Democrat Richard Saslaw has represented Virginia’s 35th district in the state Senate for nearly 40 years, without ever facing a primary fight. For the past several months however, he’s been feeling the heat from progressive challenger Yasmine Taeb, who could deliver an upset victory in Tuesday’s primary election.
Taeb, a human rights attorney and the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Democratic National Committee, is one of many progressive Democrats across the country who have aimed in recent months to push the party further to the left. The goal feels especially pressing in Virginia. Progressive organizers there have been working to rid the state of longtime Democratic incumbents like Saslaw, who would likely stand in the way of left-leaning legislation as the party is poised to take control of the General Assembly in November. All 140 seats in the legislature are up for election in the fall. Currently, Republicans hold razor-thin majorities in the House, at 51-48, and the Senate, at 20-19.
Tuesday’s race could also serve as a referendum on Virginia’s Democratic establishment, which has been mired in controversy over the past several months — first with Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook blackface scandal, and then with allegations of sexual abuse against Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax. Taeb spoke out strongly against Northam and Fairfax, calling on both to step down.
Saslaw, on the other hand, was Gov. Northam’s sole Democratic defender. When it came to Fairfax, Saslaw opposed efforts to impeach the lieutenant governor, explaining that “Impeachment implies high crimes and misdemeanors while you are in office, that’s what it’s for.”
“Our district is the most Democratic, the most progressive district in the entire state,” Taeb told ThinkProgress in February. “It’s been represented by the same person for the last 40 years, who is completely out of touch with his own constituents.”
The 35th district — which includes parts of Fairfax County and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church — is one of the most diverse in the state. And although turnout is expected to be low on Tuesday, Taeb believes those demographics will work to her advantage. As a Muslim, Iranian American refugee, Taeb has advocated for a more representative government that “reflects the progressive, inclusive values” of the district.
“The new Virginia way is representative of Democrats that are as diverse as their constituents,” she said.
Taeb, who was six years old when she and her family fled Iran in the midst of the country’s war with Iraq, would be the first Muslim state Senator and the first Iranian elected to the Virginia General Assembly should she win on Tuesday.
Saslaw reportedly has tried to use Taeb’s identity against her, apparently warning constituents that Taeb is “pro-Iran,” but a Saslaw campaign spokesperson told ThinkProgress that such claims are “flat-out wrong.”
“Sen. Saslaw’s been in the Senate for 40 years and understands that their parameters are nowhere near foreign policy,” the spokesperson said.
Taeb’s platform includes raising the minimum wage to $15, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), implementing Medicare for All, ending the death penalty, and taking corporate money out of politics.
She has also put Saslaw’s connections to Dominion, one of the state’s electric utility monopolies, at the forefront of her campaign. Saslaw has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Dominion, which has come under fire for its proposal to build a natural gas pipeline through one of Virginia’s historically black communities, a plan Taeb calls “environmental racism.”
While Saslaw enjoys a significant financial advantage over Taeb, as well as the endorsement of all the Democratic state senators, Taeb appears to have more on-the-ground support, which could make all the difference on Tuesday. She was also endorsed by the Democratic Socialists, which has propelled scores of progressive leaders to victory in recent months.
Our chapter has endorsed @mdc_dsa member Yasmine Taeb (@yasminetaeb) for Virginia State Senate District 35! As a human rights attorney and lifelong advocate for economic, racial, and social justice, Yasmine will fight every day for a more inclusive and equitable Virginia. pic.twitter.com/A8HzAFj88Z
— Metro DC DSA (@mdc_dsa) February 20, 2019
Furthermore, as the Intercept reported in March, Taeb has the backing of the Progressive Virginia Project, a project of Data for Progress, which seeks small-dollar donations to oust establishment Democrats who have been favored by corporations — a strategy that was successful in several state races in 2018. Virginia does not have limits on corporate donations to political campaigns.
If Taeb wins, she would join a slew of progressive leaders across the country who have stood up to the Democratic establishment in state legislatures, including 13 progressive candidates who were elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in the last election — all of whom refused to take donations from Dominion.
“There’s a movement happening, not just in Virginia, but all across the country, of people who are absolutely, unequivocally going to fight for racial and economic and environmental justice,” Taeb told ThinkProgress. “It’s important to me to lead on this issue.”
This story has been updated with additional information about the party breakdown of the Virginia General Assembly.