Knocking doors on a steamy summer day, Schuyler VanValkenburg looks like any other politician running for office but his presence in the northern suburbs of Richmond is unusual: He’s the first Democratic candidate to run in this district for a decade.
For Democrats, VanValkenburg and a surge of candidates like him in Virginia are part of the first major test for their party at the state level in the Trump era. At stake is whether they can take advantage of President Trump’s unpopularity to gain ground in the state legislature.
While Democrats hold the governor’s mansion and both U.S. Senate seats and Hillary Clinton won the state last fall, Republicans hold a commanding majority in the statehouse.
And with just two states holding elections this fall (the other is New Jersey, where Democrats dominate), Virginia has become a focal point for Democrats eager to notch some victories in 2017. In addition to the statehouse races, the governor’s race between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam is drawing national attention.
From high school civics class to campaigning
VanValkenburg, a high school government and history teacher, had never run for office before becoming a candidate for Virginia’s 72nd House district.
“I literally teach them democratic citizenship and how to be a democratic citizen, that’s my day to day life,” VanValkenburg said. “And so I never thought I’d run, but after November it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
The district surrounds the suburbs of Richmond and has long been a safe bet for Republicans in the state legislature, but this year that’s changing. It skirts the state’s capitol, avoiding the center of Richmond and sweeping up around the suburbs.
A slim majority of residents voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and then the incumbent Republican announced he wouldn’t be running for re-election.
Diane Robinson has lived in this district for years, but between raising three kids and working, she hasn’t had time for local politics. Before VanValkenburg knocked on her door, she didn’t know her current delegate was Republican.
Robinson says that might have been different if a Democrat had come knocking earlier.
“But it’s been ten years, I feel like the wool’s been pulled over my eyes,” Robinson said. “So maybe we need [Democrats] to come over here and see what they can do, instead of throwing the towel in.”
Across the state, Democrats are now fielding candidates like VanValkenburg in districts they previously weren’t contesting.
Thomas Bowman, a legislative aide for a Democratic state delegate, had long found it frustrating that Democrats weren’t running in Republican-friendly districts.
“Because if you don’t have a candidate representing your party you can’t have a dialogue,” Bowman said. “You’re telling that whole area you don’t care about them.”
Bowman analyzed turnout data and found that by just putting a Democrat on the ballot, the party could win as many as 4,000 more voters per district — half of whom used to vote Republican.
In October he co-founded the Competitive Commonwealth Fund, a political action committee that is donating money and expertise to candidates. The group is making it easier for new candidates running for office by paying filing fees, creating websites, and writing field plans.
Bowman initially thought they’d struggle to find people willing to run.
“Hillary was supposed to be president. We were actually wondering ‘How are we going to motivate people right after this election?’ We thought that was going to be a huge challenge,” recalled Bowman.
But since President Trump’s victory, Democrats have had no trouble recruiting candidates. In 2015, only 39 of the 100 state legislative seats were contested. This year, 67 of the races are contested.
While that may not seem like a lot, experts say it’s significant.
For more than a century, Virginia’s state government was controlled by a one-party political machine. When the conservative southern Democrats finally lost control of state politics in 1969, Republicans grabbed power and held it tightly.
“Virginia has only been competitive politically, two-party competitive politically, since the early 1980’s,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. “In that context, this is the most competitive set of elections we’ve had.”
Despite the record-breaking number of competitive races, Virginia’s Republican party chair John Whitbeck argues Democrats won’t be able to nationalize local races.
“You can have a county supervisor in a Hillary Clinton district that wins as a Republican, because they’re talking about the issues that matter to those voters,” said Whitbeck.
VanValkenburg, the Democrat running for Virginia’s 72nd district, agrees.
“It’s actually very rare that I hear about Donald Trump, which I actually think is nice,” VanValkenburg said. “I think that speaks to voters sense of ‘You know, that’s not what this is about. It’s about this race, it’s about the local community.'”