Virginia legislative elections test anti-Trump sentiment

Voters check in at a polling place in Harrisonburg on Election Day of 2019.
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginians are deciding Tuesday which party should control the statehouse in a widely watched contest that will test how voters feel about President Donald Trump and his possible impeachment.

The Old Dominion's legislative elections are serving as the marquee warmup for the 2020 election cycle as well as a referendum on the state's gun laws and abortion rights. Outside groups and political parties are test-driving expensive campaigns to win over and motivate voters in a state that was until recently considered a presidential battleground.

Of the four states holding legislative elections this year, Virginia is the only one with control of the statehouse up for grabs. Republicans have a slim majority in both the state House and Senate, but Virginia has been trending blue for years thanks to growth in more diverse, liberal suburbs and cities, and population declines in more rural, conservative areas.

Virginia elections Commissioner Christopher Piper said voting appeared to be going smoothly early Tuesday, despite a couple of hiccups. A problem with poll books in six precincts in Stafford County resulted in some voters receiving the wrong ballots. The problem was quickly remedied, but Piper said the wrong ballots that were cast cannot be reclaimed.

Meanwhile, one precinct in Richmond with two Senate district races briefly ran out of ballots, but Piper said 1,200 additional ballots were delivered within about 15 minutes.

Democrats are looking to take control of both the Executive Mansion and the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is not up for reelection Tuesday but has been actively campaigning for his party's candidates after bouncing back from a near politically fatal blackface scandal earlier this year.

Democrats are hoping voters send a message that the anti-Trump energy powering Northam's victory two years ago is still robust.

Gary Keener and wife Marthanne Huffines-Keener, of Glen Allen, a suburb just north of Richmond, said they voted Republican for years but have voted Democrat since the 2008 election of Former President Barack Obama. They said Trump definitely had a large presence in Virginia's election.

"We didn't want to make that our only reason for coming out," Keener said. "But he's a baboon. We do some traveling, and wherever we go, we're embarrassed."

Keener, 66, a self-employed goldsmith, said he doesn't know if impeachment is the answer.

"I have mixed feelings. I rue the day he was elected to office, although I don't think impeachment is always the way. I think when we get the chance to vote him out of office, that's the way to go," he said.

Virginia Republicans, who have generally tried to keep Trump at arm's distance, are hoping the specter of impeachment will motivate the GOP base to turn out in large numbers.

Trump supporter Cris Harris, 61, a police officer in Henrico County, said the impeachment inquiry has "liberal backing, with a news media that feeds off of it."

"If the media can talk bad about Trump, they certainly will, whether it's founded or not," Harris said.

The local stakes are huge. If Democrats take over, they likely will be able to pass an agenda that Republicans have blocked for years, including stricter gun laws and a higher minimum wage. They're also hoping to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, making Virginia the final state needed for possible passage of the gender equality measure.

Janet Ellis, 68, said she's a lifelong Republican who's fed up with Trump and voted Democratic down the line, but she made an exception for Republican Del. Tim Hugo, who is trying defend his spot as the last Republican representing Fairfax County, Virginia's most populous jurisdiction, in the General Assembly.

"I didn't want him to be a victim of Trump," she said. "I know the things he's done."

Hugo is being challenged by Democrat Dan Helmer, a Rhodes scholar who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tuesday's election could help determine which party rules for the next decade, as the winners will decide who controls the next redistricting process. A tea party-fueled wave in state legislatures — including Virginia's — a decade ago helped Republicans fortify their control of the U.S. House for years.

The federal courts recently redid Virginia's maps, saying Republicans illegally packed too many black voters into certain districts to make surrounding districts friendlier to Republicans. The new map is friendly to Democrats and has put two top Republicans — Speaker Kirk Cox and House Appropriations Chairman Del. Chris Jones — at greater risk of losing their seats.