A lot is at stake for Virginia this November, when all 140 state lawmakers are up for election. Democrats are hoping they can take control of the state legislature for the first time in decades. But first, they have to choose the right candidates for the job.
Sitting outside a Starbucks in Western Henrico County, candidate Veena Lothe will tell you that in this increasingly diverse district her story as the daughter of immigrants is a selling point.
“At one of our meet and greets recently we had over 20 languages spoken in that room,” she recalls. “Which is amazing to me.”
Lothe is part of a robust wave of Democratic primary candidates across the state, seeking their party’s nomination for districts currently held by Republicans and Democrats. Lothe is running in the 12th Senate District. The seat is currently held by Republican Siobhan Dunnavant.
Lothe is a former civil rights attorney and if elected she’d be the first Indian-American in the General Assembly. She says that kind of representation is a good thing for Virginia’s Democratic party.
“I know that my candidacy has gotten the Indian-American community and the Asian-American community really excited about politics and really excited to see someone who looks like them. And that is ultimately how we build a base in the Democratic party,” Lothe says. “We can’t just do business as usual. We have to grow.”
After racist and sexist scandals affected top party leaders earlier this year many Democrats agree that women of color should play a bigger role in the party’s future. But diversity can sometimes take a back seat.
“Fundraising,” says Mark Bergman. “It is the necessary evil of politics.”
Bergman is a senior advisor to Governor Ralph Northam, he also runs Northam’s political action committee. He says good electable candidates have to be able to raise money.
“And candidates need to show the ability to do that to prove that they’re a viable candidate,” Bergman says. “Because if they can’t generate support among donors it’s going to be awfully hard to generate support among voters.”
That support will be necessary if Democrats are going to win the tough seats they’re targeting: districts across the state held by Republicans but won by Democrats in recent statewide elections.
They include the 12th and 10th Senate Districts outside Richmond, the 13th Senate District in Northern Virginia, and the 7th Senate District in Virginia Beach.
In the 12th Veena Lothe is running against current state delegate Democrat Debra Rodman. Rodman ran for, and won, a competitive state delegate race in 2017.
An anthropologist and professor, Rodman says she’s a good candidate because she knows a campaign is hard work and she’s proven that she’s up to the task.
“That means knocking on doors. That means fundraising. That means building the coalitions,” Rodman says. “I put in a lot, a lot, of hours to make sure that we’re reaching out to voters and that’s a big part of a successful campaign.”
Still, some Democratic activists think the focus on experience and money is keeping out talented candidates who may have neither. Melissa McKenney is a grassroots organizer. She says that when Democrats talk about “electability” it often feels like gatekeeping.
“I think that a lot of times we look to the past to validate what we think will work. When really we need to be forward thinking,” says McKenney.
Ultimately figuring out who is the most viable candidate is the entire point of a primary. Voters across the state get the final say when they head to the polls next Tuesday.