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Democrats Gain Influence In Virginia Legislature

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On Wednesday, residents of Virginia woke up to new laws on everything from abortion to guns. They were passed by a new majority of Democrats in the state legislature who were back in power for the first time in over two decades. It's the latest setback for Virginia Republicans who have struggled to reckon with the changing South. Ben Paviour from member station WVPM has more from Richmond.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: When Toni Schmiegelow moved to the Richmond suburbs 20 odd years ago from New York, Republicans ruled the roost.

TONI SCHMIEGELOW: It was just - it was very, very conservative.

PAVIOUR: Schmiegelow describes herself as an independent. She appreciated that her Republican lawmakers would work across the aisle, at least until they got primaried.

SCHMIEGELOW: These would be elected officials who I really liked what they were doing, and they were getting challenged from the right.

PAVIOUR: She was shocked when her congressman, Eric Cantor, one of the top Republicans in the House, lost his seat to a Tea Party challenger. She felt Republicans were drifting away from the bipartisanship she wanted to see.

SCHMIEGELOW: You know, I was supporting them (laughter). I mean, they moved away from me.

PAVIOUR: That's the challenge for Virginia Republicans who haven't won a statewide election since 2009. They've lost control of the executive mansion, the state legislature and a majority of the state's congressional seats. Part of the problem is the president, according to Shaun Kenney. He's the former executive director of the state's Republican Party.

SHAUN KENNEY: The suburbs just do not react well to Donald Trump in the White House. There's just no way of getting around that.

PAVIOUR: But Kenney says Republicans also keep choosing unelectable candidates. Corey Stewart made defending Confederate statues a central plank of his failed 2018 Senate run against Democrat Tim Kaine.

COREY STEWART: That's not a hard choice to make. Nobody's going to vote for somebody waving a little Confederate flag around and saying it's either me or the Democrat.

PAVIOUR: That's especially true in the diversifying suburbs around Richmond and Northern Virginia - the fastest growing parts of the state. Similar demographic shifts are emerging across the Sunbelt.

GOP pollster Glen Bolger says Republicans have avoided deeper losses by turning out their base, not expanding it.

GLEN BOLGER: The way the Republicans have held on in states like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas is they've done a really good job of running up turnout in the more rural areas.

PAVIOUR: Bolger says Republicans will face headwinds if they don't start attracting Black and Latinx voters.

ELIZABETH GUZMAN: My district was - it's incredibly diverse.

PAVIOUR: Democrat Elizabeth Guzman moved to Northern Virginia 20 years ago from Peru as a single mother. In 2017, she flipped a Republican-held district.

GUZMAN: You know, in my district - Black, brown, white, Asian - we're all neighbors, and we respect each other.

PAVIOUR: Guzman represents one of the fastest growing counties in Virginia. She says Democrats won by choosing diverse candidates and stressing an inclusive message.

GUZMAN: This is your party. We will fight for you. (Speaking Spanish). So that's important to people.

PAVIOUR: Since Guzman was elected in 2017, Virginia Democrats have passed Medicaid expansion, approved a minimum wage increase and expanded access to abortion. Shaun Kenney predicts a backlash.

KENNEY: I firmly believe that Virginia is not a blue state. We're just a red state that can't get its act together.

PAVIOUR: But to do that, they'll have to reach suburban voters like Toni Schmiegelow, a retired African American federal employee who can't stomach Trump's racist rhetoric. When she's talking to politicians...

SCHMIEGELOW: If it's somebody that I support of the Republican Party, I say, you know, you need to step away from him (laughter). Step away from him. Run on your own.

PAVIOUR: The politician she's most excited about now is Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. Schmiegelow praises Spanberger for working across the aisle. It's something she says she doesn't see enough of from Republicans these days.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA CORPOREAL'S "GEOTIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.