Why Virginia's upcoming election is important for Arabs and Muslims

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9 min read
Washington, D.C.
31 October, 2021

Anyone who thought America could relax for a while after the latest presidential election should take a look at Virginia. The streets and airwaves filled with adverts leave no doubt that a close and important vote is around the corner.

On 2 November, Virginians will decide who becomes their next governor – Terry McAuliffe, an establishment Democrat or Glenn Youngkin, a pro-business Republican. On the surface, the choice might not look stark, with both candidates appearing to campaign as centrists. But scratch the surface and the differences between the two become obvious.

McAuliffe, who was elected as governor in 2013, is a long-time Virginia Democratic insider whose re-election would likely mean the continuation of the state’s Democratic policies. Youngkin, a businessman who is new to politics, has the potential – if elected – to shake up the state’s decade-long steady shift from a Republican stronghold to one that’s solidly Democratic.

"Virginia can determine the direction for the rest of the country. That’s why we’re seeing Obama, Trump, Biden and Abrams. Everyone is making an appearance here"

"The reason I believe there are so many eyes on Virginia at the moment is that it was the first state to get the ball rolling after 2016. What happens here, win or lose, will determine the momentum of the next four years," says Mohamed Gula, Virginia executive director and national organising director for Emgage Action, which has endorsed McAuliffe as well as Hala Ayala (whose parents both have Arab backgrounds), who is running for lieutenant governor. They have also made endorsements for state delegates.

"The game has really changed because of the momentum we were able to gain in 2017," Gula tells The New Arab. "Virginia can determine the direction for the rest of the country. That's why we're seeing Obama, Trump, Biden and Abrams. Everyone is making an appearance here."

So far, Gula and his team have knocked on more than 20,000 doors, made 200,000 calls and sent out 250,000 text messages. Thanks, in part, to their work, Muslim voter turnout in Virginia has increased by 28 percent over the past four years.

Meanwhile, James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, has done robocalls with former Republican state legislator David Ramadan in support of McAuliffe, whom he has known for many years and describes as a friend to the Arab community.

"He doesn't come from the party that has used nativism and xenophobia against recent immigrants," Zogby tells TNA, referring to anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Republican party, particularly the last administration.

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America's eyes on Virginia

Virginia's position of holding the first gubernatorial race after the presidential election makes it something of a bellwether for the rest of the country. Since the 1960s, the party that loses the presidency wins the governor’s race (with the exception of McAuliffe’s win in 2013), a pattern that can feel fatalistic with its long consistency, but is by no means the only predictor.

This recurrence was seen with the 2017 Democratic win of Ralph Northam, as well as the party's state delegate races, prior to the 2018 "blue wave" that brought back the Democratic congressional majority and ushered in the now notorious squad.

Among those who took part in flipping Virginia's statehouses blue was a transgender woman, Latina women, and the first African American since the post-civil war reconstruction era. Ghazala Hashmi added to the contingency when she became the first Muslim woman elected to the state senate in 2020, representing a relatively rural part of Virginia.

With these new policymakers have come new legislation - the elimination of the death penalty, an increase in the minimum wage, and an expansion of access to voting.

Virginia's steady political shift comes alongside its demographic shift. Over the past 15 years, the state has seen an increase in immigrants, particularly in Washington, DC’s southern suburbs. Rural areas have also seen an increase in diversity, as can be seen in the varieties of restaurants, the different languages spoken on the streets, and even the diversity in political candidates (the state now has nine Muslim elected officials, whereas five years ago there was just one) – all of which point to a new era.

This new era has meant a revisiting of the state’s history dating back to the end of reconstruction after the civil war, with so-called Jim Crow laws that were used to prevent minority representation in the state. This legacy was confronted with last summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, when it was decided to remove statues of pro-slavery leaders, change the names of schools, eliminate an annual state holiday commemorating the confederate side of the civil war, and offer a more inclusive school curriculum.

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Virginia's steady political shift comes alongside its demographic shift. [Getty]

Virginia's growing pains

But these changes haven't come without backlash. The past year has seen a series of school board meetings focused on critical race theory, graduate-level material that examines the intersection of race and US law. Though it is not taught in grade school, movements have sprung up across the country to argue against its instruction.

A school board meeting in Loudoun County in northern Virginia made international news in June, when a father in attendance was arrested while confronting school officials, highlighting the intensity of this nationwide debate.

For Abrar Omeish, these school board meetings, however absurd they may appear, are no laughing matter. As a member of the Fairfax County School Board in northern Virginia, she says she regularly receives death threats. But she refuses to be silent in the face of these attacks.

"I usually like to steer clear of being partisan, but this election is different," she tells TNA. She sees the debate over critical race theory as a tactic to funnel money out of public education by portraying it as chaotic by using slogans like "parents’ choice" to mischaracterise the debate.

"Virginia's position of holding the first gubernatorial race after the presidential election makes it something of a bellwether for the rest of the country"

What should instead be discussed, she says, is the low level of state investment into Virginia’s public schools, which ranks in the bottom half in the US for government spending on education.

"Given how far behind we are in education, it would be a tragedy if we rolled back the progress we’ve made in Virginia, not just in education, but in other areas. It’s turned into a class/race divide. The stakes have been elevated too high for us not to pay attention," she says.

As these issues grab the public's attention, some candidates say they're trying to steer the discourse back to inclusive issues, such as infrastructure, minimum wage, collective bargaining, healthcare, and college tuition. Some see these as the basics for an inclusive society.

Sam Rasoul, one of Virginia’s first Muslim elected officials, who comes from a relatively rural part of the state, sees economics as a common thread running between rural and urban areas.

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"The real frustration is in feeling neglected and forgotten," he tells TNA. "This translates into needing improved roads and schools. It's important for us to do what we need to do to advance progressive politics. It's the way we campaign and connect with people."

Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi, who is running for the school board in the city of Alexandria, grew up in Egypt and moved to the US as a young adult to work and study. Thanks to the high-quality affordable education he received in New York, he was able to find a good job in Virginia, an opportunity he believes he would not have had in Egypt. He wants to see others have the same chance for upward mobility.

"To me, it's important for a party to believe in science and in public education. The Republicans give tax breaks to the rich and defund public programs," he tells TNA.

"I'm pretty sure that if the Republicans take over, they'll take things in another direction. It's important to make your voice heard and have a seat at the table, so we’re taken seriously as a community, because there are issues that directly affect us," he says.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe answers questions from the press after speaking at a campaign event at the University of Lynchburg on October 27, 2021 in Lynchburg,
Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe answers questions from the press after speaking at a campaign event at the University of Lynchburg on 27 October 2021 in Lynchburg. [Getty]

Too close to predict

Even with all this buzz, the election of McAuliffe is by no means a given. Youngkin is running a strong centrist-style campaign that is being described as a toss-up as election day draws near. Though he has been endorsed by Trump and not overtly repudiated his policies, he appears to be trying to distance himself from the former president.

With Virginians’ apparent aversion to Trump in mind, the Republican party’s delegates chose him for the primary, even though it was a pro-Trump Republican (who attended his January 6 rally) who won the primary election. She has since filed a lawsuit against the state party.

Youngkin’s centrist campaign style might very well appeal to some immigrants, many of whom work in the restaurant industry, as entrepreneurs and as servers, and who have been affected by the lockdowns, a policy often seen as heavy-handed by Democrats.

Despite the Democrats’ more socially liberal policies toward immigrants, many are fiscally conservative. The state’s demographic shift can’t be assumed to translate to Democratic votes, particularly in an off-year election when Trump isn’t on the ballot.

"This race is important for Virginia, but the implications are important for what goes on in Washington"

"If the Democrats are seen as too heavy-handed with lockdowns, that’s not a message they'll want people to hear," J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tells TNA.

"When it comes to first or second-generation immigrants, a lot of pundits think immigration is the first thing they care about. Often, it’s more of an economic vote."

Moreover, education, traditionally a strength for Democrats, has become contentious during the pandemic. With remote learning, some of the country’s top magnet schools, including Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, located in northern Virginia, have scrapped their admissions exams, leaving high-performing students without the accelerated learning environment they had expected. Most of these students are Asian, many children of immigrants.

"A lot of immigrants worked hard, and now they’re saying they can’t get in. Who’s responsible for this? Not Republicans. Whether it’s true or not, that’s the impression. Republicans are letting it sink in, and they’ve got a receptive audience," Andy Smith, Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, tells The New Arab.

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A shift back to Republican leadership – or even a close race – could be a sign that Virginia is not as blue as was once thought.

Whatever the outcome, the results will not go unnoticed. For this entire election cycle, McAuliffe has raised more than $45 million, while Youngkin has raised more than $42 million (compared with a combined $66 million for all gubernatorial candidates in 2017).

"This race is important for Virginia," says Smith, "But the implications are important for what goes on in Washington."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews