Steve Peoples and Alan Suderman
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant wanted to avoid talking about President Donald Trump as she courted voters this week on Ridgefield Green Way just outside Virginia's capital city. The middle-aged man at one door didn't want to talk about anything else.
"I've only got one question. Do you support Trump?" he asked.
"Yes," Dunnavant replied.
"Then you've got my vote," he said.
On the sidewalk a few minutes later, Dunnavant actively distanced herself from the Republican president, acknowledging he is deeply unpopular in her district — despite the doorway encounter. The 55-year-old OB-GYN said she'd prefer that Trump stay out of Virginia ahead of Tuesday's high-stakes elections.
"I don't want to have Washington, D.C., replicated in Virginia," she told The Associated Press. "I'm running a campaign on state issues and getting state things done."
Dunnavant's dance speaks to the dire threat Trump has created for Republicans in Virginia and, more broadly, suburbs across America. This is where higher-educated and more affluent voters — particularly women — have revolted against Trump's GOP. These areas leaned Republican in the past, but amid shifting demographics and Trump's turbulent presidency, they have transformed into the nation's premier political battleground.
Nearly three years into Trump's administration, Virginia's leftward shift appears to be rapidly accelerating. Since the beginning of 2017, Democrats have won every statewide contest, made historic gains in the House of Delegates and picked up three additional congressional seats. And on Tuesday, Democrats are just a handful of new seats away from seizing control of both chambers of the Virginia legislature for the first time in more than two decades.
Voters across several other states also head to the polls Tuesday, including Mississippi and Kentucky, whose high-profile gubernatorial races have attracted Trump's direct involvement.
But more than anywhere, Virginia's lower-profile state legislative elections will test the magnitude of the GOP's suburban slide. Democratic victories could reshape the national political landscape in 2020 — and, perhaps more broadly, politics across the South for decades.
Like Virginia, suburban North Carolina, Georgia and Texas have seen explosive growth and demographic shifts in recent years that have given Democrats real momentum, even if they have yet to break through.
"We are a model for the South," said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has served as a chief surrogate in the state's legislative elections.
Vice President Mike Pence will rally voters in Virginia Beach on Saturday. But Trump, who is his party's most powerful political weapon, has been noticeably absent. Instead, the president dedicated time over the weekend to campaign in deep-red Mississippi and Kentucky.
Virginia Republican Corey Stewart, an unapologetic Trump loyalist who was beaten badly in last year's U.S. Senate race, suggested Trump would help his party by rallying the base in Virginia in what is expected to be a relatively low-turnout election. Still, he feared that the elections could be "a complete rout" for Republicans.
"Things are so bad right now in Virginia for a Republican like me," Stewart said. "Things are moving in the wrong direction in the suburbs."
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh had only this to say about the president's decision to bypass Virginia: "President Trump is focused on the places where he can have the greatest impact in 2019, and those are in states having governor's races."
Trump may be a major factor in Virginia's off-year elections, but he was often a silent factor on the ground as suburban candidates scrambled across House and Senate districts knocking on doors to ensure their supporters' vote on Tuesday.
Like many suburban neighborhoods across the nation, the voters here in Richmond's suburbs tend to have more education and more money than those in rural areas. It's located in Henrico County, where more than 42% of residents hold a college degree and the median household income is $66,447.
They have also trended younger and more racially diverse in recent years. Nearly 30 percent of Henrico's population is African American and 8 percent is Asian, reflecting the changes in population growth since 2000 that have accompanied the county's leftward shift in recent elections.
The voters here are aware of national politics, but interviews on the ground this week suggest many are more invested in local issues that affect their families. On the doorstep, voters are more likely to raise concerns about education, health care and, perhaps above all, gun violence.
Still, one district voter, Elyse Ward, a 31-year-old marketing and technology manager who's expecting her first child later this month, said "it goes without saying" that Trump is on her mind as she weighs next week's election.
"I'm ready for him to go," Ward said.
Four years ago, the Republican Dunnavant won this Senate district by almost 20 points. This year, she's facing a fierce challenge from Debra Rodman, a college professor who said in an interview this week that Democrats in Virginia's legislature represent a "firewall against the craziness in Washington."
"With Donald Trump in the White House, it's never been more important to vote in state election," says one of her campaign flyers.
Yet Rodman has difficult questions to answer about her political party as well.
Republicans in recent days have seized on Washington Democrats' push to impeach the president, hoping to cast Virginia's local elections as a referendum on impeachment.
"Stop the impeachment witch hunt," one GOP mailer says, with pictures of former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff all wearing witch hats.
Rodman was reluctant to talk impeachment, but she took a firm position when pressed.
"Yeah, I do think he needs to be impeached," Rodman said with a sigh. "This is what our democracy is about, is having somebody who's going to represent the people, and right now I think we're in really tough times."
She also distanced herself from some national Democrats' call to adopt a government-backed "Medicare for All" health care system and sidestepped questions about banning assault weapons. On health care, she favors a so-called public option that would give Americans the choice to keep their private insurance. And on guns, she said her immediate focus was "low-hanging fruit" like universal background checks and "red flag" laws.
Dunnavant has sided with the Republican majority in the State House to block Democrats' push for such gun control measures. She opposes universal background checks, saying she doesn't have enough information to know if they would be effective.
"I would not say I'm an expert. I think I want input from subject matter experts to see how that's going to work," she said.
While some suburban moms may want more, the position is popular with the shrinking number of Trump loyalists in Dunnavant's suburban district.
Back on Ridgefield Green Way, 65-year-old conservative Richard Delafosse said one thing above all is important to him this election season: "Keeping America great."
Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.