Mark J. Rozell, The Virginian-Pilot
Is 2018 shaping up as the new “Year of the Woman” in U.S. politics? And what role will Virginia women play in the competitive congressional midterm elections?
It’s a safe bet that President Donald Trump’s longstanding troubles with women, particularly liberal and Democratic women, will be a major theme in the midterms. Democrats need to flip 24 GOP-held seats to regain control of the House of Representatives, and they are counting on women to lead the charge.
Three-quarters of the 307 women running for the House this year are Democrats. Half of this year’s class of Democratic House candidates nationally are women.
Virginia will be a major battleground as the story unfolds. Virginia Democrats nominated women in six of the state’s 11 congressional contests.
Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore, is now considered a toss-up. The Democrat, Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander, challenges freshman U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican.
Democrat Vangie Williams, an analyst with a federal contracting firm, faces an uphill battle against five-term incumbent Republican Rob Wittman in Virginia’s 1st District.
Political handicappers say Republicans might be about to lose their nearly 40-year grip on Northern Virginia’s 10th District, as Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton mounts a stiff challenge to incumbent Barbara Comstock.
In the 7th District, spanning north and westward from increasingly blue-tinged Richmond suburbs (long considered a safe haven for Republicans), former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat, is now thought to have a real shot at unseating incumbent Republican Dave Brat.
Democrat Leslie Cockburn, a former journalist, is seeking the open seat in Central Virginia’s sprawling 5th District, but Republican Denver Riggleman is considered the favorite in conservative, rural precincts.
And, in what may be an acid test of whether Democratic liberals can win in conservative territory, progressive environmental activist Jennifer Lewis is competing for the Shenandoah Valley’s open 6th District seat against state Del. Ben Cline.
Locally relevant issues, such as transportation, military spending and environmental concerns, play major roles in congressional contests.
But the unending drama surrounding Trump all but guarantees that he will be a constant and looming presence with the electorate, generally helping Republican candidates in rural districts, and hurting them in urban and suburban areas.
Opposition to Trump was so strong in Virginia last year it triggered a wave election that carried Democrats to victory in statewide contests and nearly obliterated a huge Republican advantage in the General Assembly.
Women played a major part in Virginia’s Democratic wins in 2017. An Election Day exit survey showed 61 percent of women overall voted for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, including 91 percent of African American women.
And Democratic women captured 11 House of Delegates seats previously held by Republican men.
Women are still largely hostile toward Trump. A Washington Post-Schar School poll published in early July showed that only 32 percent of women approve of Trump’s job performance, compared with 54 percent of men.
Historically, Trump’s actions have been offensive to women. He infamously bragged in 2005 about grabbing women by the genitalia.
Trump campaigned for accused sexual predator Roy Moore in last year’s Alabama U.S. Senate race. More recently, Trump came under fire for mocking the #MeToo movement and by hiring as his communications director Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive who was accused of enabling and covering up the sexual misconduct of Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
And more than a dozen women have accused Trump of improper conduct or sexual assault.
Women concerned about abortion rights are understandably worried that the president’s recent nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court might help overturn the court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
A Quinnipiac University national survey released in early July showed that 58 percent of American women identify as Democratic. Forty-two percent of American men identified as Democratic.
Against the backdrop of the current gender gap, it’s worth remembering that Democrats did not always have a monopoly on the loyalty of women.
The first women in the House of Representatives were Republicans. Virginia Republicans have sent three women to the U.S. House: Jo Ann Davis, Thelma Drake and Barbara Comstock. Virginia Democrats have sent one woman to the House, Leslie Byrne, in 1992, for a single term.
Trump has shown that he can inspire his base of supporters. Nov. 6 will show whether the president still inspires a backlash of Democratic women voters.