Democrat Danica Roem ousted longtime incumbent Del. Robert G. Marshall (R) Tuesday, becoming the first openly transgender elected official in Virginia — and one of very few in the nation.
The race between Roem, 33, and Marshall, 73, focused on traffic and other local issues in Prince William County but also exposed the nation’s fault lines over gender identity. It pitted a local journalist who began her physical gender transition four years ago against an outspoken social conservative who has referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” earlier this year introduced a “bathroom bill” that died in committee.
“For 26 years I’ve been proud to fight for you, and fight for our future,” Marshall said in a message posted on Facebook Tuesday night. “Though we all wish tonight would have turned out differently, I am deeply grateful for your support and effort over the years.
“I’m committed to continue the fight for you, but in a different role going forward.”
A crowd of Roem supporters inside the City Tavern in Manassas erupted when Roem’s victory was announced. They cheered even louder when Northam was projected to win the governor’s seat.
Democrat Danica Roem greets voters Tuesday outside Gainesville Middle School in Gainesville, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
“Everything is so good tonight,” said Phyllis Hall, who spent the day canvassing for Democratic votes in the Manassas area. “The best day ever.”
The contest was one of dozens of state legislative races where Democrats were pushing to gain ground in the Republican-majority General Assembly, buoyed by a surge of anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats and independents and hoping to provide an example for the nation of how to run in opposition to the unpopular Republican president.
Roem outraised Marshall 3-to-1, with nearly $500,000 in donations, much of it coming from LGBT advocates and other supporters across the country. She and her supporters executed an aggressive ground game, knocking on doors more than 75,000 times in a district with 52,471 registered voters, sitting for endless public appearances and interviews, and maintaining a steady social media presence.
Marshall, who was first elected in 1991, refused to debate Roem, kept his schedule private and declined most interview requests. But he also mounted a healthy ground game; his campaign said this week that they knocked on voters’ doors about 49,000 times this fall.
While Roem campaigned mostly on local frustrations with traffic congestion along Route 28, she also talked about her gender identity when asked. The race took an ugly turn when Marshall and his supporters released ads highlighting Roem ’s transgender identity and referring to the Democrat with male pronouns.
In the end, that tactic failed, with Roem leading by nearly 10 percentage points with 90 percent of the vote counted, according to preliminary, unofficial results.
Bob Marshall smiles while voting at Signal Hill Elementary School in Manassas. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
“It’s kind of like Barack winning the presidential election. I’m really proud of Virginia,” said Roem voter John Coughlin, 63, a Realtor in Manassas who said he has never voted for Marshall. “I don’t care about religious issues. I don’t care about items that are big on his agenda. He should be more mainstream.”
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political-science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said Roem’s victory “demonstrates good political instincts: not to rise to the challenge of an opponent who wanted to make this a referendum on who Roem is.”
“Voters are far more interested in economic development and schools and transportation than they are in any cultural war in a House of Delegates district,” Farnsworth said.
In addition to calling him “a mirror” of Trump, Roem criticized Marshall as a lawmaker more concerned with advancing his conservative agenda than with dealing with local problems such as traffic.
That message resonated in communities along Route 28 — particularly Manassas Park, a rapidly changing area that has seen an influx of immigrants and millennials in recent years. Marshall lost there four years ago, when he defeated Democrat Atif Qarni by just 498 votes.
Manassas Park resident Miranda Jehle, 21, said she was pleased with how Roem focused on local issues such as traffic, despite jabs by Marshall and his backers at her transgender identity.
“I think she kept it very positive and didn’t show any negativity toward Bob Marshall,” Jehle said.
But other voters were turned off by the historic nature of Roem’s candidacy.
“She’s never had menstrual cramps, and she’s never had a baby, and she never will be able to,” said Marshall voter Carol Fox, a community activist in the Heritage Hunt section of Prince William, where Roem campaigned repeatedly. “She can take all the estrogen she wants but she’ll never be a woman.”
Marshall emphasized his record of helping constituents with individual problems. But he also countered Roem’s attacks with appeals to his conservative base, helped by last-minute donations from the state Republican Party and conservative groups outside Virginia that have long supported him.
A cable television ad by Marshall’s campaign questioned Roem’s moral judgment with brief footage from a five-year-old music video she appeared in with her band. A scene from the video, which did not appear fully in the ad, is suggestive of a group of people having oral sex.
A state Republican Party flier accused Roem of “wanting transgenderism taught to kindergartners” — a reference to a radio interview in which she supported the idea of addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender matters in schools “in an age-appropriate manner.”
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said Marshall may have erred in making too much of Roem’s transgender identity while refusing to participate in public-policy debates.
“He got put in a box on a cultural war issue, and the irony is that he’s made his living on cultural war issues,” Kidd said.
Alexis Dimouro, 53, who voted for Marshall, said she was turned off by negativity on both sides, including attacks on Roem’s transgender identity and Roem’s characterization of Marshall as a conservative zealot out of touch with local issues.
“Let us do the research and decide,” she said. “All of that seemed like a waste of money.”
Ravi Perry, chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University’s political-science department, said the changing demographics make it likely that the district will remain blue in years to come, now that a long-term incumbent has been defeated.
“This is now a very diverse, pluralistic district,” Perry said. “Roem has a real opportunity. She can bring in younger voters and new voters.”