The commonwealth has been increasingly shifting blue on political maps, but Southwest Virginia remains a stronghold of Republican control.
The region’s two lonely blue outposts must look like isolated islands in a red sea, ripe for plunder this election season.
When the “Blue Wave” of Democratic wins washed over Virginia during the last election cycle, it collected in only two small spots west of the Blue Ridge― House of Delegates districts 11 in the Roanoke Valley (represented by Sam Rasoul) and 12 in the New River Valley (represented by Chris Hurst).
The GOP has been looking to unseat incumbent Democrats in some rural districts, and HD12 in particular has become one of the most hotly contested races, not just in Southwest Virginia, but in all of Virginia.
So how did HD12 become a battleground?
Democrats are defending their 55-45 advantage in the state House this year. With a margin of control that tight, every race matters. Republicans are primarily seeking to unseat Democrats in around a dozen districts, from rural areas in Southwest Virginia to suburbs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Rural Democrats like HD12’s Hurst have become targets in particular because they are “a rare breed,” as an Associated Press article put it earlier this month. The GOP sees vulnerability in that isolation; possibly an opportunity for extinction.
HD12 is somewhat of an anomaly in predominantly conservative Southwest Virginia. Much of that is due to the presence of two colleges and their cadre of younger, more left-leaning students, as well as more affluent suburbs. The GOP is counting on reaching the conservative rural voters who live outside those academic spheres in November.
The 12th District includes the City of Radford and Montgomery, Pulaski and Giles counties. Hurst, of Blacksburg, is a former TV news reporter who is seeking his third term in the House after flipping HD12 from Republican control in 2017. He won the district in 2017 by a seven-point margin.
This year, he is challenged by political newcomer Jason Ballard of Giles County, an attorney, military veteran and member of Pearisburg Town Council. Ballard has focused his campaign on public safety, education and the economy.
Hurst has said he wants to address congestion on Interstate 81, improve rural broadband service, expand housing opportunities and increase access to mental health. Ballard has said Hurst hasn’t paid attention to his district, and that it isn’t prospering under his oversight.
In its campaign ads, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) portrays Hurst as a “radical liberal” and criticizes him for voting to raise the state’s gas tax. Hurst has defended raising the gas tax for the first time in more than 30 years, saying it was done to pay for much-needed transportation improvements that Republicans failed to address in two decades of General Assembly control.
Ballard has called Hurst out for voting for a failed bill that would have ended qualified immunity for police officers – a policy that protects them from facing civil lawsuits for alleged abuse or misconduct on the job. Hurst has said that he advocated for police pay bonuses and voted for police reforms like ending no-knock search warrants and setting up civilian review boards to oversee law enforcement, according to The Associated Press.
The money being spent on the HD12 race is a good indication of how serious both parties are taking it.
Ballotpedia last week looked at all 100 House of Delegates races and named HD12 as one of the most competitive, ranking it fourth in total fundraising and noting it was one of 22 battleground races with the potential to shift the House’s partisan balance.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), the most recent campaign finance report shows Hurst had raised $906,251 and Ballard had raised $478,449 through Sept. 30. Ballard told The Roanoke Times in September he wasn’t concerned about trailing Hurst, noting that it’s not uncommon for incumbents to outraise challengers.
While Hurst has raised the most money (45%) from individuals, Ballard’s coffers have been filled primarily (56%) by the Republican party, the GOP caucus or candidate committees.
Hurst and Ballard have spent a total of $860,065 on TV ads alone – the second-most of any House race this year, according to VPAP.
The RSLC has launched a six-figure television ad campaign targeting six Democratic incumbents, including Hurst.
The 15-second ad, which prominently features a photo of Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warns voters that Hurst voted for higher energy costs, raised gas taxes and won’t protect their families because his “supporters pushed to defund the police.”
Similar ads target other Democrats, keeping the same audio and switching out only the candidates’ photos. “Only you can stop ’em,” they conclude.
“Democrats spent the last two years passing a long list of sweeping policies,” Politico reported last week. “They implemented criminal justice reforms, legalized marijuana, expanded voting rights, raised the minimum wage, enacted gun control measures, repealed the death penalty and set a goal of getting Virginia electric utilities to 100% renewable generation by 2050.”
That ambition could cost them votes this time around, election-watchers warn. While Democrats say constituents support those policies, Republicans are “framing Democrats as radical liberals who reflect the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress,” according to Politico.
It was little wonder, then, that when President Joe Biden released a list of Virginia Democrats who had earned his seal of approval last week, Hurst’s name was absent. It made perfect political sense to omit Hurst – in conservative-leaning Southwest Virginia, Biden’s endorsement would likely be used by the opposition to further muddle the delegate’s policies with those of the White House. Why give the RSLC more fodder for campaign ads?.
Hurst and other rural Democrats face another presidential problem in 2021, other than being tied to Biden’s sinking approval ratings. In 2019, the last House election, the man in the White House ― though a member of the opposite party ― helped them win over moderate voters. This time, however, Donald Trump isn’t in office and it will be harder to connect Republicans candidates to him.
Trump’s absence is also making Democratic voters complacent in a year when the party needs them energized and turning out at the polls. “Republicans have their base fired up, and we need the same,” Heather Williams, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told Virginia Mercury earlier this month.
So how can Hurst or Ballard win?
Jeff Williamson of Roanoke TV station WSLS-10 recently looked at each candidate’s path to victory, based on the past two House elections.
The district has a little over 45,000 active voters, nearly half of which are in Montgomery County, home of Virginia Tech. The seven precincts in Montgomery closest to campus have nearly 19,000 active voters – 41% of HD12’s active voters.
Hurst easily carried those VT-adjacent precincts in 2017 and 2019, as well as Radford, the district’s other college town.
Ballard will likely find support in the district’s rural areas, Williamson said. Ballard is a native of Giles County, a staunchly Republican area of HD12 that has seen voter turnout increase over the past couple of election cycles. Pulaski County also went for the GOP candidates in 2017 and 2019.
Four years ago, Gov. Ralph Northam carried HD12 with 53% of the vote, further indicative of not so much a “blue wave” as a slowly rising tide that could easily recede.
The candidates’ fortunes – and that of the House itself – could shift depending on whether more voters turn out from HD12’s rural or urban areas.
Over the last 30 years, the Democratic Party has increasingly become the party of the cities and suburbs, while the Republican Party is seen as the party of rural areas, Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, told The Associated Press. “That means the regions rise and fall depending on which party is in the majority.”
The House election will be a test of whether the majority of voters truly support the sweeping reforms and legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature voted into office in 2019, or whether they want that power kept in check by more conservative voices.
Of the state House elections, Politico said voters on Nov. 2 “will determine how much statewide power the [Democratic] party will yield and reveal voters’ satisfaction with the crush of progressive laws enacted in the last two years.”