She was Don Beyer’s first primary challenger in the eight years he has been in Congress — a bold move for a 29-year-old first-time candidate seeking to oust a longtime fixture in Virginia politics whom local Democrats often described as “beloved.” In fact, Beyer is the only congressional Democrat in Virginia who is facing a primary opponent this year. Virasingh’s challenge, although a long shot, had surprised some and impressed others. She mounted a ground game that one observer described as tenacious and did not seem to flinch against doubts she could take on the 71-year-old Democratic Party stalwart.
But as Beyer and Virasingh shook hands at Makeda that evening in March, the vibe was warm. “Victoria and I are having a great time campaigning with each other, not against each other,” Beyer said to the crowd of Ethiopian and Eritrean Americans.
For Beyer, Virasingh’s spirited challenge has offered a chance to jump back into the campaign fray for the first time since he was elected in 2014, reflecting on his four terms as he makes the case to voters to let him continue. It’s “a wonderful way to make sure you haven’t lost touch. I’ve tried to stay engaged. But you get engaged in a different way when there’s a June 21 deadline,” Beyer said, noting the date of the Democratic primary.
Over his eight-year tenure, Beyer has built a reputation for an intense focus on climate change and an economic prowess that has earned him the chairmanship of the Joint Economic Committee, a wonky bipartisan group that has worked largely behind the scenes to help shape some of Congress’s most influential pandemic-era legislation, such as economic impact payments.
“Frankly, I was a little surprised he had primary opposition,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where Beyer chairs the subcommittee with oversight of NASA and space projects. “She picked one of the most active and concerned leaders in the Congress to challenge.”
Virasingh said she hears that a lot: Why is she challenging? “It’s certainly the million-dollar question I get across the district,” she said.
She and Beyer do not disagree on much. Virasingh has applauded Beyer’s work. Their candidate forums become substantive policy discussions on issues about which both say they are passionate: wage inequality and labor rights, immigration reform, corporate responsibility and making the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes. But in a district where 48 percent of the population are minorities, Virasingh, a Latina and Indian American, is zeroing in on one key difference: her perspective as the daughter of immigrants who made minimum wage as she grew up in Arlington — a perspective she said Beyer cannot share.
“I’m running because I know the future ahead of us is brighter when we bring diverse voices, diverse experiences, a lived experience, to the halls of Congress,” she said to the crowd at Makeda.
Virasingh said in an interview that she was closer to the “lived realities of most Americans” than Beyer, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and believes that voters are looking for someone reflecting themselves. “This is a race about passing the torch,” she said.
But Beyer, who said he envisioned serving 12 to 20 years in Congress when he was elected, does not appear quite ready for torch-passing.
Virginia Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Alexandria) remembers running against Beyer in that crowded 2014 Democratic primary to fill the 8th Congressional District seat vacated by Rep. James P. Moran (D) — at least for a little bit. “As soon as I got my polling back, I was the second person to get out of the race,” Lopez said recently. “It was clear he was going to win in a landslide.”
Beyer, the charismatic car dealer with catchy radio ads, had leveraged a career in state politics as lieutenant governor and a stint in the Obama administration as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein to mount a successful political second act. Looking back on it, he said he believes the campaign worked because he had a singular message. “I was going to be the strongest, clearest voice I can be to fight climate change,” Beyer said. “That was the only message. I’ve tried to fulfill that in every possible way.”
Beyer’s career evolution in the climate-change sphere is notable, considering he started selling cars at a time in the 1970s when “nobody had ever hard of climate change,” he said. When Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006, he said, his dealership started giving away a bicycle or a dogwood tree, plus two tickets to the movie, with every purchase of a new Volvo. Now, he’s among Congress’s advocates for electrifying the automobile industry.
“His advocacy in terms of climate change is terrific, and he knows what he’s talking about, which is even better,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, of which Beyer is a member and which drafted much of the now-in-limbo Build Back Better Act. “He’s very effectual.”
Several pieces of climate-change legislation that Beyer led were included in Build Back Better, among them tax incentives for carbon capture and for zero-emission commercial vehicles. He attended the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last year. In February 2021, he founded the bipartisan Fusion Energy Caucus, which focuses on helping Congress better understand a type of energy production that is not yet viable but which Beyer believes “has the potential to lift more citizens of the world out of poverty than any idea since fire.”
“Someday I’m hoping my granddaughter can say, ‘Don Beyer started the Fusion Caucus and saved the planet,’ ” Beyer told a roomful of voters at another forum he attended with Virasingh this month — maybe exaggerating but also maybe not.
Lopez, who has endorsed Beyer, said that aside from his climate leadership, Beyer has been effective in bringing resources back to the district. He managed to secure all 10 of his community project funding requests — or “earmarks” — in the federal budget, such as body-worn cameras for Alexandria police and storm sewage improvements to mitigate flooding. But on a more personal note, Lopez said, also notable was Beyer’s work on immigration reform and his office’s assistance to immigrant families in the district seeking visas or trying to reunite with loved ones from overseas.
“There’s a reason why he has such strong support from new American and Latino communities,” Lopez said. “It’s because he was standing shoulder to shoulder with us on immigration reform, and on the Dream Act, and on the issues that mattered to new Americans and Latinos before anyone else, really.”
That is the sphere in which Virasingh has sought to find an opening.
Her mother immigrated to the United States from Ecuador. Her father was born in Bangkok to Punjabi Sikh refugees. They met in Arlington, where they raised Virasingh, living for a time only on her mother’s minimum-wage job as a manicurist, Virasingh said. “Our lucha,” Virasingh said at Makeda that evening, using the Spanish word she defined as “to strive, to overcome the odds that are stacked against you,” which she has used as a rallying cry for her campaign.
Virasingh has framed her personal story as an example of the American Dream, saying she went on to attain a Pell grant and scholarship to attend Stanford University. She got a job in the tech sector in Silicon Valley, facilitating public-private partnerships at the software company Palantir, before deciding to return to Arlington in 2020.
Now, combining a tech-savvy background and by-the-bootstraps upbringing, she’s targeting young voters and the district’s many minority communities. She makes TikTok videos. She talks to many voters in their own languages — and says she speaks seven, to varying degrees, having grown up in a multilingual household. Leaving the stage at Makeda that March evening, she gave a little farewell in the predominant Ethiopian language Amharic, to whoops and cheers. “She’s obviously going above and beyond to connect with the audience,” said Gelila Sebhatu, a local Democratic grass-roots advocate and political consultant who emceed the event that night. “Even though they didn’t know her, they really liked her.”
Sebhatu, who is part of the Ethiopian and Eritrean American community, said she and many in the local diaspora appreciated Beyer’s outspokenness in Congress on the conflict in Ethiopia involving the Tigray region and his opposition to sanctions legislation targeting certain Ethiopian leaders. And so she was having a hard time deciding whom to support, finding herself drawn as well to Virasingh’s energy and message about diversity, she said.
Sebhatu said she has noticed Virasingh targeting her outreach in “untapped communities” that typically have lower turnout, including in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, believing that such overtures could be one of her strongest assets in a decidedly difficult race.
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“For me, her story was extremely compelling,” said Diana Vaca McGhie, an Alexandria voter whose parents came to the United States from Ecuador. Vaca McGhie said she had thought about breaking into local politics but wasn’t sure how to start. Seeing Virasingh aim straight for the top impressed her, leading her to decide to hold an Empanadas for Victoria gathering at her home to help Virasingh’s campaign. She supported Beyer’s work in Congress but felt ready to take a chance on Virasingh, sympathizing with her call on Beyer to pass the torch.
“Our politics is so White-centric,” she said. “That’s where we need to start the dismantling. We need men in power like the Don Beyers to say, ‘You know what? It’s my turn to pass it over.’ That is leadership.”
Beyer said he has heard the message. “I don’t disagree with any of her goals,” he said of Virasingh while saying that closing the racial wealth gap is another priority of his in Congress. But for him and many of his supporters, the primary contest comes down to experience: They believe that now is not the time for him to step aside, when he can leverage more powerful relationships in Congress to bring resources to the district and advance Democratic priorities.
“Certainly, more women in Congress is good. More people of color in Congress is good. I’m for all that stuff. I can’t fulfill any of that, because I’m an old White male,” Beyer said. “But because she hasn’t been there yet, I don’t think there’s an appreciation at this time of how difficult it is to get things done, and how much relationship drives achievement, and relationship means that there are people who trust you. … It’s taken me a bunch of years to develop.”
Virasingh has argued that she would be more ahead of the curve than Beyer on liberal causes such as increasing the federal minimum wage, supporting an hourly minimum of $18 rather than $15, considering the higher cost of living in the 8th District. “She’s right,” said Beyer, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But the reason he said he is pushing for $15 now is that politics “is still the art of the possible.”
Robbin Warner of the grass-roots group Network NOVA said she planned to bring Beyer and Virasingh onto the group’s Friday Power Lunch show to discuss their campaign when it ends, believing it should be an example even in national Democratic politics of an engaging primary challenge that should be welcomed, not frowned upon, by the establishment. If Virasingh cannot beat Beyer this time, Warner said, acknowledging that the feat would be tough for Virasingh to pull off, at the very least Democrats can “build the bench” and elevate female candidates such as Virasingh for the future.
“I can’t say anything bad about Don Beyer. He’s beloved! He’s a great guy. He’s everything we’ve wanted,” Warner said. But competition is healthy, Warner said, especially when looking for the next generation of Democratic leaders.
At a candidate forum this month at Busboys and Poets in Arlington — as they campaigned “with” each other but also at least a little bit against each other, too — Beyer signaled that he agreed. The moderator asked the candidates to say something they admired about each other.
“Where do I start?” Beyer said to Virasingh. “I’ve told many people, I hope I win this primary, but I look forward to supporting you often in the many years to come.”