Virginia Poised to Be the First Former Confederate State Controlled by Progressive Democrats

The direction Virginia takes will hinge on a handful of key primaries.

RICHMOND, VA - FEBRUARY 07: A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands in the Old House Chamber at the Virginia State Capitol, February 7, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia state politics are in a state of upheaval, with Governor Ralph Northam and State Attorney General Mark Herring both admitting to past uses of blackface and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax accused of sexual misconduct. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands in the Old House Chamber at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 7, 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Virginia is one of just four state legislatures up for re-election this year. And Democrats are favored to retake both the House and the Senate for the first time in 24 years. But as state after state has shown, simply having a Democratic majority doesn’t guarantee the enactment of a progressive agenda if conservative Democrats remain embedded in critical choke points.

Organizers are angling to oust several long-serving Democrats in the coming June 11 primaries, hoping to uncork a wave of progressive legislation in early 2020.

Data for Progress on Wednesday launched the Progressive Virginia Project, mobilizing small-dollar donations to target four races in solidly blue districts. It’s an effort to upset the state’s decadeslong deference to corporate interests like Dominion Energy and Amazon, which have leveraged the business-friendly environment to make way for the Atlantic Coast pipeline and the now-famed HQ2. The state is one of only six with no limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns.

“Virginia is a fucking progressive state, it should be represented by fucking progressives,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, said in a statement to The Intercept. “These are safe districts, there is no reason progressives shouldn’t contest to have their vision of the party represented.”

The approach is an echo of a wildly successful intervention Data for Progress pulled off in state legislation races toward the end of 2018, when it picked a slate of Democratic candidates in close races with Republicans incumbents and flooded them with small-dollar donations.

The project is gunning for state Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw in the 35th District, Sen. Barbara Favola in the 31st, and Delegate Alfonso Lopez in the 49th. It is also working to protect incumbent Delegate Lee Carter in the 50th, a democratic socialist who shocked Virginia by unseating a member of the Republican leadership without Democratic Party support. And they plan to make endorsements in two races for commonwealth attorney, a role similar to district attorney.

Saslaw, known for his close ties to Dominion, is facing his first primary challenge in 40 years. If he returns to a Senate controlled by Democrats, he’s likely to be made the majority leader and would have a stranglehold on the agenda.

He receives the most Dominion money of anyone in the state legislature, though his campaign has argued that the contributions have no bearing on his utility-friendly legislative record. Saslaw was also the only state Democrat to publicly defend Gov. Ralph Northam in the fallout over the blackface photo in his medical school yearbook. His opponent, Yasmine Taeb, is a human rights lawyer running on rejecting corporate PAC donations, curbing Dominion’s influence in the state, and achieving Medicare for All. She was the first Muslim woman elected to the Democratic National Committee. Saslaw has suggested that Taeb, who is also an immigrant, can’t win in his district given its demographic makeup — despite the fact that it’s actually mostly minorities.

Favola is on the payroll of her firm, Pathways to 21st Century Communities, as a lobbyist. NBC4 reported that Favola lobbied former Gov. Terry McAuliffe on behalf of a predatory towing company that had paid her at least $3,000. She had previously opposed a bill that the company was working to pass. In May, she participated in a Democratic fundraising auction and had to walk back an offer that would have allowed the winning bidder to attend committee hearings and assist in her office — something she says she didn’t authorize. Like most state legislators, Favola has also taken her fair share of contributions from Dominion, totaling at least $10,500 since she took office in 2011. Her opponent, Nicole Merlene, is an Arlington native who’s been active in local politics for years, holding seats on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and the Arlington Young Democrats, among other organizations. She’s running on refusing money from both Dominion and Amazon. She wants to ban assembly members from lobbying, make the state’s energy landscape more competitive, and make it easier to rent and buy homes in her district for “the full spectrum of our workforce,” including those unable to work. If elected, she would be the youngest woman to be a sitting state senator.

In the 49th District, Lopez is facing intense backlash for profiting off the private Farmville immigration detention facility working in conjunction with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Lopez received at least $25,000 from the facility, which he listed as an employer between 2014 and 2016. In a Facebook video of activists confronting the delegate over the connection, an annoyed Lopez told them, “You guys don’t want any borders” and “you don’t want any detention.” Lopez also disparaged activists for confronting Trump appointees and officials in public spaces, asking, “Where is the line drawn? And when is it crossed?” His opponent, veteran JD Spain, is president of the NAACP’s Arlington branch. He’s running on stopping the school-to-prison pipeline and protecting Dreamers, as well as investing in pre-K education and heightening schools’ focus on social-emotional learning.

The Progressive Virginia Project is looking to safeguard Carter, who’s facing a primary challenge from Manassas Democratic City Council Member Mark Wolfe. Wolfe is a former Republican who switched parties after Donald Trump’s election. Carter has refused corporate donations, supported the state’s Medicaid expansion, and pushed to legalize marijuana for people ages 21 and older.

In April, Data for Progress will launch a separate campaign supporting Democrats in “Red to Blue” districts, where they’ll identify Republican-held seats that could flip.

The Virginia model saw significant success in the 2018 midterms, advancing support for progressive agenda items even where progressive candidates sometimes fell short. Voters united to root out the influence of big money in politics and elevate needs that cut across ideology, like access to health care and affordable housing. Just as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign in many ways set the stage for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 win, the midterms set the tone for 2020 — and state legislatures may hold the most room for growth.

That ground is particularly ripe in a state like Virginia, McElwee told The Intercept: “This would make Virginia the first former Confederate state to have a unified Democratic government without relying on conservative Blue Dogs and Dixiecrats.”

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