Virginia Republicans Have A New Strategy To Hang On To Power: Run As Moderates

The only problem? Many of the state's GOP lawmakers don't have moderate records.

With their foothold on power in a once deeply red state at stake in next Tuesday’s election, Virginia Republicans are campaigning hard. The GOP’s margin of control in both houses of the state legislature is only one seat.

But in a post-Trump electoral landscape, where the blue wave of 2017 and 2018 saw more progressive candidates succeed, the GOP is facing a more liberal electorate. So a number of the state’s Republican incumbents are trying a novel strategy: running as moderates, and actively campaigning against their own previous votes and views.

The success of that strategy will have repercussions far beyond the next session. If the Republicans lose the state’s House of Delegates and Senate on Nov. 5, the Democrats will oversee the post-census redistricting process and redraw the maps that Republicans gerrymandered a decade ago.

Changing The GOP’s Tunes

In the last election cycle, health care was a major campaign platform for first-time Democratic candidates like Danica Roem. Those who were elected to Virginia’s General Assembly fought successfully to pass Medicaid expansion. Now Republicans who voted against that expansion are running on making health care more accessible and affordable.

Republican state Sen. Glen Sturtevant is pushing ads focused on how health care “shouldn’t be a partisan issue” and why coverage for people with preexisting conditions is important. Sturtevant only narrowly won his seat in 2015 and his district has moved further left since then ― 60% of voters backed U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in the 2018 midterm elections. Sturtevant’s ad portrays him as a moderate on health care when, in reality, he voted against the Medicaid expansion law that made thousands of Virginians eligible.

Fellow Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant ran a deeply conservative campaign to get elected in 2015, in which she promised to oppose any expansion of the Affordable Care Act. Like Sturtevant, she voted against the Medicaid expansion and is now running on a platform for affordable health care.

And it’s not just health care on which Republicans are trying to change their tune. Gun control is a particularly pressing issue: Just five months ago, a gunman opened fire at a Virginia Beach municipal center, killing 12 and injuring 4. Voters on both sides of the aisle said it was their biggest concern this election cycle, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll. A huge majority of Virginia voters ― almost 90% ― support expanding background checks, and a smaller majority support a ban on assault weapons.

Democratic lawmakers are energized on this issue as well. After the Virginia Beach shooting, when Gov. Ralph Northam (D) tried to hold a special legislative session on gun safety measures, Republican lawmakers quashed any gun control-related legislation. Democratic candidates say they’re committed to reversing that result if they’re elected.

Many of the Republicans voted out of office in 2017 had “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association and were vehemently pro-gun. So in 2019, flaunting ties to the NRA is notably less popular.

“An ‘A’ rating from the NRA is now a liability,” argued Grant Fox, communications director for the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Republicans with strong anti-gun control voting records are presenting themselves as moderate on the issue. Dunnavant, for example, recently released an ad in which she says she supports a federal ban on bump stocks ― even though she voted against a bump stock ban in the state assembly last year. “Anything short of a federal ban would be ineffective because it was easy to bring a bump stock across state lines,” her campaign manager, Marshall Moreau, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Republican state Del. Tim Hugo has served in the assembly for 16 years, earning himself an “A” NRA rating and working with fellow Republicans to halt any legislation after the Virginia Beach massacre. He’s now backpedaling, as the Washington Post editorial board pointed out in August, and saying that he supports a “red flag” bill that would keep guns out of the hands of people at risk of doing harm to others or themselves.

Some Democrats are trying to highlight these election-inspired conversions. “A handful of candidates might pretend to be moderate, but they never really have to vote [on the issues] because their party kills the bills,” said Matt Harringer, national press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to state legislatures. “Voters get that,” he said. “Voters see that.”

The Republican Party of Virginia declined to comment on campaign strategy.

Prominent Democrats Weigh In

Virginia has been leaning more and more Democratic since the election of President Donald Trump, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The Democratic surge in the 2017 election ― almost but not quite winning the majority in the House ― bodes well for the party’s chances in next week’s election.

The state Senate wasn’t on the ballot two years ago. But this year, the entire legislature is up for election. That means, with Northam already in the governor’s mansion, this is the best chance that Democrats have had in a long time to gain control of all three governing bodies in the state.

Kondik pointed to one way Trump may be tilting the balance against his party: “It used to be that white-collar professionals with four-year degrees were a better voting bloc for Republicans, and they are also more likely to vote. But that group has been trending Democratic, particularly after Trump.”

But Kondik also noted, “It’s competitive and the Republicans are hoping they can knock off a few of these incumbents.”

Although the Virginia GOP is using a myriad of campaign strategies, the best chance they have of keeping a hold on the House of Delegates and the Senate in this increasingly blue state is low voter turnout. It’s an off-off-year election, meaning there is no national election and no statewide contests to bring out the voters. In 2017, which was merely an off-year election (no national voting but the governorship and other top statewide posts were up for grabs), just over 2.5 million Virginians voted. But in 2018, almost 3.5 million people turned out to vote in the national midterms.

Low voter turnout has historically benefited the GOP, Kondik said, and Virginia Republicans will be banking on it again next week.

It’s bad news for the GOP, then, that several Democratic presidential candidates have been knocking on doors throughout the state to encourage people to vote next Tuesday.

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren shares the stage with Virginia Del. Hala Ayala at George Mason University in May. In 2017, Ayala ousted Republican incumbent Rich Anderson. The two have a rematch in 2019.
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren shares the stage with Virginia Del. Hala Ayala at George Mason University in May. In 2017, Ayala ousted Republican incumbent Rich Anderson. The two have a rematch in 2019.
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have visited the state, as have former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Harris canvassed for two Virginia House candidates last weekend: Dan Helmer, an Army veteran and Rhodes scholar running against Hugo, and incumbent Del. Kathy Tran.

“We gotta flip Virginia,” Harris said.

During Warren’s campaign visit, she urged Virginia voters to vote for Democrats across the board to avoid another 10 years of gerrymandered voting districts.

“If you don’t vote all the way down the ballot for people to represent you ― for Democrats to represent you ― Republicans are going to keep doing this stuff,” she said.

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