Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, who beat a 26-year incumbent in 2017 to become the third openly transgender person ever elected to a state legislature, is up for reelection next month. The race is a key test of whether Virginia’s shift toward Democrats — and away from transphobia — will continue, or whether Republicans can rebound by deemphasizing national and social issues in a rapidly changing state.
Roem won her seat by trouncing then-Del. Bob Marshall, the sponsor of Virginia’s failed “bathroom bill,” after campaigning mostly on traffic issues, which she had covered for 15 years as a local news reporter in Prince William County.
Roem’s opponent this time around, Republican Kelly McGinn, has mimicked Roem’s strategy of keeping the focus off of social issues — even naming transportation as her biggest campaign priority. But like Marshall before her, McGinn has a long history of advocating against civil rights for LGBTQ people. In a 2011 letter to the state’s social services department, she called LGBTQ adoption “a social experiment on children.” In 2008, McGinn signed a joint letter condemning Catholic politicians who support same-sex marriage, abortion rights and stem cell research. Marshall and national social conservative organizations have donated significant sums to her campaign.
“Republicans saw that we won [in 2017] by talking about local issues and having a different value set,” said Matt Harringer, the national press secretary at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a group that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures. “You see that in this race where McGinn has a terrible record on LGBTQ rights, she realizes her only chance is talking about anything but her stances on those issues.”
“It’s just not going to work,” Harringer argued.
Roem’s race is an important one — not just for its historical relevance, but because the result could cement Virginia’s status as a blue state just in time for the legislature to redraw the state’s maps. If Democrats can gain a hold of both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, they’ll be able to redraw maps that Republicans gerrymandered a decade ago. Roem keeping her seat in Virginia’s 13th District will help them get there.
“How can you serve the people of the 13th District when you’re stigmatizing the very residents you’re running against in the first place?”
Roem is ready for another fight, and she has the support of the Democratic Party behind her. She’s raised over $400,000 more than McGinn, with most of her donations coming from Virginians — though she’s also raked in some major donations from national groups like Emily’s List, Human Rights Campaign and the George Soros-backed Democracy PAC.
“I feel like I’m in a much better place than at this point in 2017,” Roem told HuffPost. “We knew at this point in 2017 that our ground game was dominant and our ad campaign was dominant — it was just the anxiety of beating a 26-year incumbent. This time around we didn’t leave anything to chance.”
Roem’s district has been slowly moving to the left. In 2014, for example, 51% of the district voted for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie, but by 2016, 62% voted for Democrat Tim Kaine. It’s likely that it will continue to move in that direction, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“If Roem were to lose it would represent a very significant backslide from where the district is going,” Kondik said. “The trend is pretty clear that prior to Trump, [District 13] was competitive but more Republican-leaning, but now it’s more Democrat than the state as a whole.”
But the off-off-year election ― meaning the election is taking place without a congressional midterm or presidential election happening at the same time ― might make for a lower voter turnout, which has historically benefited Republicans, Kondik said.
“The turnout dynamic is just different in off-off-year elections,” he said. “It’s going to be significantly lower. Republicans are going to hope that it’s going to be a Republican-leaning turnout.”
Democrats are “taking nothing for granted,” said Harringer of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Republicans were less open to talking about their strategy. When reached by HuffPost for comment, Republican Party of Virginia Executive Director John Findlay replied that this reporter is a “left-wing hack masquerading as a journalist” and “the epitome of fake news.”
Roem’s reelection campaign, like her first run for office, has largely focused on local issues, like the fact that commuter buses she called for are beginning to run in her district, her vote to expand Medicaid and her efforts to increase teacher pay.
Transportation is her bread and butter. In August, Roem announced that the state Department of Transportation would begin its study on the most efficient ways to remove stoplights from Northern Virginia’s traffic-clogged Route 28, and the department has, since Roem took office, allocated more than $120 million to fixing the corridor.
“I’ve delivered on my promises,” she said.
Roem argues that for all of her recent talk about transportation, McGinn is less likely to deliver. Notably, the same day that Roem helped to pass a major transportation reform amendment, McGinn was also present at the Capitol — to protest abortion rights.
“That should tell you everything about us,” Roem said. She noted that McGinn’s website does not include a detailed plan for fixing Route 28 and that hers does.
In a candidate forum on Wednesday night, McGinn maintained that she was praying, not protesting.
“I object to the belief that prayer be characterized as protest,” McGinn said. “I supported and helped women who felt forced to have abortions.”
“Don’t even buy for a minute that she has a plan that she hasn’t presented in eight months of candidacy,” Roem said. “You see the difference between vague platitudes and actual action items that my constituents can follow.”
McGinn’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on her platform or political stances.
McGinn’s Anti-LGBTQ Views
Roem also believes McGinn is out of step with the district on LGBTQ rights issues. Roem said that in her first year in office, two constituents ― a lesbian couple, one of them a trans woman ― invited her to a birthday party for their 1-year-old child. The invitation was emblematic of how having an LGBTQ political leader was meaningful to constituents, Roem felt.
“That they felt their delegate wanted to celebrate the joy of their life with them, that they wanted their delegate there … compare that to their prior representation,” she said. “They went from having to fight for their civil rights to inviting [their delegate] to their baby’s birthday party.”
Although Roem has campaigned hardest on transportation infrastructure, she has by no means neglected social issues and LGBTQ protections in her district. The local school board in her district voted in support of expanding LGBTQ student protections shortly after she took office, and as a delegate, Roem has spoken out about health care access for the trans community and turned transphobic attacks into campaign donations.
“How can you serve the people of the 13th District when you’re stigmatizing the very residents you’re running against in the first place?” Roem said.
McGinn has received a $2,000 donation from Eagle Forum, a group founded by conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly that has applauded Trump’s ban on letting trans Americans serve their country in the armed forces.
Roem has used McGinn’s ties to socially conservative lawmakers, including past Delegate Marshall, to raise support. After Marshall donated $3,000 to McGinn’s campaign, Roem encouraged her constituents and followers to donate to her campaign in response. They raised $3,500 in four hours — and the average contribution was just $33.
“The voters get it,” Harringer said. “They know who their candidates are. And they know Danica better than anybody, because she’s probably knocked on their door before.”