Virginia election: Do key issues trump scandal?
Mason is a graduate student for Medill on the Hill, a program of Northwestern University in which students serve as mobile journalists reporting on events in and around Washington, D.C.
VIRGINIA – 7-year-old Colton Owens laid on the ground outside his elementary school and played with his mother’s shoelaces. It had been a long day of errands, flu shots and now, voting.
When his mother, Stephanie Owens began to answer a question, he chimed in with a list of names, the candidates he learned from television ads: Susanna Gibson, Siobhan Dunnavant and David Owen. Although Colton isn’t old enough to vote, he seemed to have given the advertisements more attention than many in Virginia’s 57th Delegate District, a suburban area northwest of Richmond.
“I see the ads just to know who is running pretty much, but that's about it. I don’t pay attention to the rest of that stuff,” Owens said.
Owens was selecting between Susanna Gibson and David Owen to serve as her representative in the state House of Delegates. The race made national news after recordings of Gibson and her husband performing sex acts on a streaming site called Chaturbate were leaked by an unnamed Republican operative to The Washington Post in September. For a race that received national attention for a sex scandal, few voters seemed focused on those videos or the ads and media stories about them, instead prioritizing the issues at stake, such as abortion access. Although Gibson lost, the margin was less than 3 percentage points, or just 715 votes, in a district that was considered competitive.
“It shouldn't really be a surprise that she [Gibson] didn't lose in a landslide because we're in a time where women, especially in this state … felt like abortion rights, access to abortion, access to reproductive rights were at risk,” said Dr. Jatia Wrighten, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I think that this is also playing in favor to Susanna Gibson and her right to privacy, her right to her body, the right to do what she wants in terms of sexual behavior.”
Gibson described the leaks as “the worst of gutter politics” but she and Owen, her opponent, largely avoided addressing the issue before the election. Afterward, she explained the reason for her silence.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, why didn't you speak out?’ Because I didn't want to give it oxygen. If I spoke out, if I did something, it would keep it in the news and in the media,” Gibson told Medill News Service in an interview two weeks after the election.
Owen stated he was unaware of the videos until they were leaked and was focused on his own campaign.
Fellow Democratic candidates said the scandal didn’t play a big role in the local elections.
“The vast, vast majority of people I have met had not mentioned it to me,” said Democratic candidate for the Henrico Board of Supervisors, Stephen Rast. “I honestly don't think it impacted the local elections too much. Once this story came out, she decided that she wasn't going to be campaigning with the rest of the Democratic ticket in the area anymore.”
Gibson’s campaigning did shift dramatically following the leaks, but rather than a conscious step from the party, she described it as concern for her family and mental health.
“It wasn't necessarily that I distanced myself from the Democratic Party, it's that I couldn't get up off the floor for about a week, I would lay down on my bathroom floor and not be able to get up. It was absolutely horrific and something I would never wish on my worst enemy,” said Gibson.
By October, Gibson was back on the trail, knocking on doors. Then, in late October, thousands of voters received GOP mailers with explicit content warnings that contained censored screenshots and quotes from the videos.
Some voters arrived at the polls without knowledge of Gibson’s videos but said if they had known, it would not have altered their vote.
After being told a brief rundown of the scandal, Lauren Cash, a voter whose priorities were abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, said, “I guess I'm more open-minded, but I don't think that would have really necessarily affected my decision as long as the values were kind of in line.”
Top on many voters’ minds was abortion. Virginia is currently the only southern state that has not imposed abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022. Governor Youngkin repeatedly expressed interest in tightening the current legislation from 26 weeks to 15 weeks with exceptions for incest, rape and to save the life of the mother.
Voter Michael Jenkins said one issue drove his vote.
“Abortion. I have two daughters…. As a man, it's just not my right to say whether someone can or can't have an abortion,” said Jenkins.
Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican candidate for Virginia’s 16th District Senate seat, which includes parts of the 57th House District, responded to questions about Gibson by saying that her mother had taught her, “if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.”
Women remain underrepresented in politics across the country. According to the U.S. census, Virginia has a female population of 50.5%, but women make up only 30% of the Senate and 34% of the House after Tuesday’s election.
“I have really been floored by how different a woman's voice is in the legislative process, and how diversity is such an important part,” Dunnavant said.
The AP recently highlighted four Virginia candidates who were accused of violence against women. Of the four, Tom Garrett, R, was the only winner. He won his race for delegate in the 56th District with 89% of the vote.
Garrett previously represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives for one term but opted not to run in 2018 to pursue alcoholism treatment. In 2019, his wife filed for divorce, citing a list of allegations including violence and abuse. Garrett has denied these claims. These accusations received some local coverage but did not reach the level of national attention that Gibson’s story did.
“Those men can commit horrific acts of violence, hitting someone with their car [Matt Fariss], strangling them [Garrett], and that is not considered nearly as bad as what I did with my husband,” Gibson said.
Gibson believed the response to the leaks reflected the sexism in society.
“Revenge porn is really rooted in the idea that men are in charge of, or own women's sexuality, that men are entitled to someone else's body and can use it as a weapon to control them,” Gibson said. “I think it's really like our misogynistic and patriarchal culture and our understanding of sex, that essentially views women as morally and ethically painted for something that the man then is praised for.”
Another female politician faced similar criticism in 2019.
California Democrat Katie Hill, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, resigned after nude photos revealed she had been in a polyamorous relationship involving her former husband and a campaign staffer.
Hill lost her lawsuit against the Daily Mail and two journalists alleging that they violated California’s revenge porn laws. Still, Gibson is pursuing a similar suit.
“I want to make sure that this person who shopped around those illegal pornographic images is found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Gibson said.
“As I understand it, she arranged for the photos and video to be taken of her willingly,” said Berlik, founder and managing member of BerlikLaw, LLC.
Under Virginia law, it would be important to show that the videos were posted without her consent, he said.
“Consent really is misunderstood. People say, ‘Oh, she put this out there. What does she expect?’ No. Incorrect. I did not,” Gibson said. “I consented to a group of people seeing something for a moment in time, I did not consent to that being recorded videos played over and over and over again, splashed across the Internet and across the world. They are two very different things.”
Gibson had begun working with Delegate Marcus Simon, a lawyer who helped create Virginia’s current revenge porn laws, to make Virginia’s legislation align with Illinois’.
“In Illinois, it doesn't matter what the intent was,” Gibson said. “If someone commits nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images, that is all that would be needed.”
As for whether the leaks played a role in Gibson’s loss, Gibson said she doesn’t think so. But she worried that her experience could deter other women from running for office.
“As more women step up to run for office, … there are going to be very few of us that don't have some kind of explicit content on our phone, on an ex’s phone, on our spouse's phone, on our computers, on the cloud,” Gibson said. “This will continue to happen over and over and over again if we allow it to and will only further discourage women and younger people from stepping up and running for office. We have to make sure that it doesn't remain acceptable.”