FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Virginia Republicans completed a sweep of down-ballot statewide offices Wednesday, with victories for attorney general and lieutenant governor, including the first Black woman ever to be elected statewide in the commonwealth.
The wins echoed the Democrats’ defeat in the race for governor, and marked a dramatic turnaround in a state where the GOP had not won a statewide race since 2009.
In the lieutenant governor's race, Republican Winsome Sears, who returned to Virginia politics after an absence of nearly two decades, defeated Democrat Hala Ayala. Sears becomes the first woman to serve as lieutenant governor and the first woman of color to hold statewide office. Ayala would have broken the same historic barriers had she won.
In the attorney general's race, Republican Jason Miyares, the son of a Cuban immigrant, defeated the Democratic incumbent, Mark Herring, who was running for a third term.
Both Ayala and Herring conceded Wednesday.
Sears rocketed out of political obscurity earlier this year when she won the GOP nomination on the strength of a campaign photo in which she posed holding a military rifle.
She will succeed Democrat Justin Fairfax, who unsuccessfully ran for governor. Her role as a tiebreaking vote in a closely divided state Senate has become even more important given GOP victories in other races. In addition to winning the governor's mansion, the party is also claiming that it has regained control of the House of Delegates, though several key races are still too early to call.
If Republicans do gain control of the House, the only thing blocking them from total control of state government is a narrow 21-19 Democratic advantage in the state Senate. Senators are not up for reelection until 2023.
Democrats have been particularly concerned about abortion legislation. Ayala made supporting a woman’s right to an abortion a key issue in her campaign, noting that the Senate has one Democratic member who has said he personally opposes abortion. Sears has also long opposed abortion, something she links to her Christian faith.
“I’m a Christian first, and a Republican second. I don’t want to hear about your economic policies and you’re going to build the country if we have to kill babies along the way,” she told an interviewer in 2019.
A former Marine, Sears had a brief stint in electoral politics 20 years ago as a one-term delegate in the General Assembly, representing parts of Hampton Roads. Her return to politics after a two-decade absence began when she served as national chairperson for Black Americans to Re-Elect President Trump.
Early Wednesday, Sears stood with her family in front of cheering supporters at a victory party in Chantilly, saying, “What you are looking at is the American Dream.”
Throughout the race, Sears also highlighted her background as a Jamaican immigrant, campaigning against illegal immigration and rejecting the notion that the nation is plagued by systemic racism.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I am Black and I have been Black all my life,” she said. “But that’s not what this is about. What we are going to do is we are now going to be about the business of the commonwealth. We have things to tend to.”
Miyares will be the first Republican to hold the attorney general post since Ken Cuccinelli won in 2009.
A delegate from Virginia Beach, Miyares highlighted his background as the son of a Cuban immigrant throughout the campaign. He frequently criticized Herring for decisions by the state parole board to release inmates early without notifying victims, decisions Herring said were totally outside his jurisdiction.
Herring, like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, was forced to admit in 2019 that he had once worn blackface. He said it occurred at a college party in 1980 and apologized for his actions. While Herring’s opponent in the Democratic primary criticized the attorney general’s conduct, Miyares did not make it an issue during the fall campaign.
Miyares narrowly won the GOP nomination over a hard-right opponent, Chuck Smith.
Jurisdictions throughout the state reported high turnout, with roughly 3.3 million ballots tallied by 3 a.m. Wednesday. That greatly exceeded the 2.6 million ballots cast in the last gubernatorial election in 2017, which itself was a high turnout year. The turnout in 2017 was in part a backlash to Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Democrats swept all three statewide elections in 2017.
This year marks a sharp turnabout for the Virginia GOP, which has struggled over the past decade and had not won a statewide race since the 2009 cycle.
Both the attorney general and the lieutenant governor posts have served as launching pads to the governor's mansion. Half of the past 10 lieutenant governors in Virginia have gone on to be governor. The previous nine elected attorneys general all ran for governor.
Associated Press writers Brian Witte in Chantilly, Virginia, and Alexandra Jaffe in McLean, Virginia, contributed to this report.
Matthew Barakat, The Associated Press