Virginia: Will midterm elections bring an upset in November?
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., plays the harmonica as he joins the Cary Street Ramblers during a campaign kickoff rally in Richmond, Va., April 2. Kaine is running for a second term in the U.S. Senate, and Democrats are feeling pretty confident about his chances. | Steve Helber / AP

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va.—Last year, 2017, saw big gains for the Democrats in Virginia’s state legislative and executive elections. The Democratic Party won all three state executive positions—governor, lieutenant governor, and state attorney general—and came within two seats of erasing the Republican Party’s 66 to 34 seat majority in the House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly. This has the Democrats feeling optimistic for the federal midterm elections this year.

The factors which allowed the Democrats to advance last year—sharply increased turnout of the party’s social base, some state issues (notably the Democrats’ support for, and the Republicans’ opposition to, the very popular idea of the expansion of Medicaid), Trump’s controversies, and demographic changes within the state—may also operate in their favor in the races for the one federal Senate seat and eleven House seats in contention. Though the primaries are not until June 12, some patterns are already beginning to emerge.

Senate: Kaine vs. the GOP rabble

So far, it appears that Democrat Tim Kaine’s hold on his Senate seat is not in immediate danger. Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate in 2016, is running unopposed in the primary. On the other side of the partisan divide, the major contenders for the Republican nomination for his seat are a very strange bunch indeed; all of them hail from the extremist right wing of the GOP.

The biggest name, and the biggest mouth, belongs to Corey Stewart, the chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, in Northern Virginia. Stewart ran for governor in the Republican primary last year, but lost to GOP apparatchik Ed Gillespie. However, he got enough votes that he appears to have moved Gillespie to the right on some issues, especially immigration.

Stewart’s principal issues have been on the supposed threat of immigration, the issue of Confederate monuments, and guns, guns, guns.  Even though he was born in Minnesota, Stewart has become an avid defender of the memory of the Confederacy-sympathizing “Lost Cause” and was one of the people whose agitation contributed to the right-wing riot in Charlottesville in August last year—an incident in which a young protester was killed when she was run down by one of the white supremacists present. He is also an opponent of the demand for more control of access to firearms.

But in last year’s state election, several seats in Stewart’s own Prince William County flipped from Republican to Democrat, with the victorious Democrats in some cases coming from the left wing of their party. Stewart is up for re-election to his county position next year, so not only is it unlikely he can defeat Kaine, but he may be relegated to the electoral wilderness entirely.

The other GOP candidates are strange birds also. Nick Freitas is a one-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He too makes no concessions to the moderate center. Freitas says he is in favor of “economic freedom,” by which he means no limits on the activities of big business. He is anti-abortion (“All lives matter” he says, including blastocysts), and earlier this year introduced legislation to prohibit the State of Virginia from funding abortion services (the bill passed but was vetoed by Gov. Ralph Northam). And, of course, Freitas is a Second Amendment extremist.

Freitas appears to also be just as fiercely anti-immigrant as Stewart, having introduced legislation to prohibit “sanctuary cities” in Virginia. One such bill did make it through the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Northam.

The third Republican candidate for Senate is E.W. Jackson, an African-American lawyer and a minister at Exodus Faith Ministries. Jackson ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, but was beaten by a wide margin by George Allen. The following year, he ran for lieutenant governor against Democrat Ralph Northam, but lost by a moderate margin. Northam was elected governor last year.

After the January 2017 women’s march, Jackson accused the marchers of being on the “godless side” of the issues, and of being allies of the “rulers of darkness.” He has said similar things about LGBTQ people. Now a candidate for public office, Jackson has tried to distance himself from such comments by claiming that his statements should only be seen in the context of his pastoral work and do not represent how he would handle his responsibilities as a senator. Jackson has been equally fierce in denouncing undocumented immigrants and those who would protect them.

House races: Where the action is

The most interesting action, though, is currently in the House elections. Until recently, the only federal House electoral district seen at play was the 10th, in Northern Virginia.  Although Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock was re-elected in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried the district over Donald Trump by a margin of 52.2 to 42.2 percent that year, and Northam won handily there last year.

There is also the fact that Comstock’s own electoral margins of victory have been declining over recent years: In 2016, she beat her Democratic rival by 52.96 to 46.92 percent.

The district is one of the wealthiest in the country, but also has a large number of inhabitants, and voters, who are not from the old South, with its toxic Confederate memories. Though African Americans are only 6.65 percent of the district’s population, there are large numbers of Asians (13.85 percent) and Latinos (14.02 percent), sectors that are unlikely to be enthusiasts of the Republican Party in its current jingoistic and anti-foreign incarnation.

Seeing Comstock’s vulnerability, a full dozen Democrats announced their candidacies in the June 12 primary. The weaker candidates have been gradually withdrawing, and it is expected that the number who actually will be in contention will be much smaller. But still, it is going to be a contested Democratic primary.

In the Republican primary, Comstock is being challenged by right-wing former military man and “inspirational speaker” Shak Hill, who accuses her of not being fully on board with “Trump’s agenda.” Though Hill is seen as a fringe candidate, it is suspected by some that the purpose of his candidacy is to pull Comstock further to the right.

Is Comstock a moderate Republican, one of that nearly extinct breed?

She has been critical of Trump’s personal behavior, but her opponents suggest this is tactical more than principled. On some issues, she has aligned with Trump and his allies in recent votes in the House. For example, she is the chief sponsor of HR 3697, which gives far too wide a latitude to the government in designating any group of five or more people as a “criminal gang,” without any court finding that crimes actually have been committed by members of that group, and then allows the deportation of any non-citizen for being a member of the group, again without any criminal conviction.

She has cosponsored or supported other immigration crackdown legislation as well, including legislation to prohibit “sanctuary cities,” such as HR 3003. She also voted for HR 806, which weakens EPA standards for ozone.

The gun control issue may be particularly difficult for Comstock to navigate. Though the hard core Republican base is fanatically opposed to gun control, recent shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida and the huge youth-led demonstrations that have followed have energized people on the other side of the issue. Comstock has been sharply criticized for her acceptance of National Rifle Association money. A particular focus of criticism has been Comstock’s vote in favor of last year’s Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act in Congress. Now that the NRA has taken a fascist political direction, epitomized by its spokespeople’s statements in the wake of the post-Parkland demonstrations, an NRA association will be particularly difficult for Comstock to live down.

These and others will be the issues that her Democratic adversary will bring up in the general election.

Currently, however, more attention is being paid to the Democratic primary. There, the gun issue has also surfaced., Though, for the most part, the six remaining Democratic candidates focused their anti-gun fire on Trump, Comstock, and the NRA, there was internal back and forth too at a Democratic primary candidates’ debate on April 10.

Candidate Dan Helmer criticized another candidate, State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, for having supported a compromise deal on concealed carry legislation, which had been brokered by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, in 2016. Wexton defended herself, saying that at the time the deal was the best solution that could be achieved. Some consider Wexton a favorite in the election because of the list of endorsements by public officials that she has racked up. But a lot can happen between now and June 12.

In a follow-up article, I will write about the goings-on in other Virginia congressional districts.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.