On November 8, 2020, the day after the major news networks called the election for Joe Biden, 350 supporters of Donald Trump gathered in Purcellville, Virginia, a town of 9,000 people one hour northwest of Washington, DC, to protest the results.
“The national news media, they can make projections about the election, but they don’t elect the president,” declared Geary Higgins, a former GOP member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors who served as chairman of Virginia’s 10th congressional district Republican committee. He warned ominously, “If we can’t have free and fair elections in this country, where people have faith in the system, then we’re not going to have a peaceful transition of power.”
The “Stop the Steal” rally was among the first of its kind in the nation. It was the beginning of an unprecedented anti-democratic movement that would culminate, two months later, in the insurrection at the Capitol. The event was attended by members of the Oath Keepers, the militia group that would play a key role in the January 6 assault.
In addition to Higgins, the lineup of speakers included Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Thomas Edward Caldwell, another member of the far-right organization. Rhodes has been sentenced to 18 years for engaging in a “seditious conspiracy” against the United States government and Caldwell is facing a fourteen-year sentence for supplying “firearms, ammunition and related items” to the Oath Keepers’ Quick Response Team stationed outside the Capitol. But Higgins, meanwhile, is seeking a big promotion.
He’s the GOP nominee for the Virginia legislature in a key swing district, House District 30, that runs from the exurbs of Washington, D.C. to the rolling hills and small towns of western Loudoun County. The race, in a district that leans Republican but is expected to be competitive, will help decide which party controls the Virginia legislature, where every member of the state House and Senate are up for election this November.
Higgins’ candidacy shows how the “Stop the Steal” movement has gone from protesting election outcomes to trying to seize control of the election system in the wake of the assault on the Capitol, attempting to institutionalize the goals of the insurrection through other means. At least three separate GOP Virginia legislative candidates were in Washington D.C. on January 6th for the “Stop the Steal” rally preceding the insurrection, and over 25 candidates have sought to question or challenge the results of the 2020 election, according to research provided by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC).
Currently Republicans have a four-seat majority in the Virginia house while Democrats are clinging to a two-seat majority in the state senate. Both chambers are considered toss-ups. Under the new legislative maps drawn by a court-appointed special master, Biden carried a majority of the districts in 2020, but so too did Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin a year later. These Biden-Youngkin districts, which include HD-30, will likely determine which party wins a majority in November.
Divided government has prevented Youngkin, who won a surprise victory in 2021 by emphasizing culture war issues like attacking Critical Race Theory, from enacting a sweeping conservative agenda. But if Republicans capture the legislature and take full control of state government for the first time since 2013, they will be able to put in place harsh limits on ballot access and other measures to limit democracy, following the blueprint adopted by Republicans in other states.
“If these legislative elections go wrong, Virginia could well become Texas, Florida, or Ohio at the vanguard of undermining democracy,” says Daniel Squadron, co-founder of the States Project, which works to elect Democratic state legislative candidates and has invested $4.5 million in Virginia this year. “Virginia is a moderate state on the knife’s edge of an extreme agenda.”
The Democratic nominee in HD-30, Robert Banse, a retired Episcopal minister, says Higgins’ involvement in the “Stop the Steal” protests (he attended at least two such rallies but was not present at the Capitol on January 6) should disqualify him from holding office. “I personally believe that anybody involved in the run-up to January 6 contributed to what was a very real attempt to overthrow the Constitution and the legitimate government of this country,” Banse says. “I would never want anybody representing me, in any level of government, who I knew was involved in that activity and in that process.” (Higgins did not reply to a request for comment.)
Beyond seeking the power to overturn election outcomes, Republicans want to restrict the right to vote in other ways, too. Democrats dramatically expanded voting access when they controlled the Commonwealth State in 2020 and 2021, but Republicans have sought to aggressively curtail or eliminate the state’s pro-voting reforms. Earlier this year, every Republican member of the state house voted to shorten the state’s early voting period, ban absentee ballot drop boxes, eliminate automatic and Election Day registration, reinstate a strict voter ID law, and increase purges of the voter rolls. According to the DLCC, “of the 116 Republicans running this year in Virginia, over 80 candidates either supported or indicated their support for anti-democracy legislation that would restrict access to voting, have opposed measures to expand voting, or spread conspiracy theories around election fraud and January 6th.”
Cleta Mitchell, a Trump lawyer who helped spearhead efforts to overturn the 2020 election, told GOP donors in April that if Republicans won back control of the Virginia legislature, they could “get rid of same-day [voter] registration” and “45 days of early voting.” Curtailing these policies would have a disproportionate impact on Democratic turnout and help entrench the GOP’s power.
“Our democracy is on the line in these legislative elections,” says Heather Williams, interim president of the DLCC. “The stakes could not be higher. Defending our democracy starts in Virginia.”
The Virginia elections have national ramifications as well. Youngkin, a former private equity executive, has raised more than $15 million this year for his political action committee and has barnstormed the state supporting GOP legislative candidates. If Republicans win a majority in Virginia, Youngkin could use it as a springboard to national office, as anti-Trump Republicans attempt to lure him into the GOP presidential race.
Youngkin has used his power as governor to help his party by making it harder for Democratic-aligned constituencies to cast a ballot.
In March, he announced that he was rescinding his Democratic predecessors’ policy of automatically restoring voting rights to people with past felony convictions. That made Virginia the only state in the country where the governor has the sole power to determine whether ex-felons, who are disproportionately Black, regain their right to vote.
“We are back to 1902-era policy,” Democratic state Senator Scott Surovell tweeted after the announcement, referring to the state’s post-Reconstruction constitution that was intended to disenfranchise Black voters.
The state’s past two Democratic governors, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, respectively restored voting rights to 170,000 and 126,000 people while in office. Youngkin restored the rights of only 5,000 people last year, according to Bolts magazine.
Youngkin’s decision has impacted voting rights in other ways. At the end of 2022, his administration removed 10,000 felons who the state’s Department of Elections claimed were wrongly on the voting rolls. But it turns out that at least 270 of them were incorrectly listed as convicted felons. The state’s Democratic US senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, have asked the Justice Department to investigate. “These new reports are alarming, especially with a consequential election already underway in Virginia,” they wrote in a recent letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
That’s not at all. Youngkin’s election handed Republicans the power to control a majority on county election boards across the state. Stop the Steal activists have aggressively recruited skeptics of the 2020 election to fill those positions, in addition to serving as poll watchers and election officials. They call their efforts “The Virginia Model.”
According to the New York Times, at least 10 counties in Virginia have canceled Sunday voting, when Black churches traditionally hold “Souls to the Polls” voter mobilization drives; four of these counties have predominantly Black populations and include major cities like Richmond and Virginia Beach.
Youngkin’s victory also gave Republicans a majority on the state board of elections, which certifies the outcome of presidential elections. Squadron warns that the governor and the legislature could work together to reverse the state’s Electoral College votes if a Democrat wins. “If there’s a trifecta for Youngkin in Virginia, it puts their 13 electoral votes at risk, because both chambers of the legislature and Youngkin could pursue any number of shenanigans around the presidential election,” he says.
A Republican takeover in Virginia could also have more immediate consequences.
One of the biggest issues in the campaign is abortion. Virginia is the only Southern state that has not enacted new restrictions on reproductive rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but Youngkin has pledged to sign a 15-week abortion ban if Republicans take over the legislature. Higgins supports that policy.
“When it relates to freedoms, the one I’m hearing about first and foremost are the reproductive rights of women,” says Banse. “And the vast majority of people I’ve talked to say that that right must be defended and protected.”
During the 2022 midterms and in special elections in Wisconsin and Ohio this year, Democrats were successful in defending reproductive rights by connecting the GOP effort to enact new abortion bans to broader attempts by Republicans to undermine the democratic process and limit core freedoms.
In that way, abortion and voting rights aren’t two separate issues, but one and the same.
“The fight here is for rights,” Squadron says. “The right to personal health care decisions, the right to having a vote that matters, the right to participate in a pluralistic democracy. It’s no coincidence that the super-minority mob in the US House, Glenn Youngkin, and his legislative allies take the same position on all of these issues.”
Banse, Higgins’ opponent, said a Republican takeover of the state was “a very scary proposition.” It would “permit the Younkin administration to basically run the table on issues that are of great concern to all of us, and that would include voting rights, reproductive rights, and just freedoms in general in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Top illustration: imageSPACE/Zuma; Renee Enna/TNS/Zuma; Stephen M. Katz/TNS/Zuma; Jack Kurtz/Zuma