Earlier tonight, Democratic candidate Ibraheem Samirah successfully defeated his Republican challenger, Gregg Nelson, in a closely-watched special election for an open seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates. With all precincts reporting, Samirah won 59.5% of the vote to Nelson’s 34.4%, with a conservative independent drawing off 5.9%.
Although Samirah prevailed by 25 points, his finish tonight was substantially weaker than other Democratic candidates who have run in recent years, lagging behind by double digits.
Analysts say the result could spell trouble for Democrats in the fall, as the party continues to struggle with scandal and controversy.
From the outset, the district was not considered competitive. In the 2017 gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by 37 points, finishing with 68% of the vote to his GOP challenger’s 31%. Likewise, the district favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 35 points.
Samirah also benefitted from a substantial fundraising advantage, pulling in $87,529.85 to his opponent’s $20,369.49, reflecting Republican expectations in a solidly-blue district.
Despite tonight’s expected Democratic win, observers have pointed to a chaotic chain of events in Richmond as being responsible for the party’s woes.
Weeks ago, Richmond became embroiled in controversy when Delegate Kathy Tran’s (D-Springfield) failed third trimester abortion bill, similar to one passed in New York, drew nationwide outrage and condemnation after a video of her subcommittee testimony went viral, generating a tsunami of negative media coverage and reactions which reached all the way to the White House.
While addressing the controversy in a radio interview, Governor Northam added fuel to the fire when he made comments which Republicans condemned as advocating for “infanticide.”
“So, in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” Northam said. “The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
The comments provoked widespread outrage, prompting a former classmate of the governor’s to tip the media to a racist photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page, featuring a man in blackface standing next to another person dressed in full Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam initially admitted to appearing in the photo, before walking back his comments the next day and denying that he appeared in it.
As Democratic leaders began lining up to call for Northam’s immediate resignation, an allegation of sexual assault surfaced against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would have become governor in the event of Northam’s resignation. Dr. Vanessa Tyson, who claims Fairfax sexually assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, came forward with her story, claiming the fellow Democrat was unfit to serve as governor.
Fairfax strongly denied the accusation, then suggested that fellow Democrats leaked the story just prior to Tyson coming forward, claiming the move was intended to reduce pressure on Northam to resign, at his expense.
Within days, a second woman accused Fairfax of raping her at a Duke University fraternity party in 2000, where both of them were students. Shortly thereafter, rumors of a blackface photo featuring Attorney General Mark Herring began to circulate, leading him to admit the racial transgression in a statement to the press.
Samirah also faced scandal of his own when anti-Semitic statements surfaced from his past.
In an old Facebook post, Samirah said that sending money to Israel was worse than giving it to the Ku Klux Klan. He also accused Israelis of murder, and wished that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would burn in Hell “a million times for every innocent soul you killed.”
Samirah also praised the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which has been criticized as anti-Semitic.
The cycle of controversy and scandal gripping Virginia Democrats appears to have taken its toll, leading to tonight’s double-digit underperformance.
The result has Democrats worried.
“Here’s a stat to make everyone scream,” tweeted veteran Democratic consultant Ben Tribbett. “If tonight’s percentage change from 2015 held up in each district this Nov- Dems would lose 13 House seats under old lines (new House 64R-36D), 11 House seats under new lines (new House 62R-38D), but would pick up 1 in Senate, taking control”
The results also worried Democratic analyst Chaz Nuttycombe, who wrote, “If I were @EFillerCorn, I’d be getting a primary set up against Samirah.”
Despite winning tonight’s special election, the seat will also be on the ballot in the fall.
“Certainly looks like Dem turnout took a big hit, which would seem to be the most likely outcome of the Northam / Fairfax mess,” added DC-based consultant Richard Skinner. “I imagine Samirah’s problems didn’t help.”
The 86th House District was formerly represented by Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon), who won election to the Senate of Virginia earlier this year, succeeding Jennifer Wexton after her election to the US House of Representatives last November.
The district was represented by the GOP as recently as 2015, when moderate Republican Tom Rust announced his retirement. Since then, it has trended solidly Democratic.