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Webb Pushes Virginia Democrats Into Trump Country

man speaking
Cameron Webb addresses supporters in Fluvanna County. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The little town of Fork Union, Virginia voted for President Trump by three points in 2016. Since then, residents like Ron Lewis say things have gotten worse.

“The only thing we have is a drug store and a bank,” Lewis said, gesturing toward a mostly deserted strip mall along the town’s main drag.

Lewis and other locals gathered in its parking lot during a Friday lunch break to hear from Democratic Congressional hopeful Cameron Webb, a man Lewis said can help change this town’s fortunes. Webb is gunning to take over a district Trump won by 11 points. Several polls now show him with a slight lead.

“It’s in play. It’s more than in play,” Webb told a crowd of a dozen or so supporters.

Republicans entered this election hoping they could claw back some of the U.S. House seats they lost in 2018. Now they’re struggling to fend off further Democratic gains.

Webb is testing the boundaries of Democrats’ strength in a mostly rural, New Jersey-sized district that spans tobacco farmers in Southside Virginia, evangelical students outside Liberty University and progressive professors in Charlottesville. 

Webb won a four-way primary partly on the strength of his CV; he’s a doctor, lawyer and academic at the University of Virginia.

“I know y'all are looking at me like I'm too young to do all that,” Webb told the crowd. “Listen, I'm 37 years old and Black don't crack.”

In 2015, Webb added a White House fellowship to his resume. When President Trump took office, Webb says his desk was moved to the hallway, and he was told he wasn’t needed.

“I joke they made the biggest mistake they could have because they left an extrovert in the  hallway,” Webb said.  

Webb said he managed to find common ground with Republicans, a strategy he’s now taking to the campaign trail. So far, it’s working: the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race from “likely Republican” to “toss up” over the course of this year.

Dave Wasserman, the publication’s editor for House races, says in Webb, Democrats found “perhaps their best candidate of the cycle anywhere in the country.” But other, larger factors are also in play. Once-safe Trump districts suddenly seem vulnerable across the U.S.

“Places like suburban Indianapolis and St. Louis and San Antonio, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Omaha -- these are all places where Republicans could lose seats,” Wasserman said.

Democrats hold a large fundraising edge in close House races; Webb raised four times as much money as his Republican opponent, Bob Good, through the end of September. Due to retirements, Republicans are also defending almost three times as many open seats. Webb is running for one of them. It opened up after the sitting Congressman, Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-5th), lost his party’s nomination to Good after Riggleman officiated a gay marriage. Riggleman has declined to endorse his former opponent.

The GOP projected a unified front at a recent pig roast in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Greene County. The speakers included Good, a former Liberty University athletics director. The self-described “Biblical conservative” takes a dim view of Democrats like Webb.

“The Democrat Party -- including my opponent -- frankly, is the party of death,” Good told the crowd. “They are the party of abortion at any time, at any reason, up to the moment of birth.”

Good said Democrats’ stance on abortion undermined the credibility of doctors who become political candidates; more than half a dozen Democratic doctors are running for Congress this year. Webb would be the first Black doctor to represent a state in Congress. Virginia’s Governor, Ralph Northam, is a pediatric neurologist whom Good dubbed “Doctor Infanticide” for comments he made about third trimester abortions. 

“That's what we need -- another doctor running our government,” Good said. 

Good’s hardline message resonates with supporters like Loren Peregory. She said his stance on issues like trade and gay marriage attracted her, and she sees no reason for him to temper his rhetoric.

“As long as he sticks to the conservative idea and hits hard on that, I think he’s got pretty good support,” Peregory said.

Good has also honed in on this summer’s protests, though they lightly touched the district. Good called Webb radical for kneeling in solidarity with protestors after the police killing of George Floyd. Speaking to supporters in July, Good said “we have largely eliminated systematic racism” and asked “who could possibly blame the president for the pandemic,” according to an audio recording first obtained by Virginia Scope. Good has also struggled to explain inconsistencies and possible conflict of interests that surfaced in his financial disclosures.

While Good’s message resonated at the mostly white pig roast, one in five people in the district are Black. Voter Ron Lewis in Fork Union said Webb’s background represents a big symbolic change in his area.

“We’ve never had a Black person to stand up for this particular community or this county before,” Lewis.

Webb’s campaign is mounting an effort to reach Black voters who felt sidelined by working with church pastors, sheriffs, and other local leaders. Tom Perriello, the last Democrat to hold the seat, predicted new state voting laws passed by his party, like allowing no-excuse absentee voting, would help drive Black turnout. 

Perriello said the “complicated and wonderful” district valued anti-establishment figures who cut against the mold of traditional politicians -- someone like Donald Trump. But Republicans’ advantage in the district has narrowed since then, with GOP Senate candidate Corey Stewart taking the district by two points.

“The Republican Party has looked increasingly like a backwards-facing and divisive party, and not one that's focused on producing meaningful results at the kitchen table,” Perriello said. “And I think that's gonna bode well for a lot of candidates this year.”

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