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Democrats Join Forces in Longshot Campaign for Rural Virginia

Downtown Lexington, Virginia
Downtown Lexington, Virginia (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

Rural Virginia has voted overwhelmingly Republican in recent decades. This year, a group of Democrats running for the General Assembly are trying to chip away at the GOP’s advantage by joining forces.

Attorney Christian Worth’s race for a House of Delegates seat centered in Lexington offers one glimpse into the Democrats’s prospects. She lost to the current GOP delegate, Ronnie Campbell, by almost 20% in December 2018 runoff elections.

By the standards of the district, it was a close election; voters there elected Donald Trump by over 30 points, and Republicans have held the House seat since 1982.

It’s a similar story for nine other rural Democrats, most of them in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia, who face long odds and scarce funding. Joining the Democrats’ coordinated campaign costs campaigns roughly $50,000, according to Worth, and most candidates didn’t have that kind of cash on hand.

“We came together and realized that in order to run the strongest campaigns possible, we were going to have to have to stage the equivalent of a political barn-raising,” she said.

The so-called Rural GroundGame is coordinating field operations and sharing strategies, a Slack channel, and a consultant. Worth said they’re out to show rural voters that Democrats take them seriously.

“We’re never going to get anywhere if we do nothing, and don’t field strong elections every single election,” Worth said.

Republicans are fighting to maintain control of the legislature in this November’s elections. Both parties have focused almost all of their attention and resources on a handful of suburban races in the so-called urban crescent of Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Northern Virginia.

David Jones, a professor of political science at James Madison University, said rural Democrats weren’t wasting their time, especially if districts shifted in redistricting next year. And he said Democrats’ upsets in the 2017 elections, when they flipped 15 House seats, meant candidates saw daylight where they might not have before.

“Right now Democrats feel like they don’t want to leave anything on the table,” Jones said.

Their success may hinge on distancing themselves from an increasingly liberal national party, according to Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.

“If homegrown individual candidates with compelling personal stories focus on economic development, schools, and health care and take moderate or conservative positions on gun control, marriage equality, abortion, and the environment, they have a much better chance,” Palazzolo said in an email.

Worth said her campaign is focused on kitchen table issues like public education funding. And she thinks there’s rural voters who are weary of the going-ons in the White House.

“Sometimes I’m talking to someone who says, ‘You know, I voted this way in 2016 but I’m having some second thoughts,” Worth said. 

Still, Jones said an imminent win for rural Democrats like Worth was unlikely.

“It’s a long game -- at best,” he said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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