Call it the President Donald Trump effect, writ local.
Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, has handily won re-election in the 68th District for years, but that hasn’t discouraged three Democrats from vying for a chance to challenge the incumbent this fall in a district made up of parts of Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties.
Each of the Democrats seeking their party’s nomination in a June 13 primary chalks up the protests and political activism inspired by Trump’s election as one of the reasons for making their first attempt at elected office.
“The most direct impetus is, of course, the election of Trump,” Ben Pearson-Nelson said.
“I knew after Trump I couldn’t turn away,” Mary Jo Sheeley said.
“I was shocked when Trump won the election, but I was even more inspired by the amount of activism it generated,” Dawn Marie Adams said.
A difference that emerges among the three Democrats is their approach to Dominion Energy’s money. Though none of the three Democrats has gotten donations from Dominion, Adams is the only one who signed a pledge not to take money from the power company.
For Adams, a state health official, the pledge was a way to encourage campaign-finance reform and push back against Dominion’s influence on the General Assembly.
“Dominion gives to any candidate – it really doesn’t matter what party they’re affiliated with,” Adams said. “I don’t begrudge Dominion making a profit but not on the back of public policy.”
Pearson-Nelson, an educator, and Sheeley, a former environmental lawyer for the state who retired from Dominion Energy, both expressed skepticism about pledges in general and took a more nuanced view of Dominion’s role in Virginia.
“I don’t plan on alienating anyone,” Sheeley said. “I can look Dominion in the eye. I can look environmental groups in the eye. I can look Republicans in the eye.”
Pearson-Nelson said running as an activist would turn a lot of people off.
“I’m representing the people of the 68th District,” Pearson-Nelson said. “I’m not representing an environmental group from NoVA.”
Adams doesn’t think the pledge stymies her ability to work with others across the political spectrum.
“I can build relationships with anyone,” Adams said. “Some of my largest donors are Republicans.”
Sheeley has the most cash contributions with $23,525, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Adams has raised $16,703 in cash contributions and Pearson-Nelson has $3,445.
Each Democrat is hoping to duplicate what Hillary Clinton did in November: turn the 68th District blue. That will be a challenge – particularly because Democrats typically turn out more voters during presidential elections than in off-year contests.
Geography marks another difference among the Democrats.
Adams and Sheeley live in Richmond. Pearson-Nelson lives in Chesterfield County, which he thinks positions him better to appeal to the county’s conservative voters. Half of the 68th District’s voters live in Chesterfield, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, while 43.67 percent live in Richmond and 5.78 percent live in Henrico.
“We need someone who can unlock Chesterfield,” Pearson-Nelson said. “The issues that really resonate in the city don’t resonate in Chesterfield.”
In order to beat Loupassi, whoever takes the primary would have to defy expectations in a manner similar to other political upsets of recent memory.
“This would be the time to knock him out,” Adams said of Loupassi. “This would be the time we could leverage the passion people have about what’s going on at the federal level.”
Loupassi, first elected to the House seat in 2007, doesn’t plan to tie his eventual campaign to national politics.
“It would be hard for someone to pigeonhole me as an ideologue,” he said. “I’m going to run on the job that I’ve done. I’ve got a pretty good rapport with the people that I represent.”