That’s the key question confronting the state’s Democrats in primaries on Tuesday in which no fewer than four progressive challengers hope to topple incumbents in races for state and local office.
In a fifth race, Del. Lee Carter, a working-class member of the Democratic Socialists of America who drives for Lyft to make ends meet, is competing to fend off a business-friendly challenger who was a Republican up until the 2016 election.
Virginia is now solidly Democratic in national and statewide elections. But in the state’s halls of power, the “Virginia Way” ― a byword for clubby lawmaking that doubles as a euphemism for the bipartisan, pro-corporate consensus ― still reigns supreme.
Progressive victories in even some of the races would shake up that dynamic. They could also inspire similar challenges in other suburban areas with increasingly enthusiastic liberal voting blocs, according to Quentin Kidd, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University.
“If progressives can pull off upsets in suburban northern Virginia, they can pull off upsets in the western suburbs of Philly, the eastern suburbs of Kansas City and the suburbs of Denver,” said Kidd, who specializes in Virginia politics. “There are a lot of areas in the country that mirror northern Virginia’s demographic and economic makeup.”
The races where progressives appear to have the strongest chances of winning are in two primaries for commonwealth’s attorney, which is what Virginia calls the county-based prosecutors analogous to a district attorney in other localities.
If progressives can pull off upsets in suburban northern Virginia, they can pull off upsets in the western suburbs of Philly, the eastern suburbs of Kansas City and the suburbs of Denver.” Quentin Kidd, social sciences dean at Christopher Newport University
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a veteran criminal defense attorney and current legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, has a serious shot at ousting Arlington County commonwealth’s attorney Theo Stamos. She has argued that Stamos’ tough and racially lopsided prosecutions of low-level offenses like marijuana possession have put Arlington out of step with politically comparable counties. Dehghani-Tafti notes that, notwithstanding declining crime in the county, its jail population is 2.5 times the size of neighboring Fairfax County. She pinpoints her entry in the race in 2018 as the turning point when Stamos began to reduce the county’s jail population.
Unlike many insurgent candidates, Dehghani-Tafti boasts major establishment support, including endorsements from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Fairfax County Del. Marcus Simon and the editorial board of The Washington Post, which panned Stamos’ tenure. The Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, has spent more than $615,000 in support of her bid.
Steve Descano, a former federal consumer protection attorney, is running on a similarly progressive platform to unseat Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney Raymond Morrogh. Descano wants to dramatically reduce the use of cash bail and close racial disparities in the system. He has benefited from nearly $460,000 in financial support from the Justice and Public Safety PAC and a host of endorsements from former and current lawmakers, including McAuliffe. The Post declined to endorse Descano, however, arguing that Morrogh’s prosecutorial record was “not retrograde or excessively punitive,” even as it noted that Morrogh publicly opposed McAuliffe’s reinstatement of voting rights for hundreds of thousands for former felons.
In largely overlapping parts of northern Virginia, two progressive women are locked in considerably more uphill battles to unseat veteran state senators. Nicole Merlene, an Arlington economic development professional, is challenging state Sen. Barbara Favola, who she argues is too responsive to special interests in the region. Merlene wants to tighten the state’s notoriously loose campaign finance and ethics laws, decriminalize marijuana, and improve housing affordability and public transportation options.
And in a neighboring district that includes Falls Church, as well as parts of Alexandria and Fairfax County, human rights attorney Yasmine Taeb is taking on state Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw, who has dominated state politics for over 40 years. Saslaw, who’s last primary challenge was in 1979, is notorious for his coziness with big business, particularly the state’s mighty utility monopoly, Dominion Energy Virginia, which is his single largest donor. He has returned the favor to Dominion and other corporate interests many times over, doing his best to kill efforts to regulate utility rates ― to say nothing of rules that would make it harder for him to cash the power companies’ checks. Saslaw has also defended lenders that target the poor, like the state’s car title loan industry, which doubles as a source of campaign cash.
If someone like Dick Saslaw is beatable, then any moderate Democrat is beatable. Quentin Kidd, Christopher Newport University
Saslaw’s rhetoric is often no less regressive. He reportedly told a college audience that Taeb, an Iranian-American Muslim, could not win the general election in his district because of bias against her heritage. And when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced calls to resign in February after his page in a college yearbook surfaced showing a young man in blackface, Saslaw was the only Democratic elected official to defend him (though he subsequently endorsed calls for Northam’s resignation).
Taeb, a representative of Virginia on the Democratic National Committee, has been a key figure in the Washington-area movement to resist Donald Trump’s policies, organizing numerous rallies against the president’s travel bans affecting mostly Muslim-majority countries. She occupies the wing of the Democratic Party associated with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), backing single-payer health care, tuition-free college and former Rep. Tom Perriello’s unsuccessful run for governor of Virginia.
In her bid to unseat Saslaw, Taeb emphasizes her humble roots as a refugee of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s who was undocumented when she arrived as a child. She has vowed to oppose a natural gas pipeline Dominion is planning to construct across the state, stand up to special interests and give voice to the region’s growing youth and diversity. And though Saslaw largely shares Taeb’s commitment to tougher gun laws, her status as a graduate of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School ― the site of the deadly 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida ― lends power to her advocacy.
Saslaw has hit the campaign trail hard, determined not to take a victory for granted. His massive cash advantage ― over $1.9 million to Taeb’s $179,000 ― has also enabled him to dominate the television airwaves. He is using the cash to tout some of his real accomplishments, such as working with Northam to shepherd Virginia’s Medicaid expansion despite narrow Republican majorities in the state Senate and House of Delegates.
But in a low-turnout, off-year primary, insurgent candidates with highly motivated supporters often punch above their weight.
If Taeb pulls off an upset, the tremors are likely to be felt across Virginia and beyond.
“It would be a bigger shock to the system than [former GOP House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor losing to Dave Brat,” Kidd said. “Saslaw’s an institution in the Democratic Party ― in the good old boy, business-political world of Virginia Democratic politics.”
“It would make the moderate pro-business wing of the Democratic Party ashen-faced, and it would be an exclamation point on the movement against Dominion, because Saslaw is Mr. Dominion,” he added.
A Taeb win would likely inspire many more progressive candidates to run across Virginia, Kidd predicted.
“If someone like Dick Saslaw is beatable, then any moderate Democrat is beatable,” he said.
In the past decade, Virginia has gone from a swing state to a reliable piece of the national Democratic coalition ― a shift powered largely by the swelling population in the diverse, educated and socially liberal suburbs outside of Washington.
As a result, the Democratic electorate in the state’s bluest strongholds is now undergoing a similar, albeit much smaller, transformation to the one that the Republican electorate underwent in rural areas at the start of the tea party movement in 2009.
Faced with the virtual assurance of victory over the opposing party in the general election, partisans often become more comfortable staging internecine fights to shift their party in an ideologically purer direction. Just as activist energy on the Republican side continues to fuel conservative primary challenges in rural Virginia, some analogous energy is percolating in northern Virginia’s increasingly Democratic precincts.
In the wave election of 2017, there were already signs of previously unforeseen progressive energy in the Old Dominion State, particularly in down-ballot races. Thirteen Democratic state House candidates who refused to accept contributions from Dominion Energy and the other state-regulated utility monopoly won their races. Carter, the democratic socialist, won his race to unseat the state majority whip, despite a public rupture with the state Democratic Party.
The results of Tuesday’s contests are likely to show to what degree, if any, the Democratic left wing’s standing has improved in Virginia in the interim.
“It isn’t comparable to, say, tea party energy that Republicans dealt with a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something that is going to bear fruit going forward,” Kidd said. “It may be the beginning of something manifesting.”