Typical Northern Virginia traffic and rainy weather truncated Alec Baldwin’s visit to Dan Helmer’s campaign office on Tuesday, but those obstacles did not put a damper on the mood of the dozens of volunteers who gathered to greet the 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live star before undertaking an evening of canvassing.
As a board member for the liberal advocacy nonprofit People for the American Way, Baldwin stopped by the campaign office in Fairfax Station to deliver pizza to volunteers as part of a day-long tour of Virginia that focused on key races in the battle for control of next year’s General Assembly.
Joined by House of Delegates minority caucus chair Del. Charniele Herring (D-46th) and fellow PFAW board member and labor rights activist Dolores Huerta, the actor gave support to Senate District 11 candidate Amanda Pohl in Midlothian and House District 28 candidate Joshua Cole and Senate District 28 candidate Qasim Rashid in Fredericksburg before meeting Helmer, who hopes to unseat Del. Tim Hugo as the 40th House District’s representative.
“There’s an opportunity here…an historic opportunity, for us to change a lot of places in this country that we thought were red, red, red,” Baldwin said, praising Helmer for his past military service as well as his stance on issues like women’s rights and gun control.
A U.S. Army veteran who had tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Helmer decided to take on Hugo in one of this year’s most closely watched state races after falling short last June in a Democratic primary for Virginia’s 10th District seat in the House of Representatives.
Jennifer Wexton, then a Virginia state senator, won that primary over five other candidates, including Helmer, and ultimately beat Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock in the midterm elections, which saw a record number of women elected to Congress.
Helmer says he pivoted to a state race out of a continued desire to be involved in public service, a commitment drilled into him by his military career as well as his identity as the son of immigrants.
Helmer’s family includes Holocaust survivors and Israeli Army veterans.
“I got into this because I want to serve, and that’s how I got involved in politics in the first place,” Helmer said. “[With] service at the state level, you have the opportunity to make change in a huge way very quickly, and that’s the most exciting thing about it.”
Now a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a consultant with a small business that deals with veterans’ healthcare, Helmer emphasized his military experience in calling for stricter gun laws during his Congressional campaign, and he continues to cite gun violence prevention legislation as a top issue.
In a pep talk to volunteers on Tuesday, Helmer pledged to help pass “reasonable” gun laws if elected so that people “don’t feel like you have to wear the body armor I wore in Afghanistan just to go shopping at Walmart,” a line that drew applause from the crowd and an impressed “wow” from Baldwin.
The gun safety measures that Helmer has publicly backed include universal background checks, bans on high-capacity magazines and silencers, regulations of private gun sales, and red-flag laws that enable law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
Those proposals largely fall in line with the legislative agenda that Gov. Ralph Northam put forward for the General Assembly’s July 9 special session on gun violence prevention in the wake of a mass shooting that killed 12 people in Virginia Beach on May 31.
Helmer’s positioning of gun safety as a core part of his platform is consistent as well as strategic, with his campaign lambasting Hugo for Republicans’ decision to adjourn the special session on gun laws after 90 minutes.
The General Assembly instead opted to refer the 50 bills filed for the special session to the Virginia State Crime Commission, which met for two days in August. Lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene on Nov. 18 after voters go to the polls to elect a new state legislature on Nov. 5.
While he declined to comment on the special session postponement at the time, Hugo is chair of the Republican caucus. He announced in August that he had signed onto a red-flag law proposed by Del. Jason Miyares (R-82nd), according to the Prince William Times.
Helmer has made healthcare for people with preexisting conditions another campaign priority, noting that his wife, a public school teacher and mother of their two sons, has a condition that would put her life at risk if she becomes pregnant again.
He has also centered women’s rights, promising to protect access to reproductive healthcare, support the Equal Rights Amendment, and eliminate taxes on menstrual hygiene products.
If Virginia votes for the ERA, it would be the 38th state to pass the Constitutional amendment affirming equal rights regardless of sex, giving the measure enough support for full ratification even if the official deadline for it to be incorporated into the Constitution was back in 1982.
Still, the potential for Democrats to gain a majority in both General Assembly chambers and pass the ERA, among other legislative goals for the party, has drawn national attention to tightly contested state races like Helmer’s challenge of Hugo.
“Virginia is going to be so impactful not just for this district, but what that’s going to mean for the entire country is critically important,” People for the American Way president Michael Keegan said. “…This may be the most important election in Virginia ever.”
Helmer’s campaign manager Erik Darcey acknowledges that going up against an incumbent like Hugo, who has been in office for 17 years, makes for a challenging race, but he believes House District 40 voters are ready for a change in leadership.
Hugo won reelection in 2017 by just 106 votes over Democratic nominee Donte Tanner, making him the only Republican representing Prince William County to retain his seat that year. The House of Delegates’ 40th District encompasses parts of Prince William and Fairfax.
Darcey argues that factors like Northern Virginia’s changing demographics are shifting the district left, and the Democratic Party has taken notice, committing more resources to building grassroots support for state and local candidates.
In addition to Baldwin and Huerta, Helmer has hosted campaign rallies with prominent liberal politicians ranging from former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to presidential candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Andrew Gillum, the former Tallahassee, Fla., mayor who ran as the Democratic Party nominee for Florida’s governor in 2018.
“It shows that people are finally paying attention to these local races and that they matter, and the party is going to put a lot of efforts in here,” Darcey said. “This is the top flip opportunity in Virginia. It’s the top House of Delegates race in Virginia, and it's really just an honor to see that and be here and work for that.”
Much of the Democratic Party’s recent success, including its gain of a majority in the House of Representatives with the 2018 midterm elections, has been fueled by young voters, as candidates seek to tap into youth-led activism around issues like gun violence and climate change.
George Mason University student Jack Daou says his first time as a campaign volunteer was for a Republican candidate, but he has since been exposed to a wider variety of viewpoints.
He started volunteering for Helmer’s campaign on July 4, inspired by the urgency of a tight race and the veteran’s focus on issues like the ERA and gun laws.
An immigrant and longtime Northern Virginia resident, Daou says the experience has helped him better express his own political beliefs and how they have evolved.
“We don’t necessarily have a lot of experience or networking resources, but what we can do is get out there and put our foot through the door,” Daou said regarding student volunteers. “Go knock doors, and go help on these grassroots movements and campaigns that give people like students and young people, who may not have all of those resources, the power to speak their truth.”