Sears becomes Virginia’s 1st female lieutenant governor

Lt. Gov. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears arrives to speak before Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin at an election night party in Chantilly, Va., early Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, after he defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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By MATTHEW BARAKAT Associated Press

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Republican Winsome Sears, who returned to Virginia politics after an absence of nearly two decades, has become the first female lieutenant governor and the first woman of color to win statewide office in Virginia.

Sears defeated Democrat Hala Ayala in Tuesday’s election. Ayala also would have been the first woman of color to hold statewide office if she had won.

The Republican 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.

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.

Sears will succeed Democrat Justin Fairfax, who unsuccessfully ran for governor. The marquee election Tuesday was the gubernatorial race, which Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin won, defeating former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

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.”

She said she will work to fully fund historically Black colleges and implement Youngkin’s agenda.

“He’s going to get rid of all kinds of taxes,” she said.

During the campaign, Ayala criticized Sears for refusing to say whether she had been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Sears ridiculed mask mandates during the primary.

Sears won despite being badly outgunned financially — reports showed Ayala’s campaign more than doubled Sears in fundraising, with $6.4 million raked in by Ayala, compared with $2.6 million for Sears.

Sears’ role as a tiebreaking vote in a closely divided state Senate has become even more important after Tuesday’s results. Republicans won the governor’s mansion, and the GOP 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.

If Republicans can pick up just one centrist Democrat on key pieces of legislation, Sears could be the tiebreaking vote to ensure passage.

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 is already an even 20-20 split on the issue. That’s because Democrat Joe Morrissey has voted against some legislation that would have expanded abortion rights in the state.

Sears has 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.

For attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring was seeking a third term against Republican Jason Miyares, a delegate from Virginia Beach. Herring would be the first attorney general to win a third term since World War II. The race was still too early to call.

Miyares, the son of a Cuban immigrant, declared victory early Wednesday, saying he is now the first Latino to be elected statewide in Virginia.

“I can’t wait to go to work with Governor Youngkin and Lieutenant Governor Sears for you,” Miyares said.

Herring had not conceded defeat as of Wednesday afternoon.

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.

Republicans have struggled in Virginia over the past decade — Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009. But now at least two of the three Republican candidates this year have broken that streak.

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.