Republican Winsome E. Sears was elected Virginia’s lieutenant governor on Nov. 2, becoming the first Black woman to hold the office in the state. (The Washington Post)
Republican Winsome E. Sears was projected to win Virginia’s race for lieutenant governor Wednesday, a victory that would make her the first woman in the state’s second-highest office and that could tilt the closely split state Senate in her party’s favor on divisive issues such as abortion restrictions.
The victory, projected by the Edison Research group, also would make Sears the first woman of color to hold a statewide office in Virginia, a milestone that was also possible for Ayala and that both candidates used to rally supporters in their bid to win the position that traditionally has been a launchpad for a run for governor.
Sears, 57, was born in Jamaica and is Black. Ayala, a 48-year-old state delegate in Prince William County, identifies as Afro-Latina, Lebanese and Irish.
“I’m telling you that what you are looking at is the American Dream,” Sears told supporters in a victory speech in Chantilly that highlighted the journey of her father from Jamaica to the United States, showing up in New York with just $1.75 in his pocket.
After the crowd cheered, chanting her name, Sears vowed to push for Virginia to fully fund historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I am Black and I’ve been Black all of my life,” she said, as her husband and two daughters stood behind her.
Sears would bring to the executive branch a pragmatic conservative who during her campaign worked to expand the Republican Party by bringing in voters of color who agreed with her stances against abortion and for gun owners’ rights.
Outspoken and deeply religious, Sears was open about how her personal experiences have informed her up-from-your-bootstraps conviction that government should allow people to succeed on their own.
Her political career began in 2001, when as a young former U.S. Marine, Sears beat a long-term Democratic incumbent in a predominantly Black Norfolk district by, among other things, promising voters that state-funded school vouchers could help their children get a better education.
Sears served just one term in the House, where she sponsored a 2002 ban on Ku Klux Klan-style cross burnings in Virginia that got around a state Supreme Court ruling the previous year that found the practice was protected under the First Amendment.
Then, as abruptly as Sears entered the political arena, she left — in large part to care for a daughter with bipolar disorder who died in a 2011 car crash along with Sears’s two young granddaughters.
In 2018, Sears reentered electoral politics when she launched a write-in campaign to undermine Republican Corey A. Stewart’s Senate campaign, calling him “the wrong messenger” after revelations that Stewart had consorted with known white supremacists. Last year, Sears headed a national group geared toward turning out the Black vote for President Donald Trump.
She won her party’s nomination for the lieutenant governor’s seat as an underdog candidate, generating enthusiasm within the party’s conservative base through a campaign ad that featured a stone-faced Sears posing in a dress and blazer with an assault rifle.
With a Texas law that restricts most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Ayala highlighted comments Sears made expressing support for such a measure in Virginia, rallying voters who back abortion rights around the possibility that whoever sits in the lieutenant governor’s seat would be a deciding vote on the matter.
“We need to keep this seat blue,” she said during a news conference early Tuesday after highlighting the fact that Justin Fairfax (D), the current lieutenant governor, served as a tiebreaking vote 52 times during his four years in office.
Sears brushed off those attacks, saying information about her health is private while encouraging people to get vaccinated.
The Republican characterized Ayala as a “radical leftist” who can’t be trusted even by her own supporters — a reference to the $225,000 the Democrat received from Dominion.
She also joined GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin in attacking Democrats over critical race theory, an academic method for examine systemic racism that, while not part of Virginia’s K-12 curriculum, has become conservative shorthand for any efforts to include cultural awareness in the classroom.
With polls predicting a close result, both candidates appealed to voters of color during the final days before the election.
For Ayala, that meant joining Dolores Huerta, a veteran Latina civil rights leader, and Black elected officials for get-out-the-vote rallies over the weekend. On Tuesday, the Democrat canvassed for votes with union organizers.
Sears mostly focused on Black voters, running a social media ad that featured African Americans who said they have felt left behind by the Democratic Party. But she also made appeals to Asian and Latino voters, the two fastest-growing communities in Virginia.
“Somebody’s got to step up and do something because we need new voters in the party,” Sears said in a separate social media post, referring to the string of Republican losses in statewide races since 2009.
On Tuesday, Sears appeared to be easily outperforming Ayala in rural parts of Virginia while doing better than expected in portions of heavily Democratic Northern Virginia, such as Loudoun and Prince William counties.
Voters on both sides were moved by the prospect of seeing a woman of color become lieutenant governor.
Marco Capaychi walked out of the polling station at Sudley United Methodist Church in Manassas with a smile on his face after casting his vote for Ayala.
Though he generally votes for Democrats, including McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark R. Herring on Tuesday, Ayala’s campaign in particular excited him this year, Capaychi said.
“We need a change. She’s female and a minority. She sees different issues,” Capaychi said.
Rodolfo de la Garza, another Ayala voter, agreed.
“It’s about time this state is represented by a woman lieutenant governor,” he said.
Mike Walker, 46, a self-described independent voter, said he was moved by Sears’s background as an immigrant and former Marine.
“She’s a strong woman,” said Walker, who is White, after casting his ballot at Mountain View Elementary School in western Loudoun County. “She clearly worked hard to get to where she is and that earns my respect.”
Liz Dickinson, 49, was among the surge of Republicans who voted early in this election, a reversal from last year’s presidential election when Trump claimed without evidence that the process would be rife with fraud, turning away many Republicans.
Dickinson, who was distributing sample ballots outside Evergreen Elementary School in Leesburg on Tuesday, said she loves that Sears is antiabortion and understands the importance of education.
“She’s very focused on the education aspect in Virginia, which is very important for parents,” Dickinson said. “She talks about test scores, reading scores, math scores, helping our kids get ahead in the world.”
Julie Zauzmer Weil, Rebecca Tan and Rayna Song contributed to this report.