Virginia Republicans have not won a statewide election in more than a decade.
In a June primary, three GOP hopefuls, all rookies in Virginia politics, are seeking a chance to break that drought by defeating Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in November. There's a big, added challenge for candidates without statewide name recognition - campaigning amid COVID-19, which has killed more than 1,000 Virginians, according to state data.
The candidates have exchanged living room meetings with prospective voters for Zoom sessions, in-person events for live Q&As on Facebook and door knocking for phone calls in their bid to unseat Warner, a former governor who was first elected to the Senate in 2008.
Not since Bob McDonnell was elected to the executive mansion in 2009, leading a GOP sweep for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, has a Republican carried the state. That’s the same year that Sen. John Warner, the last Republican to represent Virginia in the U.S. Senate, completed his 30-year tenure.
"We have three incredible candidates to take on Mark Warner this year," Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson said recently. "Any one of them would be better than our current hyper-partisan, Virginia-last senator."
Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, narrowly edged Republican Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, in the 2014 mid-term election. This year Warner has bigger advantages in name recognition and fundraising, as well as a presidential year voter turnout that ordinarily benefits Democrats in Virginia. Democrats have made gains in Virginia in each election since President Donald Trump's election in 2016.
Appearing on the primary ballot to decide his challenger will be Nottoway County civics teacher Alissa Baldwin of Victoria in Lunenberg County, American University professor Daniel Gade of Alexandria, and Army reservist Thomas Speciale, a Woodbridge resident.
A fourth candidate, former Georgetown University basketball player Omari Faulkner, did not qualify after not garnering enough signatures, despite his successful lawsuit against the state Elections Department to lower the signature threshold from 10,000 to 3,500 because of COVID-19.
Gade has raised more than five times as much money ($488,499) as Speciale ($80,346) and Baldwin ($7,812) combined, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
That’s still far below what Warner has raised, with the incumbent bringing in a little more than $9 million so far, according to VPAP.
Gov. Ralph Northam pushed the date of the primary from June 9 to June 23 because of COVID-19. State and local officials have encouraged voters to cast absentee ballots to prevent large crowds, which remain banned under the governor’s stay-at-home order, at the polls.
With about a month until the primary, here’s a look at the three Republicans looking to end the GOP's statewide dry spell.
Civics teacher looks to restore ‘We the People’
Alissa Baldwin never envisioned becoming a teacher.
She wanted to be a lawyer since the second grade, aligning her dreams and actions with what she felt would result in acceptance to law school. During her senior year at the University of Richmond, however, she got rejected.
“I was very intentional so everything would build me up for pre-law and serving others through supporting the judicial branch of government and the legal system,” she said. “To have that kind of setback became an opportunity to rise above an obstacle. It set me on a very different path.”
Baldwin stayed in the Richmond region, working as a paralegal and law firm administrator before getting burned out from work. Unsure of what to do next, she got an unsolicited job offer from Lunenburg County Public Schools in Southside Virginia where she grew up.
She accepted the job to teach history at Central High School, with her first day of work coming on the first day of school.
“I issued (the students) a textbook and then I issued myself a textbook,” Baldwin said.
Sixteen years later, Baldwin, 41, remains in the classroom, now teaching middle school civics in nearby Nottoway County. She gives her students a pocket Constitution at the end of the school year, highlighting her favorite words in the founding document's preamble: “We the People.”
Those words have inspired her run for U.S. Senate.
“We’ve lost sight of that with having so many career politicians,” she said. “For me, entering this race is about a return to our roots. Our Constitution of then is still our great Constitution of today.”
Baldwin, who was born in Prince William County before her parents moved the family to southern Virginia, said she hopes to expand school choice, limit access to abortions and make health care more affordable, among other issues.
“I’m the person to bring us forward because I am so different,” she said. “I’m not focused as much on the party as I am the principles we believe in.”
If elected, Baldwin would be the first female U.S. senator from Virginia.
Army veteran sees bid as extension of service
As Daniel Gade bled out in 2005 after being wounded in combat for the second time, a call went out in the mess hall of the U.S. Navy ship where he was being treated: If anyone had A-positive blood, they needed it.
Gade’s injuries, the result of an explosion in Iraq as Gade rode in a Humvee, had already exhausted the medical unit’s blood supply. Without hesitation, 25 sailors and Marines answered the call and donated.
“I have the blood of heroes in my veins,” says Gade, whose right leg was amputated. “That blood saved my life.”
“The people who saved my life taught me and hopefully everybody else an important lesson that day, which is that, when we have a hard problem to solve, like one of our friends is bleeding to death, we ought to come together to solve the problem, even if we have things that divide us.”
Gade wants to unify the Republican Party and he sees his run as an extension of his more than two decades of military service.
“As a soldier for 25 years, I was supporting and defending the Constitution. That’s the oath a soldier takes,” Gade said. “The oath that a senator takes is the same oath. I feel as though our political class, not just Mark Warner, but many, many others, have failed in their oath to support and defend the Constitution and it’s time to return to a system in which the Constitution is respected.”
The 45-year-old grew up in North Dakota before attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. His military service earned him two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star.
Even after the second combat injury, Gade declined to be discharged from the military. Instead he served in the Bush and Trump administrations, focusing on helping veterans get jobs. In 2017 he retired from the Army and now teaches at American University, living in Alexandria with his wife and three children.
Gade said key issues for his campaign are limiting the size of government, maintaining a strong national defense and protecting individual rights, including the Second Amendment.
Gade, who has received the endorsement of several state senators, said that if he is elected his first bill would be the Stop Insider Trading (SIT) Act. The bill would require members of Congress to put their investments in a blind trust and forbid them from using for personal benefit information they receive because they’re in Congress.
“They’re supposed to be there serving and instead they begin to act like hogs at a trough,” he said. “It’s got to stop.”
The issue has gained more prominence in recent months after several members of Congress, including Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., sold stocks before the coronavirus epidemic spread in the U.S.
Army reservist hopes to fight gun control
Thomas Speciale remembers driving to work in June 2016, the day after a gunman in Orlando, Fla., killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside a gay nightclub. He listened as Democrats called for more gun control and felt a “grip of fear and that they were right.”
That didn’t last long.
“Then I remembered that that’s a lie,” he said. “We do not have a gun violence problem. We have a mental health problem.”
Speciale, who runs a small gun safety training company, attended January’s mass rally in Richmond in support of gun rights. He was one of the 16,000 people who stayed outside Capitol Square, where an estimated 6,000 more had gathered, because he didn’t want to give up his ability to carry a gun. (Gov. Ralph Northam banned guns inside Capitol Square during the rally, citing safety threats.)
As a candidate Speciale has vowed to work to abolish and remove current gun laws, upset over what he describes as “a socialist agenda to disenfranchise people from their liberty.”
“Our Constitution is being dismantled right before our very eyes,” he said. “If you take away guns, there’s no way to stop the government from controlling your life because the Second Amendment protects our liberty.”
He also wants to reform the immigration and criminal justice systems, and promote school choice.
Speciale, 51, entered the military in 1987, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers. The Illinois State University alumnus is a chief warrant officer in the Army Reserves. He's married and has three children and one step-son. His oldest son serves in the U.S. Navy.
He hopes to parlay the activism around gun rights and gun control – Democrats passed seven of the eight gun control measures Northam proposed this session – into a primary victory and an upset election over Warner.
“For me it’s been a lifelong fight to protect our country and to protect our allies abroad and those who love liberty and freedom from tyranny and oppression,” he said.