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Handful of Virginia House races highlight fight for control of chamber

Handful of Virginia House races highlight fight for control of chamber

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Four years ago, Virginia Republicans didn’t know what had hit them.

A 32-seat GOP majority in the House of Delegates all but disappeared in a single election — a “blue wave” that began in Washington after the election of President Donald Trump. Two years later, Democrats took over the House with a powerful 10-seat majority, and then ushered in policies they said better fit a state that is growing increasingly diverse.

This year, with all 100 seats again up for election and with Virginians already casting early ballots in House contests across the state, Republicans hope another wave will sweep them back into control. They’re gaining confidence from public reaction against President Joe Biden, a Democrat whose popularity has plunged since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.

Polling for political races from the House of Delegates to the Executive Mansion shows closer jostling than the state’s recent statewide elections would otherwise suggest.

“Not only are they annoyed at Biden, but there are fewer people saying Virginia is moving in the right direction,” veteran Richmond political commentator Bob Holsworth said of recent public opinion surveys, noting that “things looked fairly comfortable for Democrats a month ago.”

Still, Democrats’ comfortable 55-45 majority means gaining control of the House in November will be an uphill battle for Republicans, even if they can pick up a few seats. Democrats running for the House also have a formidable 2-to-1 cash advantage over Republicans to persuade the public to keep them in power.

The most contested races are playing out in the suburbs, which also will be the battlegrounds for control of the Executive Mansion. Here’s a look at the key contests to watch in the state capital region and beyond:

The seat that former House Speaker Kirk Cox has held for 30 years is a pickup opportunity for Democrats in a district that includes part of Chesterfield County and the city of Colonial Heights. Cox is not seeking re-election.

Republican Mike Cherry, a local pastor and private school principal, is facing Katie Sponsler, who until recently worked as a National Park Service ranger. Both served in the U.S. Air Force.

The district was redrawn by the courts in 2019 to correct for racial gerrymandering by Republicans nearly a decade prior. The changes made the district more favorable toward Democrats, though not enough to unseat its longtime GOP incumbent in 2019.

Cherry and Sponsler are neck-and-neck in fundraising so far. Sponsler had about $46,000 more in the bank as of the end of August.

An ad that will air on broadcast TV through the end of the month portrays Sponsler as a veteran who will “protect” her constituents, and help secure affordable health care and family paid leave.

Sponsler’s campaign said she is also focused on tightening the state’s gun control laws, including banning assault weapons, and protecting women’s ability to seek abortions. Sponsler also supports repealing the state’s so-called “right-to-work” law.

Cherry is focusing his campaign on expanding funding for education and law enforcement. Cherry’s campaign said fully funding education in the state and increasing teacher pay to at least the national average are the center of his pitch for office.

Cherry also supports expanding charter schools and private school vouchers in the state.

Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, is seeking a third term and faces Republican Mark Earley Jr., the son of a former attorney general.

The district includes Richmond’s Museum District and West End, a part of Henrico County, and stretches to the Midlothian area in Chesterfield.

Adams was elected in the 2017 anti-Trump blue wave that brought Democrats to near parity with Republicans in the House, then easily re-elected in 2019. Among Earley’s issues is opposition to a casino in Richmond, which voters will decide in November.

Adams has outraised Earley; at the end of August, she had $242,441 in cash on hand, compared with $52,021 for Earley.

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, is seeking a third term against Republican newcomer Chris Holmes in a western Henrico district that political analysts still consider a battleground.

VanValkenburg expects the race to be close because of the nature of the district, which was previously held by a Republican. “It’s a seat gerrymandered by Republicans,” he said. “Of course, it’s going to be close.”

VanValkenburg, a high school government teacher, won in 2017 and in 2019 with 53% of the vote. He was a leading proponent of a constitutional amendment — over the objections of progressive Democrats — to end political gerrymandering by establishing a bipartisan commission to draw the state’s political maps. He also helped draft a bill that required districts to reopen for in-person classes.

He thinks voters in the district support Democrats’ approach to reopening schools while safeguarding against COVID-19 outbreaks, as well as party positions on reducing gun violence, expanding access to affordable health care, and protecting women’s right to abortion, a national issue that he said is playing a part in local Virginia races.

Holmes’ campaign has focused on making sure schools reopen after COVID-19, supporting law enforcement, protecting the integrity of elections, and advocating for victims of violent crimes — an issue Republicans have seized on amid controversy at the Virginia Parole Board.

Asked to comment on the Democrat’s fivefold lead in fundraising, he said: “I feel like it’s an even race.” Holmes, an operations infrastructure manager for a health savings account company, according to his campaign website, wouldn’t say whether he would participate in a debate against VanValkenburg or answer further questions.

Republicans might have a better opportunity elsewhere in western Henrico, where Del. Rodney Willett, the Democratic incumbent, is trying to win a rematch with Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg, whom he defeated two years ago by about 1,300 votes out of more than 28,500 cast.

“I think the number one priority for Republicans is trying to win the Willett seat,” Holsworth said.

The district was in the hands of a Republican, John O’Bannon, for 17 years. O’Bannon was swept by the first blue wave after Trump won the presidency, losing to Democrat Debra Rodman in 2017. Rodman vacated the seat to run unsuccessfully for the state Senate, creating an opening for Willett.

This year is different, with Trump out of the White House and a Democratic president facing a sudden public backlash after an eight-month honeymoon.

“I think the enthusiasm [among Democrats] was somewhat lower a couple of months ago, but I feel like the volume is turning up now,” said Willett, who sees a stringent new anti-abortion law in Texas and voting restrictions there and in other states energizing the Democratic base in his district and Virginia.

“I’m hearing more than anything, ‘We don’t want to be Texas,’ ” he said.

Kastelberg, however, sees independent suburban voters, especially women, swinging her way. More voters mention national issues — the Afghanistan withdrawal, turmoil at the U.S. border with Mexico, and rising prices from inflation.

But she is focusing on local issues, particularly education because of the effect of the long shutdown of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone believes that the children need to be in the schools,” she said. “That’s where they’re going to do the best, COVID notwithstanding.”

Kastelberg had $200,000 less to spend than the Democratic incumbent at the end of August, but she is getting help from outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity.

Beyond the state capital region, a number of contests bear watching, including the fight in House District 10 in the outer Northern Virginia suburbs, where Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, first elected in 2017, is trying to fight off a well-funded challenge by Republican Nick Clemente, a Leesburg resident who is membership director for the Virginia chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors. The district includes parts of Clarke, Frederick and Loudoun counties.

Clemente had $303,645 in cash on hand at the end of August to $274,376 for Gooditis, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Here are some other key races around the state:

Few Democratic incumbents are in races as heated as Del. Joshua Cole’s.

Cole, a Democrat, is fighting for a second term in the district, made up of parts of Stafford County and the city of Fredericksburg, that he flipped in 2019. Republican Bill Howell held the seat from 1992 until he retired in January 2018, serving the last 15 years of his tenure as speaker of the House.

Cole, the associate pastor at Union Bell Baptist Church in Stafford, is trying to focus his race on economic recovery from COVID-19. Cole is also highlighting his support for abortion access and lowering health care costs.

“We’ve taken important steps towards progress, and this moment calls for us to move forward, not backwards,” Cole said during his first and only debate Wednesday with GOP challenger Tara Durant. Cole has a significant fundraising advantage, with nearly $339,777 in cash on hand at the end of August to $74,134 for Durant.

Durant, a librarian at a local Catholic private school and wife of a Marine reservist, said she was motivated to run for office after police brutality protests last summer, when she says her car was “surrounded by an angry mob.” She said police didn’t intervene.

Durant’s campaign said she is focused on supporting law enforcement, including opposing the repeal of qualified immunity — a policy that protects officers from civil lawsuits if they violate a person’s civil rights on the job. Durant is also focused on education and addressing the “learning gap” brought about by the closing of schools during the pandemic.

“One-party control has led to bloated budgets and increased taxes and extreme policies that have a negative effect on our families here in the district,” Durant said during the debate.

Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, has served in the House since 2006, representing a district anchored in Southampton that edges the North Carolina border.

The Southside rural district, which includes Brunswick, Greensville, Southampton and Sussex counties, part of Lunenburg County and the cities of Emporia and Franklin, is now home to what is perceived as a close race — a rematch between Tyler and Republican Otto Wachsmann, a pharmacist. In 2019, Wachsmann fell to Tyler with 49% of the vote to her 51%. The margin was about 500 votes.

Tyler has outraised Wachsmann, but is the target of attack ads by right-leaning groups, including one that seeks to portray Tyler and other Democrats as “anti-police” and “weak on crime.”

Tyler is the chair of the House’s education panel and sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Wachsmann, on his campaign website, lists his first priority as “protecting our conservative values,” including protecting people’s Second Amendment rights and supporting policies restricting abortions.

Another vulnerable Democratic incumbent is Del. Nancy Guy, who squeaked by a member of the well-known Stolle family two years ago in Virginia Beach and now faces GOP lawyer Tim Anderson. He represented Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, after she was censured by the Virginia Senate last year.

Guy, a former Virginia Beach School Board member, defeated Republican delegate Chris Stolle in 2019. Stolle ran for the seat this year but lost a close contest to Anderson in the GOP primary.

Guy had $387,066 cash on hand at the end of August, compared with $62,594 for Anderson.

<&underline>District 85</&underline>

Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach, won the District 85 seat two years ago and is now a top focus for Republicans who want the seat back. The GOP briefly held it when Republican Rocky Holcomb beat Democrat Cheryl Turpin in a special election in 2017, then lost it later that year when Turpin edged Holcomb in the general election.

Askew is a former legislative assistant to Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, and says he should be re-elected because the Democratic legislature has made progress on health care access and education.

Republican challenger Karen Greenhalgh, who started the health care technology business Cyber Tygr, wants strict legislative oversight of the Virginia Department of Education; protection of right-to-work, which its opponents see as an anti-union law; and restrictions on the governor’s emergency powers.

Askew, who is Black, called out a mail piece authorized by Greenhalgh that included a darkened photo of his face over a red backdrop with burning matches.

“Depicting any Black person as burning or hanging propagates some of the most dangerous, racist tropes in history,” he wrote on Twitter. “This dog whistle attack has no place in our politics.”

Askew had $243,699 in cash on hand at the end of August to $68,391 for Greenhalgh.

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