- Associated Press - Friday, May 26, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - More Democrats than Virginia has seen in years are stepping up to run for the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, where every seat is up for grabs this fall.

The surge in candidates is among the latest examples of activism sparked by President Donald Trump’s surprising November victory, party officials and candidates say. The same angst that prompted the massive women’s march, creation of new progressive advocacy groups and donations to liberal causes is also drawing contenders into state politics as a way to push back against Trump’s agenda. Democrats in Virginia - the only Southern state Hillary Clinton won - hope they can chip away at the solid GOP House majority in November, if not retake the chamber for the first time in nearly two decades.

“It’s been raining candidates for us for about six months since Trump got elected,” Democratic House minority leader David Toscano said in a recent interview.

The Democratic candidates are diverse as about half are women, a quarter are people of color and at least five identify as LGBTQ, Toscano said. Many are political newcomers like Debra Rodman, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Randolph-Macon College.

Rodman said Trump’s victory gave her “the last push she needed” to run.

“I think the silver lining in (Trump’s) election is that people like me, women like me … now the doors have opened for us,” said Rodman, a challenger to longtime GOP Del. John O’Bannon in Henrico County’s 73rd district just outside Richmond. O’Bannon won a 2000 special election and has run unopposed since 2009.

“Now there’s all this grass-roots support for nonpoliticians to enter the races and there’s excitement about everyday folks to be able to fully represent their communities,” said Rodman, winner of a four-way primary who also faces an independent.

Democratic candidates have committed to running in 88 of 100 districts as of midweek, according to House Democratic caucus spokeswoman Katie Baker. They are contesting 54 of 66 GOP-held seats, she said. Compare that with 2015, when they fielded candidates in 56 districts and contested only 28 of 67 GOP-held seats, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan political tracker.

Twenty districts will have a Democratic primary June 13, and four incumbents will face an intra-party challenger, including Toscano, who’s running against Ross Mittiga, a teacher and researcher at the University of Virginia. That’s more than in any year since at least 1999, according to the political tracker.

June primaries will narrow the field in many districts. Among those primaries, there are 15 in which Democrats are competing to take on a Republican incumbent. That’s happened only four other times in the past 10 years.

In one especially crowded primary, four Democrats are facing off for the chance to take on Del. Bob Marshall, a long-serving ultraconservative often at odds with his party’s leadership. He regularly sponsors bills with little chance of passage and this year offered legislation that would have generally prohibited individuals from using bathrooms in government-owned buildings that don’t match their gender at birth. Among those hoping to challenge Marshall is Danica Roem, a transgender woman. Democrats note Clinton beat Trump in 17 House districts currently held by Republicans, including O’Bannon’s. That’s the same number they would need to pick up to gain a majority without a tie-breaking lieutenant governor’s vote.

But observers say flipping that many districts is going to be difficult.

“Our state party takes very seriously each and every challenge,” said John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. He conceded some districts where Clinton won easily will “need special attention.” But he said the candidates Democrats have nominated are on the “fringe extreme,” and “have no message other than hating Donald Trump.”

And GOP House Majority Leader Kirk Cox said Republicans have a good record to run on, including passage of a balanced budget and pay raises for state workers.

Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said Democrats could take eight or 10 seats. But he expected the odds of getting many more than that are quite low.

“Incumbency advantage is a real thing,” said Kidd, who has been observing Virginia politics for almost 25 years.

Incumbents typically raise more campaign money and have relationships with businesses and other groups that largely fuel Virginia politics.

That isn’t stopping Kellen Squire, a 42-year-old emergency room nurse who’s challenging longtime GOP Del. Rob Bell in the solidly Republican-leaning 58th District in mostly rural areas outside of Charlottesville. First elected in 2001, Bell hasn’t faced a Democratic challenger since 2009 and has a significant fundraising lead.

“Certainly, I recognize the uphill climb. … But I felt pretty strongly that if you don’t run you can’t win. We need to be challenging folks everywhere,” Squire said.

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