RICHMOND, Va. — Unease over violent white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville this summer and President Donald Trump’s response loomed in the minds of many Virginia voters during Tuesday’s elections in which Democrats made significant gains, according to progressive advocacy groups and interviews with voters.
The governor’s race was one of Virginia’s most racially charged in recent memory, and voters were peppered with ads that referenced the August violence.
A political organization that mounted a months-long black voter outreach campaign surveyed minority voters, and most said they saw their vote as a way to push back against white supremacy. Some voters interviewed this week told The Associated Press the same thing.
And in Charlottesville itself, which saw an increased voter turnout, one of the most vocal critics of the local government’s response to the rallies won a City Council seat.
“I think folks really decided that it was important to send a message that the divisiveness is not something that Virginia stands for, and we really want to be an inclusive and welcoming state,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a progressive group that worked on voter outreach in communities of color.
However, John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said Democrats “had a message that we were a bunch of racists, and they just hammered it and hammered it and hammered it.” It will take months of talking with voters and elected officials to have a better understanding of what happened, he said.
Democrats swept all three statewide races Tuesday, with Ralph Northam defeating Republican Ed Gillespie in the governor’s race by nearly 9 points. The party also has a shot at retaking control of the House of Delegates after picking up at least 15 seats. Three races that will determine control of the chamber were too close to call Saturday.
The Rev. Seth Wispelwey, who was among the clergy facing down the white nationalists during the Aug. 12 protests, said people “had their consciences scandalized by this summer in Virginia.”
He noted that in the House, a slew of conservative white men were replaced by “candidates who represent precisely who the white supremacists seek to dehumanize.”
Among the new members of the House are at least 11 women, including Virginia’s first Latina and female Asian-American delegates. Danica Roem will be the state’s first transgender lawmaker, and Dawn Adams will be the first openly lesbian member in the House.
Charlottesville became a rallying point for white nationalists when city leaders voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park. After white nationalist rallies in May and July, the biggest event was an August gathering dubbed “Unite the Right.”
White nationalist groups and counterprotesters clashed violently in the street, and a car rammed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman and injuring others.
Afterward, Trump asserted there were good people on “both sides” and bemoaned increasing efforts to remove Confederate monuments as an attack on America’s “history and culture.”
BlackPAC, an organization that works to mobilize black voters, surveyed minority voters shortly after the Charlottesville events. The group says a majority of those surveyed felt “under attack” and wanted to send a message with their vote.
The group used the findings to develop scripts for a canvassing program that sent people knocking on over 53,000 doors. The poll also helped shape the group’s ads, which focused on white supremacy, racism and Charlottesville, executive director Adrianne Shropshire said.
Derek Gray, who lives in Ashburn and drives for Uber and Lyft, said this week that Trump’s remarks were part of why he voted for Northam.
The white nationalist rallies and Trump’s response made him feel like “nobody else had a voice but the right-wing conservatives,” said Gray, who is African-American and gay.
Jalane Schmidt, a local activist and associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, said there’s also a clear link between the rallies and the election of Nikuyah Walker to the Charlottesville City Council.
Walker, a Charlottesville native and an African American who works for the city’s parks and recreation department, has protested local leaders’ response to the rallies and campaigned in part on increasing government transparency.
Turnout was higher than usual in Charlottesville. Preliminary figures showed 57.4 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. The general registrar and director of elections, Rosanna Bencoach, said that was the highest percentage in a nonpresidential election since at least 2000.
In the governor’s race, Northam’s TV attacks on Gillespie focused more on his lobbying career than racial issues, but a Northam mailer lumped Gillespie in with the torch-wielding white supremacists at Charlottesville. It said Election Day was a chance to “stand up to hate.”
Gillespie strongly condemned the white nationalist rally and pushed back against criticism that his ads were race-baiting. He made preserving Confederate statues a key campaign issue, though.
Bruce Smith, a black 62-year-old Navy veteran, said he didn’t like that Gillespie echoed Trump’s position on keeping Confederate monuments, or his stance on issues like immigration.
“(Gillespie) was basically talking like Trump. So when I heard that, I realized, this guy right here is a supporter of Trump’s nasty ways and bigoted ways,” said Smith. He voted only for Democrats Tuesday.