Democrats aim to turn anti-Trump sentiment into votes in Virginia

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 06, 2017 7:03 AM

By Ian Simpson

WOODBRIDGE, Va. (Reuters) - Legislative candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy's first bid for office puts her on the front lines of a Virginia statewide election being watched for early hints on how voters feel about President Donald Trump.

Citing Trump's victory as a tipping point that pushed her to run, the 35-year-old public defender is one of 49 Democrats vying for Republican-held seats in the state's House of Delegates, up from 29 two years ago.

The races will test whether Democrats can convert Virginians' unfavorable opinion of the Republican president in polls into votes and start clawing back some of the almost 1,000 legislative seats lost nationwide under Democratic President Barack Obama.

Foy, long frustrated by her state legislature's attitude toward women's rights, is seeking a suburban Washington seat in one of the 17 Republican-controlled districts that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton last year.

"Trump was just confirmation that we're regressing and not progressing," Foy told Reuters. "Enough is enough. If it's not me (to run), then who? If it's not now, then when?"

Republicans hold a 66-34 advantage in the lower house of the Virginia legislature. Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, expects Democrats will make significant gains, especially by focusing on suburban districts.

But a takeover of the chamber would require a collapse of Trump supporters, he told Reuters.

"A Democratic majority in the House of Delegates is going to require a tidal wave," Farnsworth said.

The national mood has made Virginia Democrats hopeful. Opposition to Trump has galvanized hundreds of thousands of Americans and fueled huge turnouts at street protests since the New York real estate developer's January inauguration.

A poll by the Washington Post and George Mason University's Schar School out May 22 showed 59 percent of Virginia voters disapproved of Trump's performance, compared with 36 percent who approved.

"We've got two things going for us in this upcoming election, and that's going to keep energy high," said David Toscano, Democratic leader in the Virginia House. "Voting for somebody, and also voting against somebody."


Mark Walter, president of the national Republican State Leadership Committee, said his party was watching Virginia but that it was difficult to tell how voter feelings about Trump would affect the races.

In New Jersey, the only other state holding statewide elections this fall, Democrats already control both chambers.

The Virginia Republican Party is unfazed by the surge of challengers. Republicans had $6.5 million for House races by the end of March, compared with the Democrats' $2.8 million, according to the most recent numbers from the state elections department.

    "We're doing what we've always done," Chairman John Whitbeck said in an interview with Reuters. "Raise a lot of money, knock on a lot of doors and win a lot of seats."

    Toscano, the House Democratic leader, said his party's candidates would use congressional Republicans' efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature domestic legacy, as a campaign issue, as well as Trump's brief hiring freeze for most federal workers.

The party also will cite Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe's legacy of adding thousands of new jobs and billions in capital investment as a selling point, Toscano said.

McAuliffe cannot run again due to term limits, but the edge fellow Democrats have in the race to replace him is expected to give the party's House hopefuls a boost.

Democrats consider the 2nd District, home to sprawling housing subdivisions, strip malls and the Quantico Marine base, one of the party's best bets to pick up a seat.

    Clinton won the district by 21 points in November, helping her win a state that was once reliably Republican in presidential elections.

Foy and fellow Democrat Josh King will compete in the June 13 primary. The winner will face Republican Laquan Austion in November for the seat being vacated by the Republican incumbent, who is not seeking re-election.

All three candidates say voters are more concerned about local issues, such as traffic jams, education and pollution from power plant coal ash, than Trump.

"Obviously, the Trump effect is in the air, but we're focusing the energy into what we can do locally," said King, 36, a deputy sheriff who narrowly lost the 2015 election for the seat.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)