If Sam Rasoul wins the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in the party’s June primary — and there’s a decent chance he might — we already know how that victory will be reported nationwide.
He would be the first Muslim nominated to run statewide in Virginia or anywhere else in the South.
Indeed, only one Muslim has been elected to statewide office anywhere in the United States — Keith Ellison was elected attorney general of Minnesota in 2018.
That might be historically significant, but there’s another way in which Rasoul’s nomination — if it happens — would be historic, one that’s far more important to us than Rasoul’s ethnicity or religion.
He would be the first candidate from Roanoke nominated to run on a statewide ticket since Ray Garland was the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 1971. And if he won, he’d be the first candidate from Roanoke to win a statewide election since Republican Linwood Holton was elected governor in 1969.
All that raises a curious question: Why has it been a half-century since the fourth-largest metro area in Virginia (behind Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond) produced a statewide nominee?
The short answer is that few have tried and none have succeeded.
We’ve had other candidates from the larger region run statewide —Creigh Deeds of Bath County was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2005 and governor in 2009 — and sometimes win.
Republican John Dalton of Radford won the lieutenant governor’s race in 1973 and went on to win the governorship in 1977.
There are others who have had ties to the region.
Republican Jerry Kilgore was living in the Richmond area when he was elected attorney general in 2001 and lost the governor’s race in 2005 but he hailed from Scott County.
Democrat Mary Sue Terry was from Patrick County when she was elected attorney general in 1985 — so far the only woman to win statewide — and then was reelected in 1989 before losing the governor’s race in 1993.
Democrat George Kostel of Clifton Forge was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee in the 1971 special election for lieutenant governor.
But as for the Roanoke Valley, we can only remember two in the past 50 years. Steve Agee, then a state legislator from Salem, unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 1993.
John Edwards, still a state senator from Roanoke, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2001.
There were two others nearby: Jim Updike, then commonwealth’s attorney in Bedford County, successfully sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 1997. And Virgil Goode, then a Democratic state senator from Rocky Mount, unsuccessfully sought the U.S. Senate nomination in 1994.
By those measures, even Rasoul’s mere candidacy is historic — the first person from Roanoke in two decades to seek a statewide nomination. It also comes as the political weight of the state has shifted dramatically away from this part of the state. We see that in who else is running for lieutenant governor. There are seven candidates in all — Virginia’s biggest primary field ever.
Andria McClellan is from Norfolk. Five others — Hala Ayala, Elizabeth Guzman, Mark Levine, Sean Perryman and Xavier Warren — are all from Northern Virginia, although Warren grew up in Pittsylvania County.
Rasoul’s hometown sometimes makes him a curiosity as he meets with Democratic activists in the urban crescent. “All the time people ask me about it,” he says. “A lot of times people ask in bewilderment — what is happening in that other neck of the woods?”
In many ways, a political base in the western part of the state would seem a handicap when so much of the Democratic base is in the eastern part of the state.
However, it’s possible that Rasoul’s roots west of the Blue Ridge might turn out to be an advantage given the size of the field. Rasoul is one of the few candidates making a point to court voters in rural Virginia who are increasingly bypassed by other Democrats.
(Some fans in Big Stone Gap even wrote a bluegrass song for his campaign). He’s pledged to visit every county and city — which sounds reminiscent of what Doug Wilder did when he ran for lieutenant governor in 1985 and paid such unexpected dividends.
Rasoul’s attention to rural Virginia also seems similar to how Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination over Hillary Clinton. Clinton ignored small states; Obama did not.
There weren’t many votes available but after awhile the margins added up and made the difference after Obama and Clinton effectively battled to a tie in bigger states.
Can Rasoul do the same? That depends on how the other candidates split the votes in Northern Virginia, and how much of that Rasoul can snag.
Rasoul is quite different from other Democrats from Western Virginia who have run over the years. They ran as moderates. Rasoul’s record is very much that of a modern-day progressive, which would put him in accord with what Democratic activists in the urban crescent are presumably looking for. He’s also put together an interesting coalition — with endorsements ranging from former Rep. Rick Boucher, the last Democrat to represent Virginia’s coal counties in Congress, to left-wing groups such as Our Revolution (which grew out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign) and the Sunrise Movement, which is focused on climate change. With so many candidates, it’s hard to figure out which “lane” each one is in.
Rasoul’s pitch is somewhat unconventional — he presents him as “the values” candidate with the decidedly nonpolitical slogan of “truth, love, grit.”
The first thing his staffers ask when phone banking is whether there’s anything his campaign can do to help them with government services.
“I’m out to prove there is a better way for us to win and to connect and represent in public service,” he says.
Just as notably, Rasoul has raised more money than any other candidate for lieutenant governor, in either party. As of the last reports, he had $655,851.
Among Democrats, Alaya was second at $431,394, followed by Andria McClellan at $231,5472 and Perryman at $206,233. Perryman is another one to watch. He’s one of two Black candidates. If he could consolidate that support, and add votes from his home in Fairfax County, he would be a serious contender in a multicandidate field.
It’s possible, even likely, one of the other candidates will also rise out of the pack.
Still, by any measure, Rasoul seems to have established himself in the top tier. We’ll find out June 8 just what kind of history Virginia Democrats want to make.