For Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, Tuesday evening had a predetermined outcome. Running unopposed in an overwhelmingly blue city during this election cycle, the lawmaker pocketed his 12,553 votes and called it a night.
But even after his certain victory and a Democratic sweep, Rasoul now faces a new reality: When Virginia’s General Assembly reconvenes in January, he will be the legislature’s only remaining Democratic lawmaker from west of the Blue Ridge.
Rasoul, however, remains unbothered by his new reality. “Certainly things have changed over the years, but we enjoy being able to work in a bipartisan way to work for the region,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s clear that as a party, we have a lot more work to do to be able to do outreach into the western part of the state.”
The Democratic Party’s struggle to field candidates in Southwest and Southside leaves hundreds of thousands of rural voters who want a choice without representation on the ballot, and it has added to the frustration that many Democrats there have been feeling about being written off by the party’s leadership.
On Tuesday, a total of seven Democrats were on the ballot in the 10 state Senate districts in these areas. Only one was victorious — state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who had moved eastward from Bath County to Charlottesville to run in the newly created Senate District 11, which also includes Albemarle, Amherst and Nelson counties, and parts of Louisa County.
In Senate District 4, another district created for a new legislative map approved by the Virginia Supreme Court two years ago, Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, defeated his Democratic challenger, Roanoke City Council member Trish White-Boyd.
Both candidates were vying to succeed Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who announced in February that he would retire at the end of the year after he and Suetterlein were drawn into the same new district, which covers Roanoke, Salem, most of Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County.
And in the House of Delegates elections, just 11 Democrats were on the ballot in the 20 districts in Southwest and Southside, leaving nine races uncontested.
While Rasoul was the only one who emerged victorious, he said in the interview that Democrats have a reason to be excited by races like Lily Franklin’s in the newly created House District 41. Franklin, Rasoul’s former chief of staff, appears to have lost to Republican Chris Obenshain, but by just 943 out of 23,759 total votes cast — a margin of 4%. Provisional and late mail-in ballots are still being counted.
“That race showed that if you have the right type of investment and energy, you can take some of these districts that people thought weren’t winnable at first and make them competitive,” Rasoul said. “We want to continue to make that case that the Democratic Party can and should be a party for all Virginians.”
David Richards, a political analyst and chair of the political science program at the University of Lynchburg, said that there were “other bright spots” for Democrats in the rural Southwest, such as in Senate District 3, which includes Alleghany, Botetourt, Craig and Rockbridge counties, parts of Augusta, Bedford and Roanoke counties, and the cities of Buena Vista, Covington, Lexington, Staunton and Waynesboro.
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, won the district 68% to 32%. But Democrat Jade Harris “held her own, getting about a third of the vote in a heavily Republican district and with very little cash to spend,” Richards said. “Chris Head raised almost 10 times as much as Harris did, but she put on a very energetic campaign.”
But in other races Democratic candidates were less visible, Richards said, naming House District 53, which includes Amherst County and parts of Bedford and Nelson counties, where Republican Tim Griffin defeated Democrat Sam Soghor 73% to 36%.
“You had a GOP candidate who was running under a cloud of suspicion from day one about his actual residency,” Richards said, referring to an ongoing controversy around allegations that Griffin may not live there.
“Sam Soghor seems to have taken the high road by not trying to leverage that issue. But in doing so, he seems to have starved his campaign of much media coverage as well,” Richards said.
And overall, it still feels like “Democrats have given up” on Southwest and Southside Virginia, Richard concluded.
“The fact remains that the majority of voters in this area identify as Republican, and I am sure that there is little desire to spend a lot of time and money in what is a hopeless case. But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — low-effort campaigns yield low voter turnout, and the Democrats are seen as a minor party in the region.”
Despite being surrounded by heavily Republican localities, Rasoul said that when looking ahead to the 2024 legislative session, he will continue to work across the aisle to secure funding for education and mental health priorities, which he doesn’t view as partisan issues.
“I always like to differentiate between ideology and process,” Rasoul said in the interview. “On some things I’m pretty progressive, and on other things I might be more moderate or Libertarian leaning. But I’ve always separated my ideology from I’m ready to work with anyone who wants to help Virginia. I have always given people the benefit of a doubt in that, and that’s been very important to me in my public service.”
In an ironic twist, after this week’s Democratic takeover of the legislature, Gov. Glenn Youngkin finds himself in a similarly isolated position as Rasoul.
Talking to reporters in Richmond’s Capitol Square on Wednesday, Youngkin said that working together across party lines has always been the Virginia way.
“What voters said yesterday, broadly across the board, is that Virginia is a purple state, and every one of these races that was in the crosshairs was decided on a razor’s edge, and that’s expected. We have found a way to come together around education, around supporting law enforcement, and around transforming behavioral health. These are areas that I know we can continue to work on together,” Youngkin said. “It requires all of us, both houses and the governor. And I’m here, I’m not going anywhere.”