FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2018, file photo, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe addresses a joint session in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Voters unhappy with the Republican president, particularly in suburban areas, powered historic Democratic gains in the state House two years ago. Last year the same energy helped Virginia Democrats knock out three incumbent members of Congress. McAuliffe has been actively raising money and campaigning with state Democrats this year.(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Trump effect the top question in Virginia's key elections

July 19, 2019 - 12:33 am

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Donald Trump has been very good for Virginia Democrats.

Voters unhappy with the Republican president, particularly in suburban areas, powered historic Democratic gains in the state House two years ago. Last year the same energy helped Virginia Democrats knock out three incumbent members of Congress.

But hovering over this year's closely watched legislative elections is one key question: Has the Trump effect worn off?

There are signs it may have. Lower-than-hoped-for turnout in Democratic primaries last month worried some party officials.

"That is the big thing I wrestle with every single day: Do we have the same intensity that we had in '17?" said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has been actively raising money and campaigning with state Democrats this year.

Republicans are cautiously optimistic that Trump, having been in office for more than two years now, will have less of an impact on voters this year.

"I hear very little about President Trump at the door," said Rich Anderson, a Republican who lost his state House seat in 2017 and is going door-to-door this year to get it back. "It's just a completely different discussion."

Virginia's legislative elections are high stakes. Just four states are having elections this year and Virginia is the only one where Democrats have a chance of flipping control of the statehouse. Republicans currently have a majority in both chambers. And the winners of this year's election will have a major say in the next round of redistricting in 2021, which could affect the outcome of both state and congressional races for a decade.

McAuliffe said several 2020 presidential candidates have called him asking how they can help Virginia Democratic candidates.

"People realize that (2019), this is it," he said. "This will set a big marker for 2020."

Two years ago, an anti-Trump wave helped Democrats win all three statewide seats and 15 seats in the state House. It also previewed the trend in the 2018 midterm congressional election that gave Democrats the majority of the U.S. House .

But Republicans cite many reasons why there won't be a repeat this year.

Those reasons include the fact that there are no statewide races to increase turnout, which on a whole tends to hurt Democrats.

And state Democrats are also still dealing with the fallout from a series of scandals in February that almost forced some of the party's top leaders from office. Gov. Ralph Northam is still politically weakened from a racist yearbook scandal and Democrats are still divided on whether to support Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax after two women publicly accused him of sexual assault, which he has denied. Northam's fundraising ability has diminished, while Democrats are divided about whether to push for Fairfax's impeachment.

Republicans have been eager to seize on those scandals while also arguing that Democrats have become too liberal in the Trump era — particularly on social issues— to appeal to more moderate voters.

One example is guns. GOP lawmakers have accused Democrats of trying to use a mass shooting earlier this year in Virginia Beach to pass strict new gun-control laws. A special session on gun control abruptly shut down shortly after it opened earlier this month.

"Do we want Virginia to turn into California or New York?" Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant asked in a recent email to supporters. His suburban Richmond district is a top target of Democrats.

Democrats have embraced fights on guns or abortion with Republicans, arguing that the state GOP supports an "extreme" agenda that's similar to the president's.

Democrats said that while there may be "Trump fatigue" among some voters, there are still concrete signs they still have clear advantages headed into November.

"What we're seeing is a shift from rabid enthusiasm, which tends to be more temporary, to a quiet resolve, which is of a more permanent nature," said Sen. Dave Marsden.

Democrats have out-fundraised Republicans this year and have fielded a large crop of candidates to challenge incumbents. Marsden said Virginia's growing immigrant population has been particularly motivated to run for office or help Democratic candidates.

And while off-year elections tend to favor Republicans, Virginia's demographic trends have been helping Democrats for years. The state's growing cities and suburbs are becoming more diverse and liberal, while conservative-leaning rural parts of the state are losing political clout. Republicans haven't been able to win a statewide election in a decade.

"People are not having trouble getting volunteers to get out and knock doors," Marsden said.

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