Emily Francis is the candidate to re-take Virginia’s state government

A pickup of a single seat in the Virginia state senate is all that Democrats need to seize control of the chamber this fall, so it’s no surprise Governor McAuliffe is openly gunning for it. He needs to if he wants any chance of overcoming gridlock that’s thwarted his efforts to give health care to hundreds of thousands of Virginians.

But what’s baffling is McAuliffe’s choice to endorse local lawyer and Independent-turned-Democrat Dan Gecker for the Democratic nomination in the 10th Senate district. It’s his party’s best pickup opportunity, a marginal district held by retiring GOP Senator John Watkins.

When I heard the news, my first reaction was to wonder what Terry McAuliffe’s best friend in the world would have to say about his assessment of Dan Gecker as “a progressive leader.”

That’s because McAuliffe’s best friend happens to be Bill Clinton, a guy who could have told him firsthand that Dan Gecker was neither progressive, nor a leader when he followed the Republican attack machine against him in the 1990s, representing a woman alleging harassment by President Clinton.

Maybe McAuliffe rationalized that merely representing one of Clinton’s attackers two decades ago was an absolvable mistake—after all, Bill Clinton himself has campaigned for former Republicans who once called for his impeachment.

County supervisor Dan Gecker (chesterfieldcounty.gov)
County supervisor Dan Gecker (chesterfieldcounty.gov)

But this time, the history is personal, not just political. Dan Gecker’s assertion that he never called for Clinton’s impeachment—despite claiming to believe a story that, if true, would make the President a monstrous predator—flies in the face of a few independent accounts.

Even giving  Gecker the full benefit of the doubt in this area—assuming that White House correspondent Peter Baker’s 2000 novel “The Breach: Inside the Trial and Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton” is wrong in its revelation that Gecker urged a Republican senator to vote to convict Clinton—it still makes very little sense for Terry McAuliffe to wrap the Democratic establishment around a character like this.

The fact that McAuliffe—whose political memoir “What a Party!” might as well be titled, “10,000 Good Times Spent with Bill Clinton”—is aligning himself with a former Clinton antagonist is head-scratching enough.  But when you factor in how Dan Gecker has labeled Ronald Reagan his political hero and said in 2012 he couldn’t commit to voting to reelect President Obama, the story gets even stranger. Why call someone like that a progressive at all?

A better bet would be local activist and long-time Democrat Emily Francis. As someone who has already made a name for herself among activists in Virginia for her work as a nonprofit advocate, she didn’t wait until the election to begin articulating support for Medicaid expansion in Virginia. She’s never named Ronald Reagan as her “political hero,” nor has she been involved in any of the crackpot conspiracy theories that were brewed to take the Clintons down.

She’s got sterling progressive credentials, the kind that doesn’t do a candidate many favors with deep-pocketed donors.

That’s likely why Gecker has outraised Francis by more than a four-to-one margin thus far, taking in $230,250 as of last quarter to her $61,810. But he’ll need every penny of it. It won’t be easy for a newcomer to the Democratic Party and a former Clinton antagonist to win over the progressives who will dominate the Democratic primary on June 9.

Of course, Emily Francis’ strength in the primary is also her strength in the general election. Off-year elections tend to be low-turnout affairs, and the 2015 elections being held in Virginia are the off-year of the off-year, when there isn’t even a single statewide contest to draw voters to the polls. Only voters who are passionate about politics on either side turn out—and even then, only if their nominees give them a reason to. A candidate in an evenly-matched district like the 10th has to excite people to have a chance of winning.

Of the three options Democrats in the 10th district will choose from, only Emily Francis fits that profile.

A newcomer to politics, she doesn’t have a voting record—which is another advantage. Should Dan Gecker prevail, Republicans will comb over his record for ammo in their battle to keep the Senate. They’ll savage him for his vote for a local tax increase, not to mention his failure to live up to a 2014 promise to roll back property taxes.

As the Democratic nominee, he’d face the worst of both worlds: hobbled by lackluster turnout from a party base that doesn’t fully trust him, while faced with overcoming revved-up Republican base.

Emily Francis won’t have that problem. She doesn’t have a voting record that can be used for opposition research against her, but the way she’s lived her life since moving to Virginia in 2007 speaks for itself. She’s forged deep ties with the progressive community through her work at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, along with her work in public health and consumer rights organizations.

Democratic candidate Emily Francis (democracyforamerica.com)
Democratic candidate Emily Francis (democracyforamerica.com)

Constant struggles against deep-pocketed interests can be deflating and sometimes thankless—but for Francis at least, the countless hours she’s invested are now paying off in spades.

From the moment she announced, she’s had the support of a small but dedicated network of local activists who have worked with her before. And they’re working furiously on her behalf in the final weeks leading to the primary.

In fact, Francis’ supporters are almost too busy to interview these days as they knock on hundreds of doors in each canvassing session while gearing up for the primary battle’s final sprint. When I called one for an interview, she ended  up multi-tasking with two fellow canvassers, at times passing the cell phone around like a hot potato as they alternated between talking with me and knocking on doors (it was a great interview!).

“The reason I’m excited about Emily is because I believe she’ll represent someone like me. She’s more inclined to represent people rather than corporations,” Bonnie Reid, a state activist, told me. She cited Gecker’s contributions from corporations as a sign the county supervisor had been bought.

Francis’ supporters are prioritizing mobilization above all else as they try to galvanize loyal Democrats, who should break overwhelmingly for the only candidate whose progressivism has never been questioned. But her grassroots guerillas against the party establishment are also looking ahead to the general election, even now, as they register new voters that could make the difference in the fall campaign.

The explosion in Virginia’s voter rolls is in 2015 so far has been the under-reported story in one of America’s most important swing states. According to the state’s Department of Elections, 12,637 new voters were added to the rolls in the past month alone as party activists go door-to-door to lead registration drives.

Chesterfield County, Powhatan County, and parts of Richmond make up Virginia’s 10th Senate district. The counties have seen more than 1,000 new voters register in 2015 alone, extremely robust numbers for an off-year election and a sign that the spirited Democratic primary is having an effect. But Democrats shouldn’t think that they can count on the excitement to carry them to victory in November, regardless of the primary outcome.

Instead, they should remember the failings of their 2009 gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds. A rural, pro-gun legislator, Deeds catered to what he imagined to be Virginia’s must-win block of centrist voters to the point where he refused to say whether or not he supported the public option being floated by liberals in the ongoing debate of health care reform.

But he won neither the center nor the election in his 19-point loss. In off-year elections like 2009 and especially in off-off-year elections like 2015, candidates are propelled to victory when their party’s base has something to believe in. With his past and his record, Dan Gecker can’t provide that.

Sure, he can count on being lavishly funded for this race. But as Nick Ayers of the Republican Governors Association noted in 2009, while campaign money may be the mother’s milk of politics, “it still can’t make an ugly baby pretty.” Enthusiasm and ground game are far more decisive in these contests.

So as the 10th District’s voters head to the polls on June 9, they’ll have two options. They can rally behind a sure-fire progressive who, judging by her past and her backers, has the profile to be a star in the Senate and a stronger general election nominee to boot.Or they can choose someone who is most famous for adding to the Clinton pile-on.

Decision day is coming up at a time when the latest Republican scandal is helping to make the contrast even starker. You always had the feeling, even 17 years ago, that the people milking Bill Clinton’s behavior for their own political gain had to have bigger skeletons in their closets, and were therefore the biggest hypocrites of all. Sure enough, the revelations of affairs or other sex scandals by GOP leaders like Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, David Vitter, Larry Craig, and  Mark Foley (to name just a few) confirmed what those of us who remember the impeachment clown show knew in our bones.

Now this latest shoe to drop concerning GOP House speaker Dennis Hastert and his alleged sexual abuse of students is too terrible for schadenfreude. But it is a reminder of a lesson we shouldn’t forget. As one of Bill Clinton’s 1990s tormentors, Dan Gecker is in atrocious company.

It’s your choice, Virginia Democrats.