Four weeks ago, Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, who has represented the 23rd House of Delegates district since early 2020, defeated Democrat Natalie Short by a staggering 33% margin, securing his reelection. But some Republicans in his hometown worry that Walker might not have what it takes to beat a well funded opponent next year when his seat may once again be up for reelection based on a new district map that could favor Democrats – a change in dynamics that almost certainly would set up a primary challenge against the incumbent.
While Walker has solid conservative credentials and is well liked among his party, there is widespread concern that he lacks the charisma and abilities to raise money to outperform a strong Democratic challenger in a more competitive district.
“When I talked to him before the last election, I stressed the fundraising aspect after I saw that he’s towards the bottom of the list,” said Skye Riggleman, who managed Walker’s first campaign in 2019. “On a bad day his district has Republicans up by 15 points, with Bedford offsetting parts of Lynchburg. But with a new map, it becomes much more expensive very quickly,” Riggleman said. The 23rd district currently includes a portion of Lynchburg and parts of Amherst and Bedford counties.
Walker, a Georgia native, first got involved in politics after graduating from Liberty University, then called Liberty Baptist College. He has held several posts with the Lynchburg Republican Committee since the early 1990s, including that of chairman. After retiring from his consultant job at the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, he announced his bid for the 23rd House District in 2019, after incumbent Scott Garrett retired, running on core conservative issues like Second Amendment protection, pro-life and family values. Walker comfortably beat Democrat David Zilles with almost 64% of the vote in what is considered a safe Republican district, despite raising little money for his campaign.
However, Walker might find himself in a very different situation in the coming weeks or months, as the Virginia Supreme Court is currently drawing new district lines based on the 2020 census data. The court might potentially set new elections for next year that could threaten the newly regained Republican House majority.
One of the proposals considered by the court would draw the city of Lynchburg into a single district, making it more urban and, ultimately, more blue – a trend that peaked in 2020, when Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Lynchburg since 1948, beating incumbent President Donald Trump with 48.6 to 46.5%. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, also carried Lynchburg in 2020, and so did Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018. Both had lost in the city in their previous elections.
“A redrawn district may give Democrats a real fighting chance,” said Mark J. Rozell, founding Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Fairfax. “Delegate Walker has succeeded without raising big money. Actually, he has succeeded barely raising anything. That will have to change in a new district if in the redrawn map it becomes more friendly to Democratic nominees.”
Since he first ran in 2019, Walker has brought in a total of just $183,000, of which $44,000 are a personal loan to his campaign. For his reelection bid, Walker raised barely $60,000, putting him in the bottom half for fundraising. He still won by a comfortable margin against Short, a candidate without much of a campaign who did not report any campaign contributions.
However, money increasingly has become the driver of competitiveness for House of Delegates seats with at least 18 candidates for the House each having raised over $1 million in the 2021 election, Rozell said. “These local races have come to look more and more like races for the U.S. House of Representatives in the amount of money raised, including from outside the district itself, and the use of campaign consultants, pollsters, and mass advertising,” Rozell said. “It’s hard to be competitive without adequate campaign cash, unless the district is a non-competitive one always favoring one party’s nominee.”
If the new district map comes back more competitive, a potential challenger would be Beau Wright, Lynchburg’s current vice mayor. A rising star in the local Democratic Party, Wright has served in numerous capacities in the White House under President Barack Obama, including Senior Deputy Director of Operations and Director for Finance. He currently is the Director of Operations for Protect Democracy, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit advocacy organization.
Wright said in an interview Wednesday that he has been following the redistricting process closely. “I am definitely keeping an eye on what comes out of that, because I am among those who have argued that Lynchburg should be redrawn as a single unified district the way it was before Republicans cracked it between two House districts,” Wright said, adding that he is not ruling out a challenge against Walker, should the new district become more favorable for Democrats. “I am thinking about what a run might look like, either for me or somebody else for that seat,” he said.
A possible Wright candidacy has some Republicans spooked. “If Beau runs, he will win,” said Martin Misjuns, the Lynchburg Republican City Committee Ward I chair. “Wendell is not going to beat someone like that, he didn’t do well with fundraising and I don’t think he has the charisma that it takes.”
Misjuns predicts that Walker will get primaried if a new map creates a more competitive district. “But this creates an opportunity, there are some really solid conservatives in the city, either at the local level or who are trying to make an entry and primary him,” he said, adding that should Walker fend off such a challenge, he would lose in the general election. “We definitely need to keep our eyes on the ball with what happens with redistricting, because I don’t think Wendell is a winner,” Misjuns said.
Republicans, who swept all three statewide offices earlier this month and won a 52-48 majority in the House, have to be mindful that their majority is very thin and that what they achieved this year they could lose next, assuming new elections are called, said Rozell. “That gives the governor-elect a very short timeframe to get his agenda moving, as delegates are likely to be soon turning their attention again to electoral politics,” he said.
Walker, however, remains unfazed by the growing concern among his fellow Republicans about his weak fundraising efforts. “I’ve won twice with more than 60 percent of the vote, and I am here to do the work of the people,” he said in an interview last week. “These primary guys, they come and go, they need to get a life.”
Republicans were outspent by two to three times during the most recent election cycle and still won back the majority in the House, Walker said. “The grassroots voters out here will take care of me, not the money. Because at the end of the day, they count not money but votes on election night.” Whether it is primaries or general election challenges by prominent Democrats, Walker said he welcomes anyone taking him on. “I look at it as an opportunity to get my message out,” he said. “Trust me, I sleep well at night.”
Turner Perrow, a former Lynchburg Republican who challenged Walker for his party’s nomination in 2019, said that the city deserves somebody who is effective in that seat. “I hope they will find the right person, be it Delegate Walker or someone else,” Perrow said.