Democrats Look to Translate National Energy into State Elections

Aug 9, 2017


Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, Schuyler VanValkenburg, canvasses a neighborhood. VanValkenburg is a public school teacher running for a Richmond-area seat, and represents a wave of new Democrats running for office.
Credit Steve Helber / AP

Virginia was the only southern state Hillary Clinton won in November’s presidential election. But election-year politics aren’t over in the Commonwealth. In addition to voting for a Governor and Lieutenant Governor, 100 state delegate seats are also up for grabs this November. Which leaves Democrats in Virginia wondering: can they transfer that national energy into state elections? 




Virginia’s 72nd House District skirts around the state’s capitol, avoiding the inner city and sweeping up the leafy suburbs. In the state legislature, it’s been more than a solid bet for Republicans.


But this year, a slim majority of residents here voted for Hillary Clinton. Then, the long-time Republican who held this seat announced he won’t be running.


And that’s where a local high school government teacher comes into play. 


Schuyler VanValkenburg is the first Democratic candidate vying for this district in a decade. He’s never run for office before. He’s been a public school teacher for 12 years. 


“I literally teach them democratic citizenship and how to be a Democratic citizen. That’s my day to day life, is doing that. And so I had never thought I’d run, but after November it just seemed like the right thing to do," says  VanValkenburg.


Even though Donald Trump only got 44-percent of the vote in Virginia, Republicans still hold a big majority in the state legislature. VanValkenburg isn’t alone in trying to change that. Across the state, Democrats are now fielding candidates in districts that were previously considered untouchable. 


Thomas Bowman is a legislative aid for a state delegate. In years past, he would wonder why Democrats would let so many races slide.  


“Why is nobody running in southwest Virginia? Why don’t we have a Democrat running in this district in central Virginia. And it was frustrating,” recalls Bowman. 


Long before November, he did some analysis and found that by just putting a Democrat on the ballot the party could bring out an average of 4,000 more voters, half of whom had previously been voting Republican.


“Because if you don’t have a candidate representing your party you can’t have a dialogue," Bowman says. "And you’re telling that whole area you don’t care about them.” 


So last October, Bowman co-founded the Competitive Commonwealth Fund, a small PAC that would donate money and expertise to Democrats interested in running in hard to reach parts of the state. He says 2017 was supposed to be a victory lap in Virginia.


“Hillary was supposed to be president. We were actually wondering ‘How are we going to motivate people right after this election?’' Bowman says. "We thought that was going to be a huge challenge. Well, things went a little bit differently."


Trump won. And they had no trouble motivating Democrats to step up. This year 67 of the 100 House of Delegates seats have a candidate from both parties running. In 2015, that number was only 39. 


The next step is getting Democratic voters to the polls. And for candidate Schuyler VanValkenburg, knocking doors on a steamy summer day, that rests on him -- not Donald Trump. 


“Most conversations for me don’t come back to Trump. When I’m talking to them, they want to know why did I get in, who am I? What’s my general world view? Sometimes they have specific issues they want to talk to me about," says VanValkenBurg, standing in front of a house. "But it’s actually very rare that I hear about Donald Trump. Which I think is nice. 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.’" 


At the same time, he readily admits it was the election of Donald Trump that spurred him into action. 


"That activated a lot of people to be like we should care more," VanValkenBurg adds. "But at the same time I think everybody realizes that you have to be looking forward.”


Voters might not be ready to look forward, though. A recent study by Monmouth University found 4 in 10 Virginians say the President is a factor in who they’ll vote for this November.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association