a defender of the tobacco industry. Others who have been involved with American Crossroads include Carl Rove and Ed Gillespie, this year’s Republican candidate for governor.

A second problem with Vogel is that she supported a bill in the State Senate in 2012 which would have required most women seeking abortions to undergo a privacy-invading ultrasound procedure. Fairfax has pounced on this as an issue to cut into Vogel’s efforts to portray herself as both a Republican moderate and a defender of women’s rights.

The joke in Virginia is that the main job of the lieutenant governor is to run for governor. In fact, the governor breaks some ties in the Virginia Senate over which she or he presides. Currently the Senate, which is not up for reelection this year, is closely divided: 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats, so the possibility that the lieutenant governor might actually have an impact on legislation is greater than at most times.

The election for attorney general is also being watched very closely. The incumbent, who is running for re-election, is Democrat Mark Herring, elected in 2013 by a miniscule margin. Also an attorney, Herring has been a stalwart defender of the rights of minorities, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, which has made him a lightning rod for attacks from the Republicans and the right. One of his first actions was to announce that he would not defend a Virginia law prohibiting same-sex marriage in federal court. The Republicans claimed that this was a violation of Herring’s oath of office, but the issue became moot when the Supreme Court declared all such laws to be unconstitutional.

On October 13, Attorney General Herring announced he is filing suit, on behalf of lower income Virginians, against the Trump administration’s decision to end federal cost sharing contributions to the health insurance costs of lower income people. Herring calls the move “heartless” and “lawless.” This will be a popular position in Virginia where access of working class people to health care has been a major issue for many years. This year, Virginians name health care as their number one electoral issue, ahead of things the Republicans are emphasizing such as undocumented immigrants and Confederate statues.

Herring’s Republican opponent is another attorney, John Adams of Richmond. Adams’ main line of attack against Herring is to portray the incumbent as having “politicized” the office of attorney general by taking positions such as the one mentioned above on the definition of marriage, as well as on drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition at state universities for some undocumented immigrants.

Adams also criticizes Herring for having opposed Virginia’s photo ID law for voters and for ending Virginia’s reciprocal arrangements with other states to allow the concealed carrying of firearms. Herring has also opposed Virginia’s right-to-work law; in this he is aligned with organized labor but opposed by business interests. According to Adams’ concept of what the attorney general’s function should be, no personal social philosophy should be allowed to enter into the matter. It is worth noting that Herring’s predecessor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli, was an extremist right-wing ideologue who completely politicized the office, but in the opposite direction.

So far, both Fairfax and Herring are ahead in the polls also, but not enough for the Democrats to be complacent.

This year also, all 100 seats in the House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly, are up for election. Currently, the Republicans have a huge majority in the House, 66 to 34. So for the Democrats to win a majority is an extreme uphill struggle. Nevertheless, there are strong efforts behind a number of Democratic challengers, and in Northern Virginia, it appears that a number of them may oust their Republican rivals. In that part of the state, the Our Revolution group that grew out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 election campaign is bringing new energy to the campaigns of Democratic candidates who are mostly young and, in many cases, minorities and women, including a transgender woman, Danica Roem who is running against one of the worst bigots in the Virginia House. These candidates are also pushing the candidacies of Northam, Fairfax and Herring, so the energy they bring to the campaign may help the statewide Democratic ticket also.

This will be needed. The Republicans are working full blast to dilute and suppress the vote in demographic sectors (especially minorities) who might be expected to vote for the Democratic Party, by an onerous photo ID law, by gerrymandering of state legislative districts, and by partly blocking an effort by the current governor, Terry McAuliffe, to restore the voting rights of former prisoners. The task for the Democrats is made more difficult by the fact that there is no national election this year.

The last time the House of Delegates was up for election was in 2015 when there was also no national election, and as a result of the relative lack of public interest, the turnout was only 29.1 percent of the electorate, which led to a big Republican victory in a “purple” state that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Clinton in 2016. Though the gubernatorial election may bring out more voters this year, turnout is still a big worry for the Democrats.

Yet the national outrage caused by the behavior of Trump and his minions, along with shoe leather, may bring out voters in much larger numbers in 2017 than in 2015. Having seen what a national government under Trump is turning out to be like, voters may want to prevent Trump allies from gaining power in Virginia.


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.