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Why a changing Richmond and its suburbs are key to Virginia’s voting

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RICHMOND – Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat in the Virginia House of Representatives, drove the oak-colored streets of his suburban district pointing out landmarks that told the story of how he won his seat after decades of being held by Republicans.

Over there was one of the first mosques in the district. There the Hindu Center. The Final Gravity Brewing Company had opened near the Love Shack, a breakfast joint serving Virginia ham and eggs on a croissant.

The houses of worship for global immigrants and the cool bars for young transplant recipients reflected sweeping demographic changes that have pushed politics to the left in the suburbs of Richmond, including Henrico County.

“A new generation has moved in,” said Mr. VanValkenburg, a high school teacher who was first elected in 2017. “Henrico turned brown. It got thicker. “

But now he and his party are in races much closer than most expected, including a stalled governor’s competition. And the historic margins of the Democrats in Virginia in recent years suddenly look like they weren’t the result of an unstoppable demographic tide, but rather of angry opposition to Donald J. Trump – one that exaggerated the real strength of the Democratic Party State that could revert to its former role as a battlefield.

With Mr. Trump in office, Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic governor seeking a new term in office, is fighting for his political life four years after the current Democratic governor scored a 9-point victory.

Greater Richmond, including the capital and its changing suburbs, is the second fastest growing region in the state and a key to the governor’s race and control of the legislature.

A poll published Wednesday by Christopher Newport University found that Democrats in the region are far behind. While it mirrored most other polls that showed the governor’s race was stalled nationwide, it said Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, had withdrawn from McAuliffe in the Richmond media market – an area that spanned the city and beyond extends its populous suburbs out into rural counties.

A poll by Fox News on Thursday was even dire for the Democrats: it showed that Mr Youngkin was 8-point ahead of likely voters across the country ahead of Tuesday’s election.

“On the ground, it feels like our side has all the power,” said Mark Early Jr., a Republican vying for a Democratic seat in the House of Representatives between Richmond and the suburbs of Chesterfield County.

Mr Early said a Youngkin television commercial tearing up Mr McAuliffe for saying parents should not tell schools what to teach had “poured gasoline on the fire” over some voters’ frustration with public schools that This was first sparked last year by Covid-related school closings that set back student learning. “I hear a lot of setbacks from mothers, especially working mothers,” he said.

Democrats accuse Mr Youngkin of bias and scare tactics in schools, including demanding police officers in every school and a ban on critical racial theory, which educators believe is not a part of K-12 curricula.

Still, Mr. Youngkin’s forward-looking closing message, emphasizing “parenting rights,” seemed to resonate far more with voters than Mr. McAuliffe’s retrospective final appeal – reminding the Virginians, whose swing counties were doing quite well economically all the jobs he created and the money he spent on education as governor from 2014 to 2018.

“If Youngkin turns this around, it’s probably because of his education gambit,” says Richard Meagher, a professor of politics at Randolph-Macon College near Richmond. “It’s the only issue where you can still win back the suburban voters who have recently risen to the democratic column.”

For Mr. McAuliffe to prevail in the Greater Richmond area, the Democrats must increase the turnout in the city; maintained their profits for the past 15 years in Henrico County, north and east of the city; and not cede too much land in Chesterfield County, which includes more conservative western suburbs.

On Thursday evening, Mary Margaret Kastelberg, a Republican who challenged a Democratic delegate in a leading district in Henrico County, spent her 26th wedding anniversary knocking on the doors of residents her campaign identified as swing voters.

She wasn’t very lucky.

Laura Kohlroser, still in the hospital while removing makeup from her workday, said the January 6 riots in the Capitol had deeply pissed her off at Republicans. “I just regretted the way the Republican Party got behind Donald Trump,” she said.

Walter Taylor said he was an “extreme Republican” until 2016 and voted for Mr Trump that year, but that his chaotic presidency “turned me 180 degrees.” He wasn’t convinced that Mr. Youngkin, a former finance manager, was really the normal guy he portrayed in TV commercials.

“He’s too close to Trump,” said Mr. Taylor, a retired insurance company. But Frau Kastelberg deserved his vote, he told her.

The previous Thursday, Mr. McAuliffe was in Richmond for a rally with leaders from the African American community, 40 percent of the population. Early city votes have lagged the suburbs primary, an imperfect but useful gauge of enthusiasm.

Speaking at a community center on the North Side, Frank Moseley, director of a non-partisan group informing colored voters on issues, said Democrats had failed to deliver on big promises made to black voters in 2020 – about gun violence, affordable housing and voting rights – had cooled some voters’ enthusiasm. “We are probably one of the most disappointing voter blocs,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest critics for people who vote.”

One of the few younger people in the room, Aja Moore, 24, confirmed what polls show: voters under 30, a large part of the Biden coalition last year, are now less likely to vote.

“They are busy with their lives,” said Ms. Moore, who works for a large government relations law firm. “You don’t stand on it.”

In an interview, Amy Wentz, a member of the Richmond Crusade for Voters civil rights group, suggested another possible reason some black voters, especially women, might panic: the party nominated a 64-year-old white man to governor after he had two blacks had defeated female MPs in the primary.

Ms. Wentz, who said she was a strong supporter of McAuliffe, forwarded a Facebook post from a friend. “I know I’ll get upset, but I’m not motivated to vote,” the woman wrote. “I really have a feeling that Virginia doesn’t have a black woman to run for governor.”

Ms. Wentz said Mr. McAuliffe did a good job reaching out to people of color, including in a Zoom meeting with her own organization. “I have a feeling we’re going to move up,” she said. “We don’t feel it right now, but I have a feeling that by Tuesday people will be doing the right thing. There is too much at stake. “

The 2020 census confirmed the demographic upheaval in the Richmond area. Within the city, which removed the last Confederate statue – by Robert E. Lee – from historic Monument Avenue just last month, the percentage of white residents has grown faster than any other place in the state over the past decade. Gentrification has transformed industrial areas into districts with craft breweries and restaurants serving Alsatian cuisine.

At the same time, the black population in the suburbs grew: by 25 percent in Chesterfield County, the largest growth of any ethnic group. Henrico County’s population of Black, Asian, and Hispanic residents increased significantly.

Mr VanValkenburg, the lawmaker and teacher, said that 15 years ago his students were predominantly white. Around 100 languages ​​are spoken in the county today.

He got angry at Mr. Youngkin’s campaign on education, including his fueling of the cultural problem of critical racial theory – a dog whistle for white voters that isn’t even taught in elementary school – and accused the Democrats of trying to deter parents from classrooms.

“Of course, parents should have a say in education,” said VanValkenburg, who informs parents about their children’s class work every week by e-mail.

Republicans, he complained, “continue to try to take up issues that are not real in order to scare people,” including appeals to conservatives who have sought to remove gay and racist books from schools.

If Mr Youngkin is elected and keeps his promise to ban critical racial theory on day one, it would have no practical implications, Mr VanValkenburg said. “But it would create a culture of fear,” he said on Wednesday as he drove through his district.

“Does someone feel bad about their race when we teach about slavery?” He added.

On Thursday, the local newspaper reported that a parent complained about an interracial teenage romance at a school council meeting about a novel in school libraries. Mr VanValkenburg’s Republican opponent was cited to express his disgust. The district removed eight copies of the book from its shelves.

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