The Virginia governor's race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Libertarian Robert Sarvis has been grabbing most of the political headlines, but the fate of the commonwealth's LGBT community will most likely will be decided by the results of races further down the ballot this November.
In the homestretch to Election Day, Nov. 5, McAuliffe seems to have a slight edge over Cuccinelli – with Sarvis trailing both – leading in most polls by mid-to-high single digits. Different polls of the lieutenant governor's race show Democratic state Sen. Ralph Northam with either a slight edge or a wide margin over Republican E.W. Jackson. A Northam win would require a special election to fill his Senate seat. Another Democrat, coupled with the lieutenant governor's role as Senate tiebreaker, would hand control of the evenly split Virginia Senate to the Democrats. But the success of any pro-LGBT legislation will depend on changing the culture in the House of Delegates, a redoubt for anti-gay lawmakers, dominated by conservative Republicans from safely gerrymandered districts.
''The governor's race usually gets the most attention in an election year,'' says Geoffrey Skelley, the associate editor of ''Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball'' at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. ''However, it is possible that with two controversial candidates in the governor's race, the races further down the ballot could be overshadowed.''
Also read: 13 Races to watch in 2013
But Skelley also says that if the race continues on its current path to a McAuliffe victory, it could affect some delegate races.
In the 100-member House, 29 races feature a Republican running unopposed, 15 a Democrat unopposed. That leaves 56 contested seats, some even by third-party candidates. Those contested seats – 40 Republican-held, 16 Democratic – are key to ensuring that any LGBT-friendly legislation gets a fair hearing in committee, let alone an up-or-down vote by the full House.
Typically, bills such as SB 701, which would have prohibited discrimination in state employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, have been killed by House committees or subcommittees stacked with anti-gay legislators. If Democrats were to pick up seats in the lower chamber, they could potentially work with moderate Republicans to dilute the hard-line, conservative bloc.
Adding to the hopes of LGBT rights advocates, nearly 60 percent of this year's competitive races are located in Democratic-leaning regions of Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads, with three-quarters of those races in the five counties closest to Washington.
Skelley says some legislators from more liberal-leaning areas have already distinguished themselves from the rest of their caucus, particularly on more hot-button social issues such as abortion or LGBT rights.
''Tom Rust is a perfect example,'' Skelley says of the former mayor of Herndon and six-term Republican delegate who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties. ''He occupies the most 'Democratic Republican-held seat,' so he supports things like gay rights not only because he's a relative moderate, but because he and other Republicans recognize that they might not be able to attract moderates in those districts if they go really conservative.''
Skelley also points out that Democrats have begun pouncing on social issues that, as recently as 2006, would have cut against them politically. But now, bolstered by a sea change in public opinion on issues like marriage equality or nondiscrimination, those stances are advantageous.
''With shifts in public opinion and the fact that young people just don't care about these issues, most Democrats recognize that being pro-gay marriage is beneficial politically,'' he says. ''They get to come out in favor of it and, in doing so, force their opponents to take a stand, and hope they say something embarrassing or controversial.''
James Parrish, the executive director of the nonpartisan statewide LGBT-rights organization Equality Virginia, says it is important for voters of any political stripe who care about equality to focus on the down-ticket races.
''We want to make sure everyone's paying attention to the attorney general's race,'' Parrish says, pointing to it as an often-overlooked contest. ''We feel that some of the mainstream press has been giving [Republican state Sen. Mark] Obenshain a pass on his sudden 'conversion' on nondiscrimination. He voted against the nondiscrimination bill when it passed the Senate in January, and walked off the floor rather than vote for an openly gay judge.''
''Obenshain votes the way Cuccinelli talks,'' Parrish warns.
Parrish says voters need to look closely at House candidates' positions voting, which is why EVPAC, the political-action arm of Equality Virginia, has endorsed some pro-equality candidates, and has posted the written responses to its endorsement questionnaire from all General Assembly candidates on its website. EVPAC has also been organizing volunteers to canvass and call prospective voters on behalf of some of its endorsed candidates.
''I believe, particularly if there's higher turnout, we will definitely see a General Assembly that has more LGBT-friendly faces,'' Parrish says. ''It's a long haul, particularly after two decades of GOP-led redistricting in the House.''
Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), who also serves as party chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, says there has been a marked shift in attitudes on LGBT rights, which is prompting Democrats to be more vocal about their support for the LGBT community.
''People are becoming bold. They realize when they don't speak out, bad things can happen,'' Herring says, referring to anti-LGBT legislation that has passed the House in the last two legislative sessions.
But Herring is also honest about the political realities in the General Assembly. Many lawmakers, she says, particularly Republican House members, are scared of facing a primary challenger if they support any form of progressive legislation. That, she says, means LGBT advances are dependent on the electoral success of Democrats.
''Until we start picking up more seats, it's going to be a few years before we see legislation like that pass,'' Herring says. She notes that the Democratic Party has been encouraging liberal-leaning voters who typically vote in federal elections but stay home in odd-year elections to turn out at the polls.
''If you supported Obama, if you supported Tim Kaine, you need to vote, because those policies you care about on the federal level can easily be pushed back at the state level,'' she says. ''Your vote is your franchise. Your ability to vote today determines the rights you enjoy tomorrow.''
David Lampo, a national board member for the LGBT group Log Cabin Republicans and a former vice president of the Northern Virginia Log Cabin chapter, says that the organization's political action committee (PAC) is not disbursing any funds, as the group is in the process of reorganizing itself. But he notes that the PAC has supported lawmakers such as Tom Rust, Jim LeMunyon (R-Farifax, Loudoun counties) and Dave Albo (R-Fairfax Co.) in past election cycles.
Lampo says that Log Cabin of Northern Virginia is not holding chapter meetings, but is encouraging members to reach out and volunteer with individual campaigns. The group, he says, will likely post something to its Facebook page encouraging its members to vote for five candidates they view as allies: Rust, LeMunyon and Albo; as well as Del. Joseph Yost (R-Radford, Montgomery, Giles, Pulaski counties) and Del. R. Lee Ware (R-Chesterfield, Fluvanna, Goochland and Powhatan counties), both of whom signed on as co-patrons of the failed employment-nondiscrimination bill this past session.
In addition to Democratic and Republican candidates, six Libertarian Party candidates are running for House seats. According to the party's platform, ''sexual orientation, preference, gender or gender identity should have no impact on the government's treatment of individuals, such as in current marriage, child custody, adoption, immigration or military service laws.''
Chuck Moulton, the chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia, notes that the party has supported marriage equality since 1971, well before either of the two major political parties addressed the issue. But Moulton also says that discretion is given to individual candidates to determine whether they want to make marriage equality or LGBT rights a focus of their political platforms.
Laura Delhomme, a candidate for the 47th House District seat currently held by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington Co.), is one such Libertarian who has made her support for LGBT rights a prominent part of her platform.
''I am absolutely in favor of repealing the Marshall-Newman Amendment,'' Delhomme says, referring to the 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment that not only banned same-sex marriage, but any recognition of same-sex couples.
Noting that she may hold a different view than others in her party, Delhomme also says she'd vote for proposed legislation that prohibits discrimination in public employment or state government based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
''I absolutely don't think the government should be discriminating against citizens,'' she says.
Anthony Tellez, a Libertarian running for the seat in the nearby 53rd District left open by the retirement of Del. Jim Scott (D-Falls Church, Fairfax Co.), says he's also made support for LGBT rights part of his platform.
''You shouldn't discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation, or their race or ethnicity,'' says Tellez.
Tellez also notes that there's been an evolution on how Virginians view LGBT issues.
''The thing about gay rights was that people laughed it off until they found out there was popular support,'' Tellez says, noting that his own devout Catholic family has become ''less hard-nosed'' in their views of homosexuality. ''It comes down to votes. Americans' views have evolved, and now politicians are capitalizing on the issue. And the gay community has been very good about pushing this to the forefront and framing it as a civil-rights issue.''
Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond, Henrico Co.), a longtime ally of the LGBT community who was endorsed by EVPAC in her race for the 71st House District, notes there has always been support for LGBT rights, but what's new about the 2013 campaign is that the support is so widespread that candidates are being more vocal about that support.
''I had a private conversation with a Republican legislator after the judge fight,'' McClellan says, referring to when the House rejected the judicial nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland, a gay veteran, in 2012. ''He had never voted for a nondiscrimination bill, but he told me, 'I've never believed that people were discriminated against because of their LGBT identity until today.' When it stops being theoretical, it changes the dynamic.''
McClellan also says many moderate Republicans or Republicans in gay-friendly districts often don't speak out on these issues, which she says is due to their fear of losing to a primary challenger. She says that legislators are often pressured by organizations like the anti-gay Family Foundation of Virginia, whose lobbyists have significant clout in the General Assembly.
Messages left with the offices of various Republican delegates, including Rust and Yost, who are considered gay-friendly, were not returned.
Kathleen Murphy, who is challenging incumbent Republican Del. Barbara Comstock (R-Fairfax, Loudoun counties), argues that many Republicans in gay-friendly districts appear at community events and take credit for things that passed, even if they voted against those bills. But when it comes down to it, she says, even so-called ''moderate'' Republicans vote for the same agenda items being pushed by people like Cuccinelli and Jackson.
''The whole Republican ticket this year is scary, just in terms of what it means for human rights, for basic rights, and Barbara Comstock is right in there with them,'' Murphy says.
Comstock's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
''I think people don't understand the role that local government plays in their daily lives, and Democrats have to play catch-up if we're going to put a stop to it now,'' adds Murphy.
With Republicans retaining control of the House a likely outcome, Murphy emphasizes that legislators can still push for equality measures.
''We need to have a commitment to human rights, to push back against those lawmakers and shame them into admitting they're bigoted,'' she says, echoing comments made by others about the shift in public opinion.
Regardless of party affiliation or political ideology, most supporters of equal rights are simpatico it comes down to what Virginians need to do this November: get out and vote, preferably for candidates who will champion legislation benefiting the LGBT community.
''If you didn't like the direction we moved in 2012, but you didn't come out to vote in 2009, you're part of the problem,'' McClellan says. ''We want and need a commonwealth where everybody is treated fairly and equally.''
For more information, visit "13 Virginia Races to Watch in 2013."