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With election stakes high, even local Virginia contests draw national attention

Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

LEESBURG, Va. -- The test of whether the nation's Democrats can turn enthusiasm into tangible victories rested on a pingpong table in the basement of a home in Leesburg, where breakfast sweets vied for space with scores of election packets that dozens of volunteers gathered to deliver to homes of potential voters.

The candidate the volunteers were there to support in a race for the commonwealth's lower legislative chamber was Wendy Gooditis, one of scores of first-timers drawn to the 2017 state races out of frustration over the presidential election and the conservative bent of Virginia's Republican-controlled Legislature.

While her campaign is decidedly local, it and others like it around the state carry weight: Virginia represents a nationally watched early test of whether Democrats can halt a series of ignoble defeats and craft a template for the 2018 congressional and gubernatorial elections.

The gathering on Saturday morning testified to the attention Tuesday's election has attracted: The volunteers came not only from Virginia but from New Hampshire, Ohio, Maryland, Texas and Tennessee. The state's attorney general, Mark Herring, and Dorothy McAuliffe, wife of the governor, rallied volunteers. As they scurried out a few minutes later with packets in hand, Gooditis, a former teacher and real estate agent, expressed confidence that victory would be found among the 70,000 doors on which her troops already had knocked.

"I think we can be the impetus for the rest of the country," she said. "Let's just get it done, and ultimately, you know, if we can change the culture in this country, then we will have an effect globally too.

"Not very grandiose," she added, laughing.

That can be forgiven here in Virginia, where people routinely remark on the spotlight that has fallen on their election.

"The eyes of the world are on us right here in Virginia, right now," the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, exclaimed Saturday afternoon at a volunteer meeting in Woodbridge, an hour to the south of Leesburg, for another first-time delegate candidate, Elizabeth Guzman. "Right now they are looking for a sign of hope ... in this political darkness."

So far, for Democrats, the tale of 2017 has been mixed. The party has won a string of off-year legislative contests that flew below the national radar, but failed in some high-profile races, most notably a congressional battle in the outskirts of Atlanta that, as in Virginia, drew millions in donations and an outpouring of volunteers.

As Tuesday's election neared, national Democrats were reviving their internal feud over the 2016 campaign, prompted by claims that former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile made in a new book in which she said Hillary Clinton negotiated an unfair advantage over her challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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