Minority report: Why Charlottesville matters in Delegate David Toscano’s battle plan for the Dems

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David Toscano. Photo: Elli Williams David Toscano. Photo: Elli Williams

David Toscano considers himself a consensus-builder, not a party man.

“By nature, I’m not a particularly partisan person,” he said during a recent interview in his High Street law office. “I believe in this idea that if you have rational discussion, you can change peoples’ views.”

But the PowerPoint pulled up on the laptop on the polished desk in front of him offered a glimpse at another side of the 63-
year-old Democrat, Charlottesville’s representative in Virginia’s House of Delegates since 2006. It maps, race by race, more than three dozen current House contests: candidate profiles, voter analytics, fundraising data. It’s a presentation of the Virginia Democrats’ battle plan two years in the making, and Toscano can give it in his sleep.

This year, while he’s not facing a challenger in the 57th, Toscano is running harder than ever. He was elected minority leader in the House in 2011, tasked with turning around what was starting to look like a terminal slump for Democrats in Richmond. His mission is to turn Virginia purple on the state level, and local support and money are helping him do it.

Fifteen years ago, the Dems lost control of the House, and haven’t come close to winning back the majority since. The slight gains made in 2007 were erased and then some in 2009, when now-Governor Bob McDonnell and a slew of other Republicans cashed in on an Obama backlash.

“It was a terrible year for Democrats,” said Toscano. “Health care had just been passed, and there was a lot of resistance to what Obama was trying to do.”

Such discontent tends to register powerfully in Virginia politics, he said, because the Commonwealth’s odd-year statewide contests are the first to follow presidential elections.

“When McDonnell took off and won by double digits, he took a lot of my friends with him,” Toscano said.

Today, the gulf is even bigger. After more Democratic defeats in 2011, the GOP emerged holding 67 House seats—more than two-thirds, the largest majority in decades. A few weeks after the thrashing, House Democrats convened for their annual retreat and named Toscano minority leader.

The choice bucked convention. Jefferson country hadn’t been known as a region that produces legislative leaders since before the Civil War; the last time a local held the high seat of Speaker of the House of Delegates was in 1845.

But when former minority leader Ward Armstrong lost his Southside seat following the Republican-controlled 2010 redistricting process, House Democrats sought someone from a safe seat who could focus on the statewide fight without worrying about constituents at home decamping. And rather than turn to one of its two embattled strongholds, NoVA and Hampton Roads, for someone to lead the party toward something other than rock bottom, the Democratic caucus turned to the little blue puddle that is Charlottesville. They chose a delegate with no seniority and a reputation that leaned more toward peacemaker than partisan bulldog.

Toscano’s task was straightforward, if daunting: Find the chinks in the armor of the Republican supermajority, and then throw as many strong candidates at them as possible.

And with the help of other party leaders and a whole lot of analytics, that’s exactly what he’s spent the last two years doing.

Nobody expects the Democrats to make massive gains this year. They’d need to take 19 seats from Republicans to regain a majority, a scenario UVA Center for Politics analyst Geoffrey Skelley called an impossibility. “But there’s plenty of conceivably competitive territory out there, given the overwhelming disparity in the House,” he said.

Virginia Democrats have almost nowhere to go but up, said Skelley. “It’s a story of Republicans holding the relatively moderate districts and Democrats not holding any of them at the moment,” he said. The party has to go heavily on the offensive and hope for a big win by its gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to recapture a handful of seats, Skelley said.

Toscano has overseen a campaign master plan he says is both bigger and more coordinated than it has been in previous years.

“There are 19 districts in the Commonwealth that are now in Republican hands that were won by Tim Kaine in 2012,” Toscano said. “Right away you look at those. Then you add to those any seat that has come open because of a retirement or somebody defeated in a primary. There are probably another five or six seats like that. You start with that universe, and you say to yourself ‘O.K., if we have the right candidate, what races are worth watching?’”

On top of 14 Democratic incumbents, they came up with what they think are the right candidates—county supervisors, country lawyers, entrepreneurs, nonprofit board members—for 37 contested races.

“That is an unprecedented number,” Toscano said. “The highest number I can recall in recent days is 19, so we’re doubling the number of candidates we’re putting in the field as challengers.” Some are winnable contests, follow-ups to races where Republicans edged out Democrats by a few hundred votes or less last time around. Others he knows they will lose. But the sheer number of candidates is a statement that they’re coming for everything they can get. “You cannot beat somebody with nobody,” he said.

You also need money. And as the rep from deep-pocketed Charlottesville, that’s something Toscano has access to.

“There’s no doubt that this is a wealthy community, and it helps to leverage that,” Toscano said.

It’s part of why his colleagues chose him, and it’s meant his fundraising pitch has shifted. When he shakes hands with top donors, he’s not convincing them to contribute to one campaign, but to dozens.

“You can elect me for the next 20 years, but unless we elect some different people statewide, your values can never really be implemented,” he said, summing up his pitch. “We’ve not used our economic firepower to influence elections. And that’s something we’re trying to change.”

So far, it appears to be working. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Toscano’s reelection committee and Virginia First, his leadership PAC, together provided a third of the $1.6 million contributed to the House Democratic Caucus this year, money that’s made its way to battleground districts across the state. Many of the candidates in those districts are polling well in the wake of the government shutdown, which voters in federal-job-dependent Virginia appear to have blamed largely on Republicans.

What those voters decide on November 5 will have a big impact on the perception of Virginia’s Democratic party, Toscano’s political career, and, potentially, his city’s importance in state politics. If his stint leading a caucus crawling back from the bottom is successful, he could end up riding to a majority as the top Democrat in the House, a reversal that would elevate Charlottesville’s importance as a Democratic anchor, despite the fact that it’s dwarfed by the solid blue strongholds to the north and southeast. Whether he gets to keep up the statewide strategizing and stumping for the party depends on whether his efforts of the last two years actually start the upswing the Democrats are desperately seeking.

Then, he said, “we’ll see if they choose me again.”

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