Virginia legislative elections test anti-Trump sentiment

Virginians were casting ballots Tuesday to decide which party should control the statehouse in a widely watched contest that will test how voters feel about President Donald Trump and his possible impeachment.

The Old Dominion's legislative elections are serving as the marquee warmup for the 2020 election cycle as well as a referendum on the state's gun laws and abortion rights. Outside groups and political parties are test-driving expensive campaigns to win over and motivate voters in a state that was until recently considered a presidential battleground.

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Of the four states holding legislative elections this year, Virginia is the only one with control of the statehouse up for grabs. Republicans have a slim majority in both the state House and Senate, but Virginia has been trending blue for years thanks to growth in more diverse, liberal suburbs and cities, and population declines in more rural, conservative areas.

Democrats are hoping voters send a message that the anti-Trump energy that has powered blue waves in the last two elections is still robust.

Arden Griffin, a 75-year-old retired librarian who voted for Democratic candidates in competitive Richmond-area seats, said she saw her vote as a way to make a statement against Trump.

"To be blunt, he's a liar, he's a crook, he does not have the best interest of the country at heart. He's strictly out for Donald Trump," said Griffin, who added that she supports the impeachment proceedings against him.

RELATED: Virginia polls open; find your polling place here

Democrats are looking to take control of both the Executive Mansion and the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is not up for reelection Tuesday but has been actively campaigning for his party's candidates after bouncing back from a near politically fatal blackface scandal earlier this year.

Virginia Republicans, who have generally tried to keep Trump at arm's distance, are hoping the specter of impeachment will motivate the GOP base to turn out in large numbers.

RICHMOND, VA - JANUARY 8: The Virginia House of Delegates stirs as Virginia's General Assembly re-convenes following holiday break at the Virginia State Capitol on Wednesday, January 8, 2014, in Richmond, VA. The legislature convenes for the first ti

Trump supporter Cris Harris, 61, a police officer in Henrico County, said the impeachment inquiry has "liberal backing, with a news media that feeds off of it."

"If the media can talk bad about Trump, they certainly will, whether it's founded or not," Harris said.

RELATED: Bernie Sanders rallies Democrats in Virginia ahead of Tuesday election

Alise Stults, 24, a military contractor in Virginia Beach who voted for Democrats, said Trump was not a driving factor for her this election but she knows the stakes are high in Virginia. Canvassers from four separate campaigns knocked on her door over the weekend.

"Even when I was going to work today, people on both sides were making sure to say that whoever you're voting for, this is a vital election," she said.

If Democrats take over the statehouse, they likely will be able to pass an agenda that Republicans have blocked for years, including stricter gun laws and a higher minimum wage. They're also hoping to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, making Virginia the final state needed for possible passage of the gender equality measure.

Janet Ellis, 68, said she's a lifelong Republican who's fed up with Trump and voted Democratic down the line, but she made an exception for Republican Del. Tim Hugo, who is trying defend his spot as the last Republican representing Fairfax County, Virginia's most populous jurisdiction, in the General Assembly.

"I didn't want him to be a victim of Trump," she said. "I know the things he's done."

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Hugo is being challenged by Democrat Dan Helmer, a Rhodes scholar who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tuesday's election could help determine which party rules for the next decade, as the winners will decide who controls the next redistricting process. A tea party-fueled wave in state legislatures — including Virginia's — a decade ago helped Republicans fortify their control of the U.S. House for years.

The federal courts recently redid Virginia's maps, saying Republicans illegally packed too many black voters into certain districts to make surrounding districts friendlier to Republicans. The new map is friendly to Democrats and has put two top Republicans — Speaker Kirk Cox and House Appropriations Chairman Del. Chris Jones — at greater risk of losing their seats.