From the General Assembly elections this November to the all-important 2020 election, Henrico County Democrats are creating a community around turning the Commonwealth blue.
When the ice cream came out, it felt like a party.
But this wasn’t a party; it was a political event.
Bursts of laughter peppered the air. The space on Parham Road that once served as headquarters for Abigail Spanberger’s 2018 congressional run bristled with excitement.
Henrico County Democrats hosted a gathering Thursday night at their “Blue Wave Office” to watch the third Democratic presidential debate. Campaign officials for Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, Debra Rodman, D-Henrico and Rodney Willett helped organize the watch party. Willet is the Democratic candidate for the 73rd District House race.
A motley assortment of chairs was arranged around a projector and screen, snacks were neatly stacked at a table by the front door, and a cardboard cutout of former President Obama smiled from a corner of the room. Some onlookers sprawled comfortably on a couch during the debate, others stretched out on the floor.
If this sounds miles away from the typically staid and often buttoned up campaign events many have come to expect during election season, then that’s the point, said Molly Banta, campaign manager for Rodman’s 12th District Senate race.
“We canvas together; we phone bank together; we elect these incredible Dems together,” Banta said. “We are doing this, and we are in this fight together.”
During the debate broadcast, people cheered when their preferred candidates made a major promise on a particular issue or let loose a pointed criticism of Washington politics. On occasion there were murmurs in the crowd when a candidate flip-flopped or dodged a question, but for the most part the atmosphere stayed genial and at times downright fired up.
David Aldridge, campaign manager for VanValkenburg’s 72nd House District race, addressed the group during a break in the debate. He thanked them for coming and talked about how their enthusiasm for national races can translate to Democratic wins at the state level. The audience clapped and shouted their approval.
November will see the first state Senate races since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win, and political experts believe the 2019 General Assembly races could be a barometer for trends in 2020. Voter turnout in Virginia is traditionally lower the year before a presidential election than the year after one. Voter turnout spiked in the state — the number of absentee ballots soaring to unprecedented numbers in off-election years — following Trump’s win. That helped generate a blue wave in House races that House and Senate candidates hope to catch again.
Democrats plan to reach this goal by keeping volunteers and voters engaged and working together.
“People want somebody in office who is going to fight as hard for them as they would for their own kid, or for their own neighbor, or for their own community member,” Banta said. “That’s what people have seen from the freshmen that were elected in 2017, from these regular people stepping up to run.”
The party deliberately chose to run multiple campaigns from an office in the heart of Henrico County.
“We were really hoping to build a community aspect, where every Democrat and every person who is Democratic leaning, whether they consider themselves a liberal or anywhere else, like a progressive or all the various kinds of labels out there, could feel like they had a home,” Aldridge said.
Will voters generate the second blue wave that barrels Democratic candidates into office again this election?
Voter Arden Stevens believes Virginia Democrats are just getting started.
“It is more important to have people who you can engage with on a personal level who are, like I said, making decisions that actually matter,” Stevens said. “That’s what matters to me.”
By Morgan Edwards, Capital News Service. Photos by Paul Greiner.