Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been corrected.
A groundswell of anti-Trump activism has helped inspire an expanded field of Democratic legislative candidates in Virginia this fall, but a Center for Public Integrity analysis found that those office-seekers are lagging badly in fundraising as they prepare to face well-funded GOP incumbents.
These often-ignored races may be a harbinger of the “Resist” movement’s political clout nationwide — and the steep challenges it faces — in the coming years.
For the first time in at least two decades, 60 of Virginia’s 100 House of Delegates seats — which are all in play this fall — have candidates representing both major parties. The total represents a major increase from each of the last three cycles. In 48 of these races, Democrats are attempting to unseat Republican incumbents. Senate races will not occur until 2019.
“The state has a lot of motivated Democrats in it right now, and a lot of House seats held by Republican incumbents,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. That’s a stark contrast from some previous cycles, he added, when Democrats have struggled to field candidates.
The boost in Democratic candidates is part of a broader trend nationwide largely stemming from President Donald Trump’s stunning election victory last fall. The November upset was a wake-up call for Democrats and motivated them to begin building a deeper bench of candidates, especially at the state level where they’ve been pummeled in recent years. The GOP now holds a record 34 governors’ offices and controls 69 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers.
Since last fall’s election, Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-abortion rights women candidates, said more than 16,000 women nationwide have contacted the organization about running for office since Trump’s election, up from 920 women in the previous two years combined.
Another example of the newfound energy: An estimated 3,000 scientists interested in becoming candidates are asking for similar support from PAC 314 Action, a new political group that says it is trying to elect candidates focused on “evidence-based policy solutions to issues like climate change” and “fighting the Trump administration’s attacks on science.”
Virginia in the spotlight
Virginia, with its off-year elections, represents Democrats’ next major opportunity to see if this anti-Trump fervor will translate to victories — and is thus being watched closely by pundits and politicians alike.
New Jersey, the only other state with major elections this fall, isn’t much of a contest: Democrats already control the Legislature and are polling far ahead of Republicans in both the gubernatorial and legislative elections.
In Virginia, a close race for governor between current Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie is attracting national headlines and abundant cash. Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates are hopeful their races may receive some of the attention, too.
One of those new House of Delegates candidates is Democrat Hala Ayala, who said she was dismayed by President Trump’s election. The Women’s March on Jan. 21 helped drive her decision to run for office against Republican Del. Rich Anderson in the 51st District in Prince William County, just southwest of Washington, D.C. Before announcing her candidacy, Ayala quit her job as a cybersecurity specialist with the Department of Homeland Security to focus on the race.
“You need to step up, you need to run for office,” Ayala said of her decision. “You need to take a stand.”
Anderson, who is seeking his fifth term, did not face a challenger during the last election in 2015, and in 2013 he beat his opponent by 7 percentage points. But one statistic makes Ayala hopeful: Last fall, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the 51st District by 7 percentage points.
Tapping into Clinton’s base
The 51st District is one of 17 in the Virginia House that went for Clinton but are currently held by Republicans. The majority of these seats are located in northern Virginia, where housing complexes have taken over farmland as the exurbs of Washington continue their relentless expansion and attract a demographically diverse workforce.
If the Democrats were to win all 17 of those districts, they would flip control of the House of Delegates, giving them a narrow 51-seat majority. Republicans currently have a 21-19 majority in the Senate.
The chance to flip the House has helped draw national attention to races that are often won and lost over local issues like traffic and schools.
Flippable, an organization founded after the 2016 elections by Clinton staffers, is among the groups pushing for Democratic victories in Virginia and elsewhere. The organization is focused on identifying districts that could be flipped from Republican to Democrat, and is providing challengers with a national platform and fundraising dollars from across the country.
“Incumbency and dollars are big predictors of victory,” said Catherine Vaughan, CEO of Flippable. “We’re bringing some star power to these challengers.”
Democratic candidate Danica Roem, who is looking to make history as the first transgender member of the House of Delegates, notably attracted $115,000 from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele in Wisconsin. Even before receiving the bulk of Abele’s donation, Roem had raised more than $149,000 as of the last reporting period; that’s twice as much as incumbent Del. Bob Marshall, who has represented portions of Prince William County and Manassas Park since 1992.
Although Roem welcomed the donation from Abele, whom she has yet to meet in person, she added that she has raised more than her opponent across the board since she entered the race.
“We’re outraising him locally, we’re outraising him in the county, we’re outraising him in the state and we’re outraising him nationally,” Roem said of her opponent.
Marshall declined to comment.
Candidate Ayala, even without the same level of national attention, has been competitive with incumbent Anderson in terms of fundraising. Anderson had raised $83,078 compared with $72,154 for Ayala as of the end of June, the latest figures available from the Virginia Public Access Project, which gathers state election filings.
Anderson did not respond to requests for comment.
The fundraising gap persists
Taken as a whole, however, the House of Delegates races show that Democrats are seriously behind in fundraising, and still have their work cut out for them.
In the 60 House of Delegates races being contested by both parties, Republicans have raised nearly twice as much as Democrats, $7.43 million to $3.73 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of the most recent campaign filings available. In the districts Clinton won last fall, which are expected to be more competitive, Republicans have raised $2.75 million to Democrats’ $1.61 million.
Democrats are leading in fundraising in only 15 of those 60 contested races and only six of the 17 District races where Clinton won. In two races, the Democrats even trail both the Republican and Green Party candidates.
Although two more months remain until the election — a time period that’s typically among the busiest for fundraising — the name recognition and pre-existing donor base for Republican incumbents may make it difficult for Democrats to close the gap.
“I definitely think that Democrats will give us a good run for fundraising efforts,” said Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck. “But I don’t expect they will outspend us in any [Republican incumbent] delegate races, even where Democrats are competitive.”
Katie Baker, spokesperson for the state’s House Democratic Caucus, countered in an email: “We have seen unprecedented support both on the ground here in Virginia and from outside groups offering a range of support.”
Outside political groups doing their own campaign fundraising may not make much difference. So far this cycle, independent campaigning by advocacy groups hasn’t been much of a factor in the legislative races, according to a review of state records. Virginia does not place a cap on donations to candidates, so outside spending by other groups seeking to affect elections has represented a relatively small percentage of the money put into legislative races in recent years.
Democratic candidate Lee Carter is among those struggling to keep up. The first-time candidate is running against incumbent Republican Del. Jackson Miller in the 50th District, centered in Manassas, about 25 miles outside of Washington.
Trump only won 41 percent of the vote in that district last fall, but Miller has held his seat for 11 years. Carter has raised less than his opponent — $83,764 to $202,627 — while pledging not to take donations from for-profit corporations.
Of course, raising more money does not guarantee a victory in the fall. But in contentious elections, everything from yard signs to television ads come at a steep cost.
“When you’re challenging someone with a 10-year head start, there’s never enough money,” Carter said. “You always feel like you need more.”
This story was co-published with NBC News.
Correction, Sept. 14, 2017, 1:11 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported the incorrect timing of when Hala Ayala quit her job with the Department of Homeland Security. She quit on March 22, the day before she launched her campaign for Virginia’s 51st District House seat, according to her campaign manager Shu-Yen Wei.
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