CLIFTON, Virginia — After 12 people were murdered in a shooting rampage in a municipal building in Virginia Beach this past May, more than 30 gun control bills were filed to be debated in a special session of the Virginia Legislature. GOP leaders refused to hear a single one.
So while gun control has slid off the collective radar of national politicians, it hasn’t here.
As Virginia voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide the makeup of the state’s legislature, some local and national Democrats are hoping voters here send a resounding signal to GOP leaders in Washington: Pass gun safety measures, or we’re coming for you.
“My hope is that [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell will see what is happening and how gun owners, even some conservatives, are looking at the issue of gun violence in America and realize that maybe it is time to take action,” Robyn Sordelett, a leader with Virginia’s Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told VICE News. “We’ve seen in a lot of districts, when I’m out there knocking on doors and I’m talking to voters, this is the issue that they’re going to be voting on.”
Besides hundreds of everyday volunteers, including lots and lots of mothers, recently Virginia has attracted presidential candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar — even Alec Baldwin knocked on doors — along with Vice President Mike Pence, on behalf of President Trump.
That’s because the stakes are high, especially when it comes to gun-control. Earlier this summer a Washington Post-Schar School Virginia Poll found gun policy was the top issue in the state for 75% of respondents – beating out issues like education, health care, energy and the economy.
Stats like that are turning heads nationwide, especially after Democrats were able to recapture the House of Representatives in 2018 by successfully running pro-gun control Democrats in suburban districts from coast to coast. That’s why many see Tuesday’s Virginia elections as a chance for their party to build momentum and potentially change the debate in Washington ahead of next year’s federal election.
“I think it’s incredibly important, and the more pressure that McConnell feels, the more likely it is that he’s going to do something,” said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the chair of the House of Representatives Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “I think it’s a bellwether.”
That’s why the election is attracting massive sums of money — a record-breaking $80 million-plus for local legislative races. The NRA doled out $350,000 in the state to help Republicans maintain their majorities, while former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Everytown for Gun Safety has dropped more than $2.5 million to help Democrats with their digital ad campaigns, direct mail, conducting polls, and supporting the campaigns of the 22 most hotly contested seats across the state.
It’s been nearly three decades since Democrats controlled the state Senate, House of Delegates and the governor’s mansion in Virginia at the same time. In the last state election here, back in 2017, Democrats wrested a whopping 15 seats from the GOP, but they fell just shy of taking over Richmond’s Capitol.
That’s how Republicans were able to scuttle a special session on gun control earlier this year, even with a Democrat in the governor’s mansion. That drew national attention to the GOP’s 20-19 seat majority in the Senate and its 51-48 seat majority in the House of Delegates.
Among those enraged was Dan Helmer, a former Rhodes Scholar and veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, who’s running as a Democrat in a district that sits in the sprawling suburbs of Northern Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C.
Helmer’s taking on powerful eight-term incumbent, Tim Hugo, a defense and tech lobbyist who also happens to be the third most powerful Republican in the House of Delegates.
Hugo’s role in helping shut down debate on gun-control measures in the wake of the mass shooting on Virginia soil has made this fight personal to many here, including Helmer. He bemoans that 20% of gun sales in the state still occur without a background check, which has made Virginia a pipeline for illegal gun trafficking that fuel gangs and crime syndicates in spots like New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“We are the gun market for firearms used in crimes up and down the eastern seaboard, right? We’re a seat away from changing that,” Helmer, the father of two boys whose wife is a public school teacher, told VICE News at a recent canvassing event. “I can imagine a world a decade from now where my wife isn't huddling in the corner of the classroom with our kids. And we have a chance to make that happen.”
“In the NRA’s backyard, we're going to make a pretty decisive statement.”
Virginia has also attracted so much national attention because it’s the longtime home of the National Rifle Association, which isn’t lost on Helmer. “In the NRA’s backyard, we're going to make a pretty decisive statement that it's our backyard, not theirs and pass legislation to keep our schools safe,” he said.
And if the polls prove accurate, that message seems to be resonating, which may be why his opponent, Hugo, has been hiding. The incumbent has been avoiding the local press and also didn’t respond to numerous requests for an interview from VICE News.
While the GOP leader helped shut down the special session on gun-control, he’s also now endorsed “red flag” legislation that would allow anyone seen as a risk to themselves to have their guns seized as they’re jailed for two weeks. Advocates brush that legislation aside as a smokescreen because the state already has similar laws in place for people suffering with mental health issues.
But Hugo’s incumbency advantage is palpable, and he seems to know it. That’s why he’s dubbed himself “Delegate Pothole.” He’s been focusing on hyper-local issues, especially the street paving he’s been able to claim victories for on behalf of his constituents. In some neighborhoods, you still see “Thanks for the paving” signs that are all Hugo.
As Hugo’s challenger, Helmer, talked to voters and passed out campaign material (that includes his handwritten cell phone on any material he hand delivers), a recent retiree from the federal government approached.
“[Hugo] helped us get this paved like two years ago, because this road was in terrible shape,” said one voter on the street who approached Helmer, a federal worker who gave his name as “Marcus.” “I thought I’d probably be the most use in this neighborhood because I’ve lived here since 2004, so I know some of the people.”
That’s the uphill battle facing Democrats here: Incumbent Republicans have seemingly stacked the deck in their favor for decades. That stretches from streets and sewer repairs to the makeup of the state’s legislature, which Virginia Republicans have helped gerrymander for decades now.
Even in 2012 when former President Barack Obama won Virginia by four points, the state still sent eight Republicans and just three Democrats to represent them in the House of Representatives.
But in spite of the gerrymandering, that math got flipped on its head in 2018 when Democrats captured the majority of those congressional seats, leaving Republicans controlling just four while Democrats now hold seven of the commonwealth’s seats. And this time around, Democrats are banking on taking that momentum into the state legislature.
While voters and candidates are also talking about ending gerrymandering, Medicaid expansion, expanding voting rights and the chance that Virginia would become the final, 38th state required to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the gun-control debate has taken center stage in many of these races.
“We see people who are motivated and focused, and gun violence prevention is a major motivating factor for so many people,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, one of the state’s newly elected freshmen Democrats. “I think the major shift is a pretty straightforward one, and that is that people see the threats that exist.”
Even as Spanberger and many Democrats think Virginia voters have a chance on Tuesday to send shockwaves through Washington, many Virginia Republicans brush aside those predictions.
“I don’t see how any kind of short-term, single issue race is going to provoke a wholesale shift in principal on the part of conservatives,” Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “The position of constitutional conservatives on this issue is long standing and deeply held and is unlikely to be changed by one state level race here or there.”
Cover: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a canvass kick off rally for Virginia Democrats bid to take control of the state House and Senate in Sterling, Va., on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)