"This is going to give us so much closer to where we know we can be as a country," Harris said. "When we win this seat, we turn the whole deal."
A few miles away, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was stumping with Prince William County Democrats, and a few days later Helmer himself would campaign with Jill Biden, the wife of former vice president Joe Biden. Virginia, where Republicans hold both houses of the legislature by a single vote in each, has emerged as a favorite pit stop for 2020 Democrats — and of donors eager to reverse the last decade's Democratic losses.
"We believe Virginia is the bellwether," said Nicole Boucher, vice president of Way to Win, a donor collective that has committed $4.2 million to this year's Virginia campaigns. "If you're not investing in on-the-ground campaigning, then you're not committing to the cause."
Virginia, one of just four states that elects its legislature in the year before presidential elections and whose election is Tuesday, has enticed Democrats for two simple reasons: They think they can win, and there's no downside to campaigning there. No 2020 Democratic candidate has campaigned alongside the party's nominees in Kentucky, Louisiana or Mississippi. In those red states, the gubernatorial contenders have cast themselves as pragmatists who ignore national politics.
When Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., held a rally in Kentucky this summer, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andy Beshear was elsewhere. Yesterday, in the only televised debate between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and Republican nominee Eddie Rispone, the governor chastised his opponent for talking about Democrats in Washington.
"You're talking about some generic Democrat that's in your head," Edwards said. "You're not talking about me. I am squarely in the middle of the of the political spectrum, and you know that. You know that!"
There's no need for that caution in Virginia, where no Republican has won a statewide election since 2009. A slew of Democratic presidential candidates have campaigned, or are about to campaign, in the commonwealth: Harris, Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke and Andrew Yang. Most of them have recorded short get-out-the-vote clips, ranging from Yang telling Democrats to "vote, vote, vote" to Booker rattling off the names of delegates he has campaigned with.
Behind the scenes, Democratic candidates have been deploying resources to the state, which could help them, too, since Virginia is a Super Tuesday primary state. Warren's campaign had its first Virginia organizing events in September, and she used an October town hall in Norfolk to urge Democrats to support the party's legislature candidates. Democratic activists were watching, and several who showed up at Sunday's events said they were paying extra attention to candidates who had stumped in Virginia.
"It's a big issue for me - did they show up to help us in Virginia?" said Adam Siegel, 57, after Harris wrapped up her remarks in Fairfax Station. "When I saw Senator Warren at [George Mason University] in March, she didn't talk about the state elections, so it's good that she did that in Norfolk. You'll notice Senator Harris spent the majority of her time talking about the Virginia election."
Republicans have not received the same star-studded drop-ins, or the same investments — a reversal of fortune since the start of this year. In February, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam was enmeshed in a scandal over racist yearbook photos. Over the course of a week, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he'd once worn blackface in a sketch, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — who some Democrats, such as Biden, had suggested should take over for Northam — was accused of sexual assault.
None of the three Democrats resigned, but the scandals crippled party organizing and fundraising. Former governor Terry McAuliffe rushed into the field to make up for their absence, making at least 122 campaign appearances for the party. Then, over time, Northam's popularity recovered.
"I have spoken to thousands and thousands of voters," McAuliffe said in an interview. "I have not been asked a single question about what happened in February."
Though Northam's fundraising has lagged, he's on track to donate $1.5 million to Democrats by Election Day and has returned to the stump for some candidates. And while Fairfax's scandal has been used against Democrats, Amanda Litman, founder of the liberal candidate recruitment group Run for Something, said that its long-term impact might be a larger group of Democratic candidates.
"It pushed more women and candidates of color to get in and feel more confident," Litman said. "We've seen a record number of women running, in part because they looked at the men at the top of the ticket and said, 'OK, clearly, this is not enough.' "
Virginia Republicans, at their lowest ebb of power in decades, did not get a long-term boost from the scandal - or from Northam's mangled defense of an abortion rights bill, which preceded the scandal. In race after race, the party has been out-fundraised by Democrats, sometimes by two-to-one margins, even before accounting for the seven-figure investments from Way to Win or Moms Demand Action, a gun control group. Early voting turnout has been up in key districts, like the seat of Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, and Democrats are unusually bullish on all of it.
"I think also that we're seeing now a more diverse array of voters showing up at the polls, motivated certainly by the election of Donald Trump, but also by how out of touch the Virginia General Assembly has been in their actions under Republican leadership," said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, in a Tuesday call with reporters.
Republicans, trying to hold onto what they have, have gotten fewer reinforcements. President Donald Trump will campaign in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi ahead of next month's elections, but not in Virginia, a decision his campaign said was based on the lack of a race for governor. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence is slated to campaign in the state on Saturday in the Tidewater region, which has not shown the same Republican slippage as northern Virginia.
"Virginians are deciding that radical socialists have no place in the state legislature," said Austin Chambers, the Republican State Legislative Committee's director, in a statement about the Pence visit.
Republicans are in strong positions in the three states Trump is visiting, but Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi don't look like the places where the 2020 presidential election will be decided. Virginia does - hence the Democratic focus, and hence their confidence.
McAuliffe, who was blocked by Republicans from expanding Medicaid during his four-year term as governor, pointed out that a number of suburban Republicans are running on expansion as a way to win back suburban voters. More telling, he argued, was the negative tone in some closing Republican ads, hitting Democrats over the abortion bill, the Fairfax scandal and the specter of "socialism."
That shows their desperation, he said, and the emotions generated by the Trump presidency will help Democrats. "This is a base motivation election, not a persuasion election," McAuliffe said. "We lose in the off-off-year when people don't know there's an election, but everybody knows what's happening with Trump. I saw that Mike Pence was coming to Virginia Beach, and I said, 'Thank you! I'll pay for Air Force 2's gas.'"