- Associated Press - Thursday, July 13, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Democrats energized by opposition to President Donald Trump are lining up to run for Congress, while a Trump-like Republican is promising a “vicious, ruthless” U.S. Senate race next year that Trump supporters will relish.

The Trump effect is having an outsized impact on off-year gubernatorial and state House elections already in full swing in Virginia. The contests pose an early test ahead of 2018 Congressional elections. Several Democrats have already pledged to run next year, including several newcomers and candidates in Republican-leaning districts.

Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker said there’s been little need for actively recruiting candidates, unlike past election cycles.

“We’ve seen nothing before like what we’re seeing now,” Swecker said. “It’s night and day really.”

In the 2014 mid-term elections, Democrats didn’t field challengers in some Republican-leaning districts and there was little competition among Democrats to run in other districts. This year, primaries are likely in several districts and Swecker said every Republican-held district will get a Democratic challenger.

Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009 and Hillary Clinton easily beat Trump in Virginia. Yet Republicans currently hold seven of 11 House seats, and a recent Associated Press analysis shows Virginia’s congressional districts were drawn in ways favoring the GOP.

The most tempting target for Democrats next year is Republican Barbara Comstock’s 10th Congressional District seat in Northern Virginia. The swing district favored Clinton by 10 percentage points though Comstock easily beat a Democrat and has often been critical of Trump.

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, one of seven Democrats running for the 10th, said Trump’s unpopularity in a district brimming with immigrants and federal government workers is growing. Others running include former Obama administration official Lindsey Davis Stover, Army veteran Dan Helmer, ex0teacher’s union official Kimberly Adams, school founder Deep Sran, retired Naval intelligence officer David Hanson, and former State Department official Alison Kiehl Friedman.

Democrats are also lining for the more GOP-friendly 7th Congressional District in central Virginia. Three years ago Dave Brat rode a tea party wave of discontent to defeat then-U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary. Now, amid voter disenchantment with the Trump administration, activists and others have packed raucous town hall meetings to boo and shout down the congressman.

Among declared candidates so far is Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, who criticized Brat for downplaying multiple investigations into Russia’s involvement in last year’s presidential election.

“We do care about it,” Spanberger said.

Others running include former Marine pilot Dan Ward, professor Kim Gower, community activist Helen Alli, software designer Janelle Noble, and attorney Eileen Bedell.

Republican National Committee spokesman Garren Shipley said Democrats’ anti-Trump message won’t get them far and they’d be better off “buying scratch offs” than trying to unseat incumbent GOP congressmen. He said Republican candidates have strong ties to their communities and successful track records that will help them win.

Virginia is one of only two states electing governors this year, its race closely watched for the Trump effect. Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee, has largely kept the president at arm’s length. Meanwhile, Democrats have seen surging interest in candidates running for state House seats.

Former Trump state campaign chairman Corey Stewart, who nearly beat Gillespie for the nomination, announced Thursday he’s seeking the GOP nod for next year’s Senate contest against incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. Stewart credits a provocative campaign, including outspoken advocacy for Virginia’s Confederate history, for his strong showing last month. He promises more of the same for the Senate bid.

“I’m going to them exactly what they are looking for. They are looking for a vicious, ruthless, Republican, conservative fighter,” Stewart said.

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