State of the States: Virginia

By: Michael Rummel

Virginia heads to the polls in just a few days, and its gubernatorial race is set to go down to the wire. Centrist Democrat and current occupant of the office Terry McAuliffe is not allowed to run for a second term, leaving Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie to vie for the open seat. The race began civilly, but quickly soured after the Gillespie camp ran an ad that fallaciously claimed Northam voted “in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the streets.”

What initially looked like an easy win for Northam has turned into the hotly contested race that we see now. Northam has generally stuck to a positive message, but a campaign mailer sent out by the state Democratic party has generated a significant amount of controversy by tying Gillespie to the Charlottesville white nationalist rally and hate. Gillespie strongly condemned the rally multiple times, so it remains to be seen what effect the mailer will have. Regardless, attack ads will be dominating the airwaves in the coming days.

This is not the only leadership change in the Old Dominion. The Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Bill Howell, is not seeking re-election, meaning the position will change hands for the first time in 15 years. House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, the Republican favorite to succeed Howell, hasn’t faced serious opposition in over a decade, yet this time must contend with challenger Kate Sponsler if he wants to be the next Speaker. Sponsler’s campaign is a longshot against the long-time incumbent, but the challenge does showcase a larger change of the re-energization of the Democratic Party for state and local elections across the country.

Cox’s platform is largely focused on education and the economy, and in the event of his victory he will likely move to have these at the top of the agenda for his first legislative session. He is looking to decrease regulations on businesses, foster relationships between local governments, higher education, and businesses, reduce government spending, improve public education, with a particular focus on raising teacher salaries, and lower the costs of college education for Virginians within the state.

Sponsler’s campaign focuses on similar issues. Her ideas for improving public education are along the same lines as Cox’s, while her economic solutions are more worker-centric; she wants to improve mass transit and job training in rural areas. Her other main planks are improving programs for veterans to transition back into civilian life, criminal justice reform, and environmental issues.

Though Sponsler will have to hope that the stars align for a victory, it is still an important race to follow, as it will have a direct impact on the legislative agenda in the Virginia House for the next cycle. Republicans will likely maintain their majority, albeit a smaller one, giving Democrats more bargaining room in a state that is increasingly purple every year.

Despite these important contests for leadership positions, the race that has drawn the most national attention is the one for the 13th district. Unfortunately, it’s not for positive reasons. Del. Bob Marshall faces a challenge from Danica Roem, who is not only the first transgender person to win a primary for a state office, but would also be the first trans person to serve in a state house in the entire country. Marshall previously championed a bathroom bill and says a trans identity is “against the laws of nature and nature’s God.” In the face of this, Roem has garnered national support from the left, and the fundraising that comes along with it.

Marshall, on the other hand, has received the backing of conservative groups, including strong support from the GOP, which sent out a campaign mailer that misgendered Ms. Roem. In this cycle, campaign mailers have become as potent as TV ads. The race has largely turned into a culture war. At the time of writing, neither campaign responded to a question on what they believed their chances were, and it’s likely that they don’t know. The race is completely up in the air, and both sides will be campaigning until the last gasp.

The final week will be interesting to follow, as the state itself is a bit of a case study for the nation in the age of Trump. It’s one of the most purple states in an increasingly partisan country, and the results may give a good prediction of what is to come in the 2018 Congressional elections. The results, however, will shape the future of Virginia far more than the country’s as a whole.

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