Polls across Virginia opened at 6 a.m. Tuesday and voters began casting ballots in what could be the most consequential legislative election in a generation, with control of the state government at stake.
Both national parties are closely watching the outcome in Virginia, the only state in which the legislature could change hands, for clues about the 2020 presidential contest. An unprecedented amount of cash has flooded the commonwealth, which has no limits on campaign donations.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot, but much of the battle is focused on suburban districts in northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
Republicans are defending thin majorities of 20 to 19 in the state Senate and 51 to 48 in the House of Delegates, with one vacancy in each chamber. If Democrats can take control, they could consolidate power for the first time in 26 years and work with Gov. Ralph Northam to pass measures long blocked by Republicans.
Those include gun control, protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, a higher minimum wage and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. As the only former Confederate state that backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and with its urban and suburban areas becoming increasingly diverse, Virginia is viewed by Democrats as an important place to plant the flag against President Donald Trump's Republican Party.
What's more, the party that controls the General Assembly will oversee redistricting after next year's census - influencing politics for a decade to come.
Voters will also decide a host of local races, electing successors to outgoing Board of Supervisors Chairmen Sharon Bulova, D-Fairfax, and Corey Stewart, R-Prince William, among others; choosing supervisors, prosecutors, schools board members and sheriffs across the state; and endorsing or rejecting millions in bond issues for schools, transportation and public safety projects.
In the state legislative races, expectations are so high that coming up short of a majority in either chamber would raise questions about the Democratic Party's fitness to take on Trump in 2020.
On Tuesday at one of Fairfax County's reddest precincts, Gary Tvrdik carefully pinned a small American flag to the lapel of his gray coat, something he does every Election Day. A few miles away, John Grimsley rolled out of bed earlier than usual, fingered his wooden cross necklace and decided to skip breakfast.
The two men - both white Republican residents of Virginia's 40th Congressional District - couldn't wait to march into the Clifton Community Center and vote for Del. Tim Hugo, the last Republican lawmaker left in the Virginia suburbs closest to Washington. Both men said they had the same mission. Both said it was urgent.
"Top issue in this race?" said Tvrdik, who is in his 50s and works in construction management. "My top issue is voting out the 'do nothing' Dems. They're unhinged, they're lying, they're cheating, it's unbelievable."
Tvrdik started to head into the voting station, before turning back to throw over his shoulder: "Oh, and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi drives me nuts. Nuts!"
Grimsley, 78, a retired moving services worker who served in the Air Force, said his Christian faith makes him a Republican by default. He said he can't stomach what he called liberals' dangerous ideas about abortion, or school board policies that allow students to choose their sex. He said he wasn't sure where Hugo stands on those issues but is trusting "generally" that the candidate would behave like a good conservative in office. Hugo is facing a tough race against Democrat Dan Helmer.
"Partly, it's that I don't like the guy he's running against," Grimsley said. "I've got 12 signs in my yard: one for every Republican I'm voting for today."
Lifelong Republican Travis White and lifelong Democrat David Shonka may not agree on much, from a political standpoint, except for their dislike of Trump.
White, an 81-year-old Army veteran, said he is "very much against" what he calls the "Trump attitude." It's a pattern of behavior, in White's view, defined by broken promises and blatant lies: "He's going to lie, every time," White said.
Shonka, a 78-year-old lawyer, expressed equal disdain. He said Trump's behavior alone was a sufficient reason to vote a "straight Democratic ticket" Tuesday morning.
"It really begins at the top, then it flows into the Senate, then it flows into the House, and then - yes - to issues at a more local level," Shonka said. "The Republicans have lost the right to govern."
Not so much for White.
"No, I'm going to vote kind of mixed," he said.
Miles away at Langley High School, residents showed up to vote in a bluer precinct.
Anita LaSalle, 77, said she and her husband "tend to be liberal," but are worried about overdevelopment in Fairfax County. They said they're concerned about the seemingly ever-increasing amount of traffic on Route 123 and that some parents in the neighborhood can't let their children wait for the school bus because sidewalks haven't been built.
LaSalle, a retired federal employee and professor, said she was also astounded by the poor planning of Tysons.
"They built a city with no roads," she said after casting her ballot. "It's unmanageable."
But LaSalle said that she was generally happy with local leaders and decided to vote for Democrats up and down the ballot, including Jeff McKay for chairman of the Fairfax County Board. She said she used to split her vote between Republicans and Democrats, but in recent years started backing mostly Democrats because she thought the Republican Party was becoming more conservative at the national and local levels.
"Their views are just antiquated," she said.
McLean resident Richard Stark, 71, who is retired, said he voted straight Democratic because he thinks the Republican Party has "abandoned the principles for which it stood when I was growing up."
Stark, who described himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, said he thinks changes in the national Republican Party have trickled down to the local level.
Glory Fox Dierker, 73, said she voted for Democrats up and down the ballot. Dierker, who described herself as "a lifelong hippie," said she voted for Jeff McKay for chairman of the Fairfax County board and was unconcerned about allegations that he got a sweetheart deal on his family's house.
"I don't think Republicans have any place talking about quid pro quos," she said.
Tim Nied, of McLean, said that Fairfax County is "doing okay" but that he wants to see more improvements to infrastructure, especially when it comes to alleviating traffic. Nied, 39, said he voted for McKay and Democrats up and down the ballot but doesn't follow local politics as much as national politics.
"Next year is the big election," he said. "But it's important to get out and vote for your local representatives."
In Virginia Beach, Susan and George Okaty said they voted for Missy Cotter Smasal, rather than Republican William R. DeSteph Jr., and wanted to send a message to Trump.
"What's happening in Washington really swayed the way I voted," said George Okaty, 69, a retired security director for a community college.
"We have gone from a swamp to a cesspool with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. I feel that on a state level we can make a difference by supporting candidates that are for United States."
Susan Okaty, 70, a retired middle school administrator, said, "Trump will eventually go away, but what we're really worried about is the country has really changed. There's no Republican Party anymore like it used to be. Once he's gone, if we still have the same attitudes."
She said they were shocked by how people no longer seem swayed by the facts.
The Okatys said they were drawn to Smasal for her stand on the environment and guns.
"She's willing to talk about gun control and not give lip service." George Okaty said.
At the Norfolk Christian Lower School, Gregory Jepson, a 48-year-old Defense Department employee, cast his vote. He said Smasal made herself "the worst candidate" with ads that included the Virginia Beach mass shooting.
"Her take was over the top," he said.
As a Republican, Jepson said, DeSteph is "a brand name around here." He said the gun issue wasn't a deciding factor.
"I do own a gun. But I'm not pro, pro, I need all the guns in the world. I'm a Second Amendment fan. Don't take my stuff away."
GOP candidates warned during campaigning that progressive Democrats are out of step with traditional Virginia values and will ruin the state's business-friendly climate. Many suburban Republican candidates have attempted a difficult balancing act, posing almost like centrist Democrats for much of the summer - including blue campaign signs and literature that emphasized gun safety and health care without mentioning party affiliation - but lashing out against "socialists" and abortionists in the final weeks.
Tuesday's elections will end a political year that has obliterated quaint notions of a "Virginia Way" of bipartisan civility.
Democrats entered 2019 with tremendous momentum after making big gains in contests for the House of Delegates and Congress. After a federal court ruled that several of the state's House districts had been racially gerrymandered, judges approved a new electoral map that redrew 26 districts - boosting Democrats' chances by shifting six Republicans into blue-leaning territory.
In late January, though, Democratic legislators and Northam made clumsy comments defending a bill that would have loosened restrictions on late-term abortion. Conservatives nationwide erupted with charges of infanticide - something Northam, a pediatric neurologist, called "disgusting."
Days later, a racist photo surfaced from Northam's 1984 medical school yearbook page, depicting one person in blackface and another in Klan robes. Northam initially took responsibility for the photo and many members of his own party called on him to resign.
But he quickly disavowed the photo, although he admitted darkening his face for a dance contest later that same year, and refused to step down.
Within days, the state's two other top Democrats were also mired in scandal: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused by two women of separate sexual assaults in the early 2000s, both of which he denies; and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he, too, had darkened his face for a party in college in 1980.
Republicans aimed to depict Democrats as chaotic, scandal-ridden baby killers, and themselves as pragmatic centrists.
On May 31, tragedy disrupted state politics when a gunman killed 12 in Virginia Beach. Amid a public outcry for action, Democrats rallied around Northam, who summoned the General Assembly to a special legislative session in July to consider gun restrictions.
Republicans who control the legislature accused Democrats of cynical politics, and adjourned the session after 90 minutes without debating a single bill. Instead, they referred all legislation to a state crime commission.
That was a risky move for Republicans - a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found that gun policy is the top issue for a majority of Virginia voters. Although those voters split evenly among Democrats and Republicans, even bigger majorities said they favor some form of gun control legislation.
Polls also consistently showed that most Virginians are happy with the job Northam is doing, defusing the scandal issue for Republicans. The governor's fundraising has continued to lag, but he returned to the campaign trail - albeit without the usual gubernatorial fly-around in the home stretch. Former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) picked up some of the slack, raising money and making campaign appearances.
After several other states enacted strict limits on abortion, that topic lost some of its potency in Virginia, where suburban voters are leery of encroaching on a woman's right to choose.
Republicans in some districts have tried to revive the late-term abortion issue, hoping to energize their base. The Democratic-driven impeachment effort is also revving up the GOP, some Republicans said.
Turnout, after all, is the most crucial factor on Tuesday. This is an "off-off year," without statewide or federal races on the ballot to stir up voter interest. Turnout in such years in Virginia is typically very low - usually under 30 percent. Democrats are hoping that anti-Trump fervor will get their numbers up, as it has done ever since 2016, and have cranked up celebrity endorsements for good measure, including visits from actors Alec Baldwin and Kerry Washington.
In northern Virginia, Democrats see their best pickup opportunity in the state Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, a social conservative who was able to hang on despite a changing district. Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, has raised $2.6 million for that open seat, compared with $1.4 million by Republican Geary Higgins. Democrats also have targeted Hugo.
Republicans, meanwhile, focused on unseating several Prince William delegates swept into office two years ago on an anti-Trump wave, including the state's first two Latina legislators, Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman, and Danica Roem, Virginia's first transgender elected official. But fundraising in those races has heavily favored Democrats.
One of the most competitive House races is a rematch - Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, vs. Republican former delegate Randy Minchew. She unseated him in 2017, when Minchew's own sister-in-law voted against him to demonstrate her disdain for Trump.
In the Richmond suburbs, two freshman Republican state senators are trying to fend off Democratic challengers in districts Clinton carried in 2016 that have tilted ever-bluer since. Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, faces Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, while Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, is trying to fend off Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico.
The Dunnavant-Rodman contest is on track to be the state's most expensive, with Dunnavant raising $2.5 million and Rodman $2.8 million.
In a rural-suburban district that has remained red under Trump, Democrat Amanda Pohl hopes to capitalize on a string of election-year controversies surrounding freshman Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who wore a gun on her hip on the Senate floor, cussed out a Capitol police officer over a parking space and was ousted from her local GOP committee. But both parties say Chase's poll numbers rose after all the attention.
The most prominent House race in the region pits House Speaker M. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, against Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman. The speaker, the state's most powerful Republican, must compete in a district redrawn under court order to remedy racial gerrymandering. The map swung from heavily favoring Republicans to tilting slightly blue. The symbolic value of the race has helped Bynum-Coleman nearly keep pace with Cox's fundraising, $1.4 million to his $1.8 million.
Other hard-fought races in the region pit Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, against Republican GayDonna Vandergriff; Democrat Rodney Willett vs. Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg; and Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, vs. Democrat Larry Barnett. Two years ago, Barnett lost to Robinson by 128 votes.
In Hampton Roads, the most-watched race is a rerun: Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, faces Democrat Shelly Simonds (D) two years after their 2017 contest resulted in a tie, which was decided by a random drawing on live national television.
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The Washington Post's Hannah Natanson, Rachel Chason, Jim Morrison and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.