Battle for control of Virginia Legislature may hinge on a state senate race with independent streak
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) -- A race that could determine control of Virginia's Legislature will not be a standard battle between a Democrat and a Republican, but also features a wild-card independent candidate with a history of electoral success who happens to be a former stripper.
Oh, and then there's the write-in campaign of a right-wing restaurateur who specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches.
The free-wheeling Senate District 27 race in the Fredericksburg area features Republican Del. Tara Durant, who won her first bid for public office two years ago after she garnered national attention from a 911 call she placed when she said her car was surrounded by Black Lives Matter activists during a protest. The Democrat, Joel Griffin, is a former Marine and former chair of Stafford County's Economic Development Authority, making his first run for office.
But it's the credible independent bid of Stafford County Supervisor Monica Gary that remains an unknown. Gary has already won office as an independent and says she turned down entreaties to run as a Democrat because she values her ability to work across party lines.
"I've always run a true independent campaign. So, even though I lean left, I have a lot of Republican supporters," said Gary, who openly embraces her stance on abortion and her time as a stripper.
The 27th District includes Fredericksburg and the surrounding areas, one of the fastest growing locations in Virginia, a swing district where growth, development, education and transportation are important issues that often don't play out along party lines.
But because the race could determine control of the state Senate, much of the focus has been on abortion. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy but has so far been blocked by a Senate narrowly controlled by Democrats.
Democrats have campaigned statewide on abortion rights and the 27th District is no different. Durant's anti-abortion record has been the subject of multiple attack ads.
The Republican's campaign stopped responding to interview requests after initially asking for a list of interview topics in advance, which The Associated Press declined to provide to her or to any of the candidates who were interviewed.
At a debate sponsored by Mary Washington University, Durant said she supports Youngkin's push for a 15-week abortion ban, with exceptions allowing later abortions in cases of rape, incest, or protecting the life of the mother.
"I've always been very honest and transparent than I am pro life," Durant said. "What Virginians want is for us to come together. They want consensus on this issue, and they want us to come together with a policy that reflects compassion for everyone involved."
Griffin and Gary said Durant, left to her own devices, would support a far more restrictive ban. A Fredericksburg-based group, Students for Life, which advocates for protection of unborn lives at conception, said Durant pledged to them to vote "100% pro life" as a legislator.
Griffin, a Democrat, said he would leave current Virginia law in place but seek to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. Gary, an independent, said she supports existing law but would only require two doctors, instead of three, to sign off on a late-term abortion.
Gary said she's had abortions, and she talks about her experience on the campaign trail. She said she had the abortions at a time she was trying to leave an abusive relationship. Gary said she felt guilt over that, and began to express anti-abortion sentiment. But after much soul-searching, she concluded that her decision was the right one and that women need to retain control over their reproductive choices.
Gary said her life experience, and her openness about it, allows her to relate with people on all sides of the political spectrum, and that she draws support from Republicans and Democrats.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at Mary Washington University who moderated a debate between the candidates, said Gary's presence on the ballot makes the race hard to predict.
"She is a far more credible candidate than independent candidates typically are," he said.
The race will be critical to Youngkin, who invested heavily in Durant, and helped the fellow Republican defeat restauranteur Matt Strickland in the primary. Strickland, known for his efforts to challenge pandemic restrictions at his restaurant, continues to deride Durant and Youngkin as "establishment" Republicans as he continues a write-in campaign.
Gary, who told The AP that if elected she will caucus with Democrats, said she considers herself the the most liberal candidate in the race, not because she is especially liberal but because she considers Griffin a closet Republican.
She said Griffin donated $250 to her campaign less than a year ago, before he entered the race.
Griffin said he thinks the question about his donation to Durant is a distraction from the issues.
"This was prior to me getting involved in politics and learning of the issues and learning how extreme she is on these issues," he said.
Gary said voters have not held her background as a stripper against her. In fact, she said the strip club was good representation for what she has encountered in politics.
"You would be surprised how similar the environments are," she said. "When I was in the club. I saw people chasing after money and power because they felt like they had to survive. And in politics, I see people doing it because they want to."