The Democratic Party’s post-Trump revival began in Virginia in 2017. That’s when a state, local and national backlash against the racist demagogue helped the party win the top three races—governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—and 15 House of Delegate seats, missing taking the majority by a tie in one district, which got settled by selecting the name of the winner, a Republican, from a ceramic bowl. Democrats then took the majority of Virginia’s House of Representatives delegation in 2018, and won control of the state General Assembly, both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, in 2019.
But to paraphrase the old rap song: more incumbents, more problems. Now some Virginia Democrats are in a circular firing squad, with progressive party insurgents blasting the establishment. Last week the state Board of Elections, chaired by a Democrat, disqualified three House of Delegates candidates who were challenging Democratic incumbents, for various problems with filing campaign paperwork. All three happen to be Black. The state NAACP quickly spoke out against “the appearance of disparate treatment of candidates of color…who sought to challenge incumbent legislators.”
The three challengers—Richmond City Council member Dr. Michael Jones, Arlington legislative aide and activist Matt Rogers, and Dumfries Town Council member Cydny Neville, from Prince William County—come from different corners of the Commonwealth and different backgrounds. Their paperwork problems are different, too—and tedious, as such problems always are. But the state board has routinely granted candidates extensions to solve such problems—at least eight got them in 2020, including GOP congressional candidates Delegate Nick Freitas (who lost) and Bob Good (who won). State law provides for a 10-day “grace period” at the board’s discretion.
While exercising that discretion last year, chair Bob Brink called disqualifying candidates over paperwork errors a “draconian” move. “Doing that would run counter to my personal belief that, as much as possible, we ought to permit access to the ballot and let the voters decide,” Brink told The Roanoke Times. “The board is between a rock and the hard place. We don’t want to be in the position of picking and choosing winners and losers. That’s the voters’ job.” To be fair, Brink also complained that by granting the extensions the board was “giving a pass to the scofflaws at the expense of the candidates who followed the rules.”
But this year, the first time in ages that state Democrats are defending majorities in the General Assembly, the board suddenly made candidates’ paperwork troubles a capital offense, with no grace period to fix them. “I’m not gonna lie,” Jones told me; if flawed paperwork normally doomed candidates, he’d go back to his life as a Richmond pastor and City Council member “and take the L. But granting extensions was their practice. They change the rules in the middle of a pandemic?” The NAACP has asked the board to proceed with extensions “in the same manner it has consistently done in the past,” but there’s no evidence the decision will be reconsidered.
With five years on the City Council and 20 as a Richmond pastor, Jones perhaps posed the greatest political threat, challenging longtime incumbent Delegate Betsy Carr, who is white. Jones compares Virginia Democratic Party politics to the bloody HBO series Game of Thrones, and jokes he’d be cast as “Slayer of Monuments” for his work getting Confederate statues removed in Richmond and around the state. He has also been a strong voice for criminal justice and police reform.
Two hours north of Richmond, in heavily Democratic Arlington, “if my dog got the Democratic nomination, he would win,” says Matt Rogers. Former chief of staff to moderate state Senator David Marsden, Rogers is well to the left of his old boss, as well as the incumbent he seeks to replace, Delegate Patrick Hope. Over the last few cycles, he’s worked alongside 90for90.org, the group committed to recruiting Democrats in every Virginia legislative district (which is less popular with the Democratic establishment than you might expect).
Rogers backs Medicare for All and cannabis legalization, and he’s long opposed the death penalty (Governor Ralph Northam recently signed legislation abolishing it). He knew he was facing headwinds in his district—Marsden made clear he would back Hope, a centrist ally—but says his team has already knocked 90 percent of the doors of Democratic voters in his district. The state board’s decision not to give the three Black challengers time to address paperwork complaints routinely granted to others utterly threw him. “The fix was in,” he says, with some bitterness. One painful irony: Two years ago, the board granted his intended opponent, incumbent Hope, a grace period to fix his own filing problems.
How does the state board explain its decision this year? Brink, himself a former Virginia delegate, sent a letter in January to the state’s Republican and Democratic party leaders saying that there would be no “assurance” of deadline extensions in 2021, and urged the parties to make sure candidates filed proper papers. In his two years as chair, “we were getting repeated requests for extensions, and we felt it put us in a very unfair position,” Brink told me. Jones and Rogers say they never heard about problems from party higher-ups (Neville did not respond for this piece). But some candidates did hear from the party, I’m told, and were able to take that into account when preparing their paperwork. While Brink shared his letter with the House caucuses for both parties, the caucuses by definition only work with their members—and that means incumbents.
Rogers says the job of informing candidates should never have been offloaded to party leaders, anyway, since they generally work to protect incumbents. “How can partisan actors be neutral arbiters here?” he asks.
Not many Virginia activists, apart from the NAACP, have spoken out about the disqualifications. One exception is Valerie Slater, executive director of Richmond’s RISE for Youth, who called it “strange indeed” that the candidates have been given the chance to “cure” such problems in past years. “I would like to see fairness for all candidates,” she told me. “Virginians deserve the right to decide what candidates to support. That opportunity should not be subverted by the Board of Elections.
That points to what has long been a tension in Virginia Democratic politics and beyond. When I was first writing about the crop of first-time candidates, most of them women, running for the House of Delegates in 2017, I heard fierce complaints that challengers weren’t getting the help from party leaders they had expected. But party caucuses and other establishment groups tend to be incumbent-protection organizations, focused on shoring up Democrats who were already in the House and Senate and paying less attention to challengers, especially those perceived unlikely to win. What happened in Virginia in 2017 was that progressive outside groups—so-called “pop-up” organizations from all over the country, fired up by Donald Trump’s election—threw money and volunteers at the candidates whose success was less assured. In the end, 11 of the 15 Democrats who flipped GOP seats were women.
But those women weren’t challenging Democratic incumbents—many were sacrificial candidates running to try to plant a blue flag in a red district where no Democrat had run for eons; others were in districts where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump, where they had a better shot (and where the party ultimately racked up most of its 2017 wins). Now that the party has control of both the Senate and the House of Delegates, protecting incumbents is an even higher priority for the House Democratic Caucus. Helping primary challengers qualify for the ballot isn’t part of the job description.
This is a dynamic that plays out elsewhere. As we’ve seen in Congress, where progressive women of color like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Cori Bush won seats in liberal districts by primarying more centrist Democratic incumbents, for women and people of color to make gains, their best shot will tend to be in liberal districts. They can either wait for an open seat or primary an incumbent. As in Virginia, party leaders don’t tend to like that approach, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee prohibiting its candidates from hiring consultants or vendors who work with challengers in the last cycle. (The rule was changed in March.)
“How democratic are we really if we’re just about protecting Democratic incumbents?” Jones asks. Younger, progressive candidates of color, he notes, are not typically invited to “the smoke-filled, whiskey-filled rooms where historically a lot of these decisions got made.” Liberal Arlington, Rogers notes, hasn’t sent a Black to the General Assembly since Reconstruction. The three have the option of challenging the board’s move in court, but they’ll have to do it fast, as officials say they will move quickly to print absentee ballots for the June 8 primaries.
Andrew Whitely, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party, recognizes that the disqualified challengers feel slighted, given the ease with which filing extensions were granted in prior years, and the confusion over who should have let them know they had paperwork problems. “We have to make sure we don’t have a replication of this again,” Whitely said.