RICHMOND, Va. — Opposition to President Donald Trump is amping up interest in Virginia’s typically low voltage House of Delegates contests, with several groups formed in response to Trump’s surprise victory last year lining up to help Democrats bid to flip control of the chamber.
Virginia has the only Republican-controlled state chamber up for grabs in the country this year, and many of the groups are looking to make a statement in the Old Dominion ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
“We can really make this the first electoral resistance,” said Chris Walsh, a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide who co-founded a group called “flippable” — dedicated to helping Democrats win control of state legislatures.
But Republicans say they are confident they can keep a majority in the House because their members are well-known in their community and have a track record of success.
Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck said the groups trying to help Democratic candidates are likely to see their efforts backfire, as they’re motivating GOP incumbents to work harder to turn out Republican voters that will also help the statewide Republican ticket.
“They’re kind of throwing money away in helping us win the governor’s race,” Whitbeck said.
In past election cycles, Democrats have essentially ceded control of the Virginia House of Delegates to Republicans, who have led the lower chamber for nearly two decades and currently have a 66-34 majority. The biennial contests typically draw far less attention than races for governor, or the closely contested state senate.
But this year has seen a candidate surge, including many political newcomers at least partly motivated to run by Trump’s victory. Only 12 Republicans aren’t facing a Democratic challenger in November, compared to 44 Republicans who ran unopposed or faced only a third party challenger in 2015, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Along with the increase in candidates, a large number of groups separate from the state and national party are looking to help Democratic candidates. At least 10 different groups, some in-state and some out of state, are actively helping candidates with fundraising, attracting volunteers and establishing campaign infrastructure.
Schuyler VanValkenburg, a school teacher running for a Richmond-area seat, said various groups have been helping him attract money, publicity and in boost his digital presence — “kind of everything, really.”
“As a candidate, it’s been awesome,” he said.
The groups vary in size, funding and specific goals.
The Competitive Commonwealth Fund, for instance, is an in-state political action committee that’s giving relatively small amounts to Democrats running in heavily Republican-leaning districts. Fund spokesman Charlie Jackson said the PAC aims to both help Democrats win control of the state House this year and build a Democratic infrastructure that fields candidates in state and local elections all around Virginia.
“You can’t catch a wave if you don’t run,” Jackson said.
National groups helping Virginia House candidates includes Run for Something, which backs progressives under age 35, and Sister District, which pairs volunteers in Democratic states with candidates in Republican districts.
Last week former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who lost the June Democratic primary for governor to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, announced he’d lead a new PAC helping Democratic state House candidates. Funded by a handful of wealthy donors, Win Virginia has deep pockets.
Shashikant Gupta, a technology executive who helped start Win Virginia, said Trump’s election made big Democratic givers rethink their approach to political spending. He said donors want to try to build a long-lasting Democratic majority, rather than just cut checks for candidates every election cycle.
“This year we decided we should look at things a bit differently,” Gupta said.
House Republicans say they don’t fear the outside groups.
“Virginia House Republicans are successful because we run on our record, our vision, and most importantly — as members of the communities we serve,” said Del. Todd Gilbert.
The groups are trying to emulate the success Republicans had in 2010 with a plan called REDMAP, short for Redistricting Majority Project. By investing in key state legislative races in key states, Republicans flipped control of several state legislatures and helped draw favorable congressional districts intended to ensure a multiyear GOP majority in the U.S. House.
But that effort was far more centralized than what Democrats are doing today, said GOP operative Chris Jankowski, who helped run REDMAP. He said the array of groups for the Democrats could give them a tactical advantage this year, but only if they coordinate.
“If they don’t, that’s going to create a whole new set of problems,” Jankowski said.
But House Minority Leader David Toscano said the outside groups have been working well with the party and each other.
“The more we have involved in that the better we’re going to be,” he said.