These Two Virginia Democratic Women Have a Real Shot at Flipping GOP Seats

Although the national narrative is “Virginia Dems are in disarray,” there are some bright spots for progressives.

With so much doom and gloom from pundits and most national reporters making Virginia’s state elections next week seem like a lost cause for Democrats, maybe a little counterprogramming is in order. Yes, Terry McAuliffe is in a tight race for governor with shapeshifting, fleece-vested Republican Glenn Youngkin, and the Democratic House of Delegates 55-seat majority is up for grabs. There are at least six vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and if all of them lose, Republicans would take back the majority.

But not if Democrats pick up red seats—and they have several strong chances to do that. There are at least four seats where Democrats have a solid opportunity for a pickup—and all the candidates happen to be women. (Polling in these races is normally conducted only by candidates and the parties, and everyone I talked to said these races are among the closest.) Meanwhile, concerns about Democratic enthusiasm are subsiding just a bit, with Democratic early-voting numbers coming in strong in the closing week.

Target Smart estimates that Democrats have cast 55 percent of early votes as of Monday, compared with 30 percent by Republicans. And according to Blue Virginia, Tuesday was the biggest early voting day yet, with more than 53,000 voters casting ballots. (Two wonky provisos: Virginia voters don’t have to register by party, so estimates of partisan voting rely on “modeling” that looks at prior results and demography by district. Also: comparisons with earlier years are difficult to make; Virginia’s Democrat-powered early voting changes only fully kicked in this year.) Even so, the hand-wringing over lack of Democratic enthusiasm is starting to look unfounded.

I talked to two of the contending challengers—former educator and state agency manager Debra Gardner, who’s running just outside Richmond, and Air Force veteran Katie Sponsler, who’s in a more suburban district in Chesterfield—late last week about their chances.

Gardner’s right arm was in a sling when I called her. She’s won the progressive Future Now Fund’s award for the challenger who’s knocked the most doors, but along with the $111,000 came a repetitive stress injury. It makes sense; she’s averaged 850–900 doors a month, she says. Her injury hasn’t stopped her; now she’s knocking with the other arm.

Gardner is running against incumbent Roxann Robinson, an optometrist who wears a white coat in her ads and seems to pose as a doctor as she rails against Covid vaccines. Though Robinson has been vaccinated herself, she still sometimes suggests there may be safety concerns. “If they mandate this [vaccine] this time, what are they going to mandate next?” Robinson told reporters. Worse, though, she’s repeatedly smeared Gardner with racist and inaccurate ads. In one mailer, Gardner is depicted as a cartoonish marionette, straight out of a minstrel show. “They made me look like [blackface singer] Al Jolson!” she says. Her skin is regularly darkened in campaign flyers, but that’s become routine in Virginia; the campaigns of Black incumbents Alex Askew and Joshua Cole complained to me about the same thing.

But in the worst ad, Robinson features herself talking to a mother of a special-needs child. The woman, identified as “April, Mom/Nurse,” is near tears as she claims that, as head of what the ad calls the Department of Social Services, “Debra Gardner failed families like mine.” Under Gardner, she claims, “the department made late payments to families with special-needs children and improperly denied overtime pay to their social workers.” The ad also claims that Gardner was forced out of her job at the agency. The mother is playing with her adorable son, who’s in a wheelchair, as Robinson beams empathically.

The only problem(s): Gardner didn’t oversee the Richmond agency at the time of the problem with late payments to special-needs families, in August 2014, or the May 2014 claims of denied overtime to social workers, and she wasn’t “forced out” of her job; a new mayor reorganized the department. Also, according to her Facebook page, April Marie Berry, the nurse in the ad, lived in New Jersey at the time of the problems in Richmond. (I tried to ask Berry for comment, but she didn’t get back to me.) Gardner’s attorneys have asked Robinson not to use the ad; Robinson’s campaign rejected the attorneys’ claims, and the ad is still running.

Although, like most Virginia candidates, Gardner has been worried about turnout in her district, “in the last month the fire lit,” she tells me. The Texas abortion ban, plus the explosion of voter suppression laws around the country, “tells people we really could have our rights taken away.” Virginia’s Democratic control of the General Assembly and the governor’s seat helped lead to a dramatic expansion of voting rights, including early voting and no-excuse absentee voting that has buoyed the party in the closing days.

The issues driving her race include Covid safety, health care access, and public safety reform.

Gardner is endorsed by the Virginia AFL-CIO and other unions—Swing Left, Sister District, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, Moms Demand Action, and too many others to name. As well as, just last week, by President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama.

Katie Sponsler, surprisingly, didn’t get either leader’s endorsement—even though she’s given a good chance of flipping a GOP seat. House District 66, once solidly red, is getting more diverse—and former House Speaker Kirk Cox is retiring. But when I call to ask about those missed endorsements, she’d rather talk my ear off about landfill. It’s actually fascinating. I had no idea that Virginia is the second-largest “importer” of garbage from other states—mine possibly winds up there, from New York. Predictably, it’s a big, often-corrupt business whose shoddy caretaking of “piles of garbage,” she says, causes problems that range from water table pollution to high childhood asthma rates. “And landfills are placed mostly in poor and majority-black districts,” she notes, including sites in her district.

Since she’s white, the state GOP can’t darken Sponsler’s image in flyers, or use racial stereotypes against her. But the National Park Service ranger who has police training has been painted as anti-police for saying in a July campaign appearance that “some [police officers] are murderers”—a factual statement, by the way. She says her opponent, Mike Cherry, a pastor and member of the Colonial Heights City Council, is taking the statement out of context, which he is.

Here’s what she said, in response to a voter’s question about police conduct: “Look, these are my buddies. Like honestly, I mean, some of them are. There’s definitely some who are murderers. And I would call them out in a minute.” Many people think the ginned-up controversy about her factual remarks cost her the Biden and Obama endorsements. For her part, she says she’s not sure—but she moved on quickly.

“I don’t think it’s the doom and gloom scenario everybody thinks it is,” she tells me. “We’re starting to see people come out again.” Like Gardner, she thinks the Texas abortion ban and voting rights are inspiring more voters. “People in my district saw Black Georgia voters rise up and elect two senators—and then they passed that [voter suppression] law.”

As a veteran who has lost friends to suicide and severe PTSD, Sponsler has also made mental health access and funding a major campaign theme.

Both Gardner and Sponsler say there’s clearly been a decline in interest in the race compared with the 2017 and 2019 elections—especially from outside of Virginia. Sponsler knows from experience—she ran against Cox that year, losing fairly narrowly. There were more national volunteers, and she got interview requests from “at least six” national reporters. This year, apparently, I’m the only one. It’s also worth saying that national reporters are interested in Virginia only as the possible bellwether of Democratic decline. Progressive Democratic women who could flip GOP seats just don’t fit in with the story line.

Sponsler has been endorsed by many of the same progressive groups and leaders as Gardner, with the exception of the two top Democrats.

Among outside advocates, opinions are mixed as to whether a recent rise in Democratic voter enthusiasm will be enough to offset a Republican frenzy over the party’s first chance to stand up for Donald Trump. Most people I talked to believe McAuliffe will pull it off, since he’s successfully convinced voters that with Youngkin, they’re “caught between a fleece vest and the Q-Anon shaman,” says Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. They’re less sure about Democrats holding the House of Delegates—but most agree things are looking up since we last talked in September.

Sister District cofounder Lyzz Schwegler told me glumly last month, “The polling shows that Democrats really could lose the House of Delegates.” Asked if things have improved on the ground, she says, “Actually yes! Internal polling is looking better….That being said, it’s hard to feel confident in polls these days.” Gardner, who Sister District endorsed, has a real chance, she believes: “As you know in these small, ultra-competitive races that are sometimes won or lost on a few dozen votes, an aggressive ground game can absolutely make all the difference.”

Swing Left Head of Community David Berrios says that since his group turned its program over to phone calling and letter-writing during the no-knock days of the pandemic in 2020, “we learned how to involve people with just a laptop and a cell phone.” With its partner Vote Forward, Swing Left kept up that program in Virginia, where volunteers have so far completed four times as many phone calls and letters as in the banner year 2017. In-person campaigning is down, but picking up, he told me. “Especially among our DMV volunteers [from the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia], on the ground activism is up. More people carpooling, more people canvassing.”

Former Virginia delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who gave up her seat to run against McAuliffe in the Democratic primary, is trying to rally voter interest with her Virginia for Everyone political action committee. Like Gardner and Sponsler, she sees enthusiasm rising, from both inside and outside Virginia. But too many Virginians, she adds, don’t know what Democrats have achieved—not just expanding voting rights, but raising the minimum wage and pay for teachers and first responders, passing the Equal Rights Amendment, and liberalizing the state’s once draconian abortion laws. And without that positive message, she sees “a lot of apathy.”

Still: W spoke just after Virginia’s first-ever Sunday voting, which for Black voters usually means “Souls to the Polls,” where people head to early voting sites directly from their churches. “It was definitely one of our biggest canvassing weekends,” she adds.

Meanwhile, candidate Finale Johnson Norton, whom I profiled last month, was feeling a little less optimistic earlier this week than when we last spoke. Back then, she told me Virginia Democrats needed to nationalize the election, reminding people of the Trump menace and bringing in the big guns like Biden, Obama, and Vice President Kamala Harris. State leaders seemed to listen to her—in the last month, all three have visited the Commonwealth, and McAuliffe has fought to link Youngkin to Trump. The problem? Nobody was coming to her Norfolk-Eastern Shore District 100. But on Tuesday came news of a visit to Norfolk by Harris and musician Pharrell Williams.

“President Biden and former President Obama both endorsed my campaign,” she noted. “You gotta love that! And when folks in District 100 see you with a Pharrell or Vice President Harris, it brings renewed energy to a race where we need optimum enthusiasm to get out the vote.” Norton doesn’t know if enthusiasm is “optimum” just yet, but she knows it’s rising.

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