In 2017, all eyes were on Virginia. The Commonwealth was one of only two states holding statewide elections this year. The state’s governorship, lieutenant governorship, attorney general post and all 100 seats in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates were up for reelection. Virginia Republicans had created a highly gerrymandered map that gave Democrats an uphill battle in gaining seats in both chambers. Going into the November 2017 general election, Republicans controlled 66 seats in the House of Delegates. Democrats needed to regain 17 seats to take it back. No one predicted that Democrats would flip very many seats due to the partisan districts on the legislative map. Fortunately, this would prove to be untrue.
Democrats managed to flip an unbelievable 15 Republican-held seats. What’s more, of the 18 Emerge Virginia-trained candidates who made it to the general election, 11 were elected to the House of Delegates—nine newcomers and two incumbents. In addition, the nine Emerge-trained challengers flipped seats that were previously held by Republican men. In fact, 11 of the 15 seats flipped by Democrats are women. Right now, a tenth Emerge alumna, Shelly Simonds, is within 10 votes of her opponent and is undergoing a recount. If Democrats mange to flip this seat, the House of Delegates would be tied. Two other races are also undergoing a recount, leaving who will control the House of Delegates in flux. The newly-elected Emerge alums are also greatly enhancing the diversity of the Virginia House of Delegates. They include the first out transgender woman ever elected to a state legislature, the first Latinas in the House of Delegates, the first out lesbian in the House of Delegates and one of the first Asian American women in the House of Delegates.
So, how did we help make this happen? Emerge America, the organization I founded in 2005 to recruit, train and provide a powerful network to Democratic women, and our affiliate, Emerge Virginia, recognized early the potential for women to make great gains in the Virginia House of Delegates this year. Our organization’s state-based affiliate model means that there is dedicated staff, who lives in each of the 23 states where we have an affiliate. Our staffers in each state are dialed into local politics and can identify seats where there is potential for a Democratic pick up and recruit a woman to run in that seat. And while our signature program is six months and 70 hours of training, because we have a proven training model, it’s easy for us to quickly condense it and offer current candidates exactly the type of training they need for their campaigns.
This year, Emerge Virginia’s Executive Director, Julie Copeland, who is a respected expert in Virginia politics, realized quickly she needed to mobilize and offer an in-depth, three-day boot camp for the unprecedented number of women who were galvanized by the Trump victory to run for the House of Delegates. On top of that, Emerge Virginia’s familiarity with each of the House of Delegates’ districts and deep ties into communities across the state allowed the organization to quickly and effectively recruit Democratic women to run in Districts where there wasn’t already a challenger. The boot camp was scheduled in January and held in February.
Throughout the election season, Emerge Virginia offered support and advice to many of the now newly-elected House of Delegates members. Our executive director even connected some of them to their campaign managers. Emerge America hosted a conference call for donors to meet and hear from the Emerge Virginia candidates. We hosted a fundraising training for Stanford MBA women who organized themselves and wanted to raise money for Emerge Virginia alumnae running for the House of Delegates. We also made videos for social media highlighting the Virginia candidates and did a Twitter Town Hall with them.