FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Winsome Sears says voters learned where she stands as she made history campaigning to become the first Black woman elected to statewide office in Virginia.
But Sears may be less known for her policy positions than for a campaign photo showing the 57-year-old former Marine posing with a military rifle. The image launched the Republican from political obscurity after a nearly 20-year absence from elected office to win the GOP's nomination for lieutenant governor, and she completed her comeback in November as Republicans swept Virginia's top offices.
Those who know her say Sears is more than a gun-toting caricature - they point to her willingness to buck her own party at times, and her dedication to school choice and other conservative education priorities. The photo grabbed attention, but she held it with an engaging, almost stream-of-consciousness speaking style, firing up the crowds for her ticket mate Glenn Youngkin, now the governor-elect.
She had one-liners ready for the press as well. When asked about her pro-gun stance after the votes were counted, she told a local television station: “Harriet Tubman carried a gun and if it was good for her, then it was good for me too."
Having won 51% to 49% over Democratic state Del. Hala Ayala, who as a Black Hispanic also would have made history, Sears is ready to pivot again, from speechifying to governing.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Sears said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And that’s why I couldn’t wait until we got to the end. So that I can really show the people that I mean to do right. That I’m not just using flowery language.”
The word that best describes Sears is “authentic,” according to Chris Braunlich, who served with her on Virginia's board of education a decade ago. She had little tolerance for local school superintendents who made excuses for their students’ poor performance, he said.
“When you tell me that I’m a victim ... how? Tell me how,” she said in one campaign speech in which she emphasized, as she often does, the progress that's been made over the decades in American race relations. “Everything I’ve had, I’ve had to work for. Everything.”
Sears has embraced President Donald Trump, serving as co-chair of a group called Black Americans to Re-elect President Trump, and defending him against charges of racism. Still, she has taken action when she believes Republicans fall short on racial issues.
In 2018, she launched a write-in campaign for U.S. Senate when Corey Stewart, whose campaign had links to white supremacists and used the Confederate flag as a prop, won the GOP nomination.
“The Republican Party never saluted the Confederate flag, did not fight under the Confederate flag ... and he is our candidate, our nominee?” she said at the time. “He does not represent the party of Lincoln. ... He is not a true Republican.”
When she is sworn in in January, she will be the first woman in the post, which is considered part time but often is a launching pad for future governors. Five of the past 10 lieutenant governors in Virginia have gone on to serve as governor.
Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first African American elected governor, said Sears has an independent streak that has served her well.
“She’s experienced, and she’s shown she’s someone who’s willing to listen, and willing to learn,” said Wilder, a Democrat, who met with Sears during the campaign and has agreed to serve on Youngkin’s transition team.
Wilder, now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, had been a lieutenant governor as well. He found the post to be a surprisingly sturdy platform for advancing an agenda, because it provides many opportunities to speak in front of influential audiences.
“You can define your issues,” he said.
Presiding over the Senate is one of the lieutenant governor's key duties but the job could be more than ceremonial for Sears since Republicans not only won the governor’s mansion, but also reclaimed a majority in the House of Delegates.
That leaves the 21-19 Senate as Democrats’ last bastion of power, with Sears poised to cast tie-breaking votes whenever a single Democrat can be lured to the Republican side.
Democrats are particularly concerned about her strong anti-abortion record. Ayala repeatedly warned voters that the Senate is essentially split 20-20 on the issue, with Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey having voted against some legislation to expand abortion rights.
Sears said voters heard that pitch as Ayala more than doubled her fundraising, and rejected it.
Voters “cared about the bread-and-butter issues that are facing them,” she said. Sears pointed out that she would allow abortions in cases of rape or incest and to save a pregnant woman's life or health. Asked if she would like any changes to abortion in Virginia, she was noncommittal, saying only, “Let me see about that.”
Sears represented Hampton Roads in the legislature for a single term two decades ago, sponsoring legislation against KKK-style cross burnings and squabbling with the Legislative Black Caucus, where she was the only Republican.
While absent from electoral politics, she was appointed to the Veterans Administration, the Census Bureau and the state school board and ran a plumbing and electrical supply company in the Winchester area. She said she moved there to provide a better environment for one of her daughters, DeJon Williams, who had mental health problems. Williams and her two daughters died in a car crash in 2012 after witnesses reported her speed exceeded 100 mph.
“I’m reminded that God gave us the ability to grieve, he gave us tears for a reason,” she told The Winchester Star in 2012.
Sears speaks frequently about her faith, writing a book titled “Stop Being a Christian Wimp!” long before she re-entered politics. She also led a prison Bible study.
Vinson Palathingal, a GOP activist from Fairfax County and an early supporter, said the party should have promoted her more prominently.
“Expanding the tent is something I’m working on, and that is exactly what Winsome is talking about,” he said as he handed out sample ballots.
Sears argues that lower taxes, school choice and opposition to abortion have more appeal among minorities than conventional political wisdom allows.
“We’re going to need new voters if we’re going to win,” she said in a GOP podcast earlier this year. “You know where we’re going to get them from? The only place: the Democrats. They’re in the Democratic Party, they’re conservatives, and they don’t even know it.”