In 2017, Virginia Democrats tried something new. Politicians from the party stopped accepting large-dollar contributions from the state’s most powerful energy company. A slew of upstart candidates running in competitive Democratic primaries also swore off money from Dominion Energy, which had long donated huge sums of money to both parties and used a powerful lobbying apparatus to loosen legislative regulations and enrich its executives.
In 2019, the state party made its decision official. That year, Democratic candidates who rejected Dominion money helped flip seven competitive seats, and the party won control of both chambers for the first time since 1994.
Next week, Virginia voters will vote in open primary races in which support for — and from — Dominion is again playing an outsized role. While the Democratic Party no longer accepts large contributions from the energy company, individual candidates and caucuses still do. Populist candidates are challenging corporate-friendly Democrats in the upcoming elections. At stake is the future of progressive politics in Virginia and what’s to come in major battles over abortion, climate change, corporate power, and, perhaps most consequentially for future elections, labor rights, with a renewed campaign to repeal the state’s “right-to-work” law.
With Dominion’s revitalized role in state Democratic politics and “right to work” on the line, questions are cropping up about the limits of candidate pledges to reject corporate money, with the ghosts of the party machine, loyal to corporate power, weighing in on legislative races.
“It’s a chance to reset each body from Dixiecrat to ‘corporate-crat’ to a progressive body that’s going to make the state blue forever.”
For some Democrats, this year’s elections present an opportunity for a fresh start. “It’s a chance to reset each body from Dixiecrat to ‘corporate-crat’ to a progressive body that’s going to make the state blue forever and amplify the voices of workers,” said Don Slaiman, political coordinator for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26.
Primaries next week won’t just set the tone for politics within the party, but also for Democrats’ wider agenda to combat the success of right-wing Republicans like Gov. Glenn Youngkin and those in his orbit. With all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for election in November, Democrats are feeling pressure to revive the political energy that gave them a trifecta — both state houses and the governor’s mansion — for two years before Youngkin won in 2021.
Democrats’ trifecta success in 2019’s legislative races opened the door for a progressive agenda that some said was previously unthinkable in a Southern state. Democratic lawmakers quickly passed legislation that strengthened gun control; raised the minimum wage; expanded access to voting, abortion, and collective bargaining; and forced state utilities to commit to a path to 100 percent renewable energy in the next three decades.
That momentum came to a sudden halt with Youngkin’s win in 2021. With the entire General Assembly up for election, state Democrats now have their sights set on rebuilding power.
The state’s new redistricting system allowed lawmakers to draw maps without giving priority to incumbents. Because some incumbents ended up in the same new districts to face off against each other, the changes might be more consequential in primary elections than in the general election. Overall, the maps are considered to be more competitive but could also strengthen some Republican strongholds where Youngkin performed well in 2021.
The changes to both the redistricting system and the maps it produced prompted a number of high-profile retirements earlier this year, including Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, who came within 3 points of losing his seat in 2019 to a primary challenger who highlighted his voting record favoring corporations and close ties to Dominion.
For progressives, winning their primary fights is central to one issue they will have their eye on once Youngkin is term-limited in 2026: efforts to repeal “right-to-work” laws that weaken workers’ collective bargaining options. (Virginia governors can’t serve consecutive terms but can run again in future elections.)
The stories of Dominion and the “right-to-work” law — which says that union membership cannot be a condition for employment — are historically intertwined. Virginia originally passed its law in 1947 after employees at Dominion’s predecessor, Virginia Electric and Power Company, threatened to strike for a pay raise. Labor unions and progressive organizations have long fought to repeal the law, and they have criticized Democrats for wasting the opportunity they had to do so when they briefly held a governing trifecta a few years ago.
The back and forth has entrenched battle lines between moderate and progressive Democrats and raised questions about the future of the party’s relationship with the labor movement and working-class voters.
“If you’re gonna repeal right to work when we get a Democratic governor, you need to tee it up now,” said Slaiman. “You need to start laying the groundwork now. It will change the way workers view their rights in the state of Virginia.”
One race on Tuesday in northern Virginia, where questions over both “right-to-work” laws and Dominion’s influence feature heavily, is the contest between former state Delegates Hala Ayala and Jennifer Carroll Foy. Both candidates are running to return to the state legislature after running unsuccessfully for higher office — lieutenant governor and governor, respectively — in 2021.
Ayala has been endorsed by two former Virginia Democratic governors, Ralph Northam and his predecessor Terry McAuliffe. (McAuliffe had previously appointed Ayala to the Virginia Council on Women in 2016.) Northam endorsed Ayala on the condition that she would not support efforts to repeal “right to work,” according to Slaiman, whose union is backing Foy, and another source who declined to be named to protect their professional relationships. Northam and Ayala’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Northam was governor in 2019 when labor organizers renewed the push to end “right to work” in Virginia. At the time, he dismissed the idea as unrealistic and also reportedly told the president of the Virginia AFL-CIO he wouldn’t sign a bill undoing “right to work.”
McAuliffe endorsed Ayala despite having stayed mostly under the political radar since he lost to Youngkin in 2021. He has been selective in primary endorsements this cycle. The decision by both him and Northam to weigh in on Ayala’s race has been a point of interest in Virginia political circles.
While they were both delegates, Ayala and Foy worked together to help the House of Delegates pass the Equal Rights Amendment, making Virginia the 38th state to do so and paving the way for it to take effect in the U.S. Constitution. In 2020, Foy sponsored a bill to raise the state minimum wage to $15 and co-sponsored a bill to end “right-to-work” laws. Working with Saslaw, Foy led efforts to pass a bill requiring that construction workers be paid prevailing wages determined by the U.S. Department of Labor. In this cycle, Foy has the endorsement of IBEW and at least 10 other unions.
While Ayala voted for Foy’s prevailing wage bill in 2020 and supported another similar bill in 2021, she voted with Republicans in 2021 to block a floor vote on a bill repealing “right-to-work” laws. Only 13 Democrats voted to bring a vote on the bill. Ayala’s campaign told the Washington Post she had previously voted in favor of a bill to move “right to work” on the floor and would support a repeal. Ayala’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A major controversy in the race is Ayala’s acceptance of contributions from Dominion, which has given to a range of centrist and moderate Democrats and donated more than $155,000 to Democratic caucuses this cycle. When the group Clean Virginia organized a pledge — a promise not to take money from Dominion or Appalachian Power, the state’s other utility — both Ayala and Foy signed. But Ayala did an about-face the month before the 2021 Democratic primary in the lieutenant governor’s race. Asked about the switch, she told the Virginia Mercury that she would fight for renewable energy but that “people change their minds all the time.” (She is still listed as a signatory to the pledge, with a note that she’s currently in violation of it.)
“She later in the cycle reversed that position and accepted $100,000 from Dominion.”
“She later in the cycle reversed that position and accepted $100,000 from Dominion,” Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore told The Intercept. “Because of this reversal we did not engage with the Ayala campaign during the current cycle.”
So far this cycle, Ayala’s campaign has raised $735,000, including at least $200,000 from Dominion’s political action committee and more than $8,000 from three former Dominion lobbyists. A group largely funded by Dominion has also sent mailers on her behalf. Ayala’s campaign has received contributions from other energy companies and a health care lobbying association.
Foy, meanwhile, has raised $1.4 million — most of it, around $870,000, coming from the Clean Virginia Fund. The group had donated at least $35,000 to Ayala in previous cycles, before she violated the pledge, yet she criticized Foy for taking money from the group in mailers last month. “She has also taken nearly $900,000 from a millionaire-investor-backed group that supported anti-choice Republicans,” the Ayala mailer read. (The mailer referenced Clean Virginia’s previous support for Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who the group condemned and stopped supporting after the 2020 cycle.)
“This is an old-fashioned story about monopoly power, dirty money, bipartisan corruption, consumer exploitation, and what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called ‘the curse of bigness,’” the author George Packer recently wrote of Dominion’s shadow in Virginia politics. “It might also have hopeful implications for our perpetually stuck politics.”