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Democrats Win Big In Virginia As Voters Keep National Politics In Mind

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There has been a political sea change in Virginia. For the first time in more than two decades, Democrats control the state House and the governorship. Governor Ralph Northam is busy laying out a progressive agenda on voting rights, gun control and decriminalizing marijuana. But as Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF reports, many voters went to the polls thinking about national politics.

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: Mary Vause hustled for months leading up to this week's election. She made calls, delivered yard signs, all to get a Democratic state delegate elected. Three years ago, she wasn't involved in politics at all.

MARY VAUSE: I didn't know who my local and state elected officials were before Trump came to power.

NOE-PAYNE: Vause, a teacher, was motivated by Democratic promises of increased funding for public education. But, she adds, yesterday's election was larger than state politics.

VAUSE: People seem frustrated and saddened by what's going on with our president, and I do think that's motivating people to come out and participate more in their local and state elections.

NOE-PAYNE: Building on huge gains made in 2017, Democrats appear to have picked up eight seats in both state House chambers. A couple races may be headed for a recount. And in some precincts, turnout in the normally slow off-year elections rivaled that of 2017, when the governor was on the ballot.

At the polls in Richmond Tuesday, Emily Wagner voted for Democrats. She says she's frustrated with national politics. And for her, voting in local and state elections, like this year in Virginia, feels more significant.

EMILY WAGNER: National politics - it's hard to become personally connected to it because I know that my vote, in the end, doesn't matter as much as it does here. And the people that are going into office here are the ones that are going to effect change where I see it.

NOE-PAYNE: At a high school in a largely rural part of the state, Robert Clark and his wife cast their ballots near the end of the day Tuesday. When asked how he identifies politically, Clark has a one-word answer - Trump. It was national politics that drove him to the polls.

ROBERT CLARK: You can see what the Democrats in Congress are doing right now - nothing but trying to impeach Trump. And he's working every day trying to do something for the people.

NOE-PAYNE: Frank McDaniel agrees. He voted for Republican candidates here in Virginia and is frustrated with the ongoing impeachment inquiry in D.C. At an election night party, McDaniel was disappointed by Tuesday's results, but not necessarily surprised. Even though his neighbors vote Republican, he knows Democratic votes are increasingly coming from cities and their suburbs.

FRANK MCDANIEL: Well, let's face it. Virginia looks a whole lot like the United States - 85% red, 15% blue. But the 15% blue has more people in it than the other 85%. That's about the way it looks. Thank God for the Electoral College.

NOE-PAYNE: Now, he says, it's time for him and fellow Republicans to look forward to 2020.

For NPR News, I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.