The 6th congressional district.

When Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, secured his party’s nomination for the 5th congressional district at a GOP convention at Hampden-Sydney College near Farmville last month, Merritt Hale, a U.S. Navy veteran from Clear Brook seeking the Republican candidacy in the neighboring 6th district, watched closely.

After just two hours of voting, Good, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, won with 87 percent of the vote – a decisive blow to his challenger Dan Moy, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. 

Rep. Ben Cline. Courtesy of Cline campaign.

Moy’s defeat wasn’t a good sign for Hale, who wants to oust Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County – another Trump-backed candidate. Most intra-party challenges play out in favor of the incumbent, but against all odds Hale remains hopeful because Republicans in his district won’t elect their nominee at a convention but during a district-wide primary on Tuesday. 

“I think this format will help me, because it’s very easy for the establishment and the good-old-boy network to run a convention. But the beautiful part about a primary is that everybody can get out and vote,” Hale said in a recent interview with Cardinal News.  

Merritt Hale. Courtesy of Hale campaign.

However, there is little doubt that the 28-year-old systems engineer for Peraton in Springfield faces an uphill battle. Cline, 50, is a seasoned politician who was first elected to Congress in 2018 after serving eight terms in the Virginia House of Delegates. 

Besides collecting key endorsements from not just Trump but Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears, Attorney General Jason Miyares, the National Rifle Association, and the National Right to Life Council, Cline also knows how to drum up financial support. As of June 1, his campaign has raised more than $572,000 for his re-election bid, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracking money in politics. Hale has raised just $27,000.

“The odds overwhelmingly favor Cline in the primary. Not only is he the incumbent, but he’s spending far more than Hale and has voted in the House in a way that this Republican Trump district would want,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Cline is pretty much a down-the-line GOP House member, and he never took a position on a major issue contrary to Trump – at least none I can remember. He even struck with Trump on the former president’s nonsense about the 2020 election having been stolen,” Sabato said.

Hale decided to challenge Cline in early January, less than two weeks after the Virginia Supreme Court approved the state’s new congressional districts based on data from the 2020 census. As a result, the 6th District now includes the city of Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties, encompassing the Northern Shenandoah Valley and running along the Interstate 81 corridor to Roanoke. 

John Massoud, the chairman of the district’s GOP committee, said that expects between 28,500 and 30,000 voters to cast their ballots on Tuesday – a much higher number than the 1,759 mostly hyper-partisan attendees of the 5th district convention last month. 

For Republicans in the 6th, this means a different format this time around. In 2018, they nominated Cline at a convention, and two years ago, they skipped the nominating contest altogether because Cline ran unopposed. “This year, the district committee members decided for a primary,” Massoud said in a phone interview. The 29-3 vote in favor of a primary was “overwhelming,” he added. 

Sabato, the UVA professor, said that despite Hale’s hope for an upset, the nominating format is unlikely to make a difference. “In this case, I don’t think it matters much whether a primary or a convention determines the nomination,” he said. “Cline would very probably win in either. Hale is not well known and doesn’t have the resources to pull off a big upset.”

Cline was not available for an interview for his story. But he said in an email that he looks forward to the primary contest next week. “I think my record on fighting to get government bureaucrats out of our lives, cut wasteful spending, defend the Second Amendment, and protect the unborn speaks for itself,” he said.

So who is the political newcomer seeking to unseat a 20-year veteran of Virginia politics?

Hale grew up in Purcellville in Loudoun County and studied systems engineering at the University of Virginia. After his graduation in 2016, he spent four years as a naval officer stationed in Virginia Beach and Charleston, SC. 

Politically, he shares many of the same views as his fellow veteran Moy, who lost his bid against Good in the neighboring district. He considers himself a “common sense conservative,” whose morals are informed by his Christian faith. He is pro-life, believing that life begins at conception – a position in that he remains steadfast. Abortions, Hale said, should only be an option of the life of the mother is at risk. “If you believe that you can’t really compromise on that issue, because you are going to reach a very different conclusion than if you think that’s a bunch of cells at that point,” he said. 

But Hale said that Republicans are “doing a bad job as a whole in reaching out to the disenfranchised women” affected by unwanted pregnancies. “We need to be able to sit down and have that discussion and not talk past each other while we have these fundamentally different issues, and win the hearts and the minds of a lot of these people who are contemplating abortion, not just being confrontational,” he said.

As a strong Second Amendment advocate, Hale said he doesn’t believe more gun control measures would bring down the number of deaths related to gun violence. “You’re treating the symptom and just adding more red tape and bureaucracy onto a symptom,” he said. “In a lot of these shootings, none of the proposed legislation that I have read would have stopped any of that.” 

Hale said that he decided to run because he views Cline as an establishment candidate who has done little in Washington, D.C. to benefit his district. “I believe in proactive politics, not reactionary politics,” he said.

One example, Hale said, is Cline’s stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine. A day before the invasion in February, Cline joined a bipartisan coalition of nearly 50 lawmakers urging President Joe Biden in a letter to not declare war against Russia or send U.S. troops into Ukraine without authorization from Congress. “Should your administration seek to introduce U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities or decline to remove any U.S. military personnel currently deployed inside Ukraine from unauthorized hostilities or imminent hostilities, Congress stands ready to deliberate over the potentially monumental implications of such scenarios,” the lawmakers wrote. Biden himself had stated that the U.S. would not play an active combat role in Ukraine. 

“Congressman Cline agreed with President Biden in taking strategic deterrence off the table, and I strongly disagree with that,” Hale said. “By saying we are not going to send any troops over to Ukraine, that emboldened President (Vladimir) Putin, he saw a weakness after our Afghanistan withdrawal.”

While he doesn’t “want to see troops go over there,” the military option should have remained on the table, Hale said. Instead, Cline should have let constituents know “that there is “going to be a humanitarian disaster, the economy is going to be in turmoil, we’re going to need energy independence, and let people know so they can talk with their financial advisers.”

Unfortunately, all he did was to send out a tweet, Hale said, referring to a statement Cline tweeted on Feb. 24 calling for “solidarity against Russian aggression,” and asking Americans to “pray for peace” in Ukraine. “I just think we need leadership who can be proactive about these issues, and not always chase the symptoms,” Hale said. 

Hale also criticized Cline for his no-vote on House Resolution 831, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, that calls on the United States Government to “uphold the founding democratic principles of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and establish a Center for Democratic Resilience within the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” In light of the Russia-Ukraine war, the pro-NATO resolution passed the House with bipartisan support on April 5 by 362-63, including 143 Republican votes.  

Cline turned to Facebook on April 8 to explain himself, stating that he while he agreed with Connolly’s call to uphold U.S. support for NATO, he was concerned with a provision cited in the resolution that encourages the organization to “formally involve itself in the domestic

politics of its member nations.” He also disagreed with urging NATO to create a new Center for Democratic Resilience, which Clines called “a new political bureaucracy within NATO” that would “pull resources away from the military mission for which NATO was originally created.”

If elected, Hale said if elected, he would immediately focus on the issues affecting the 6th district, beginning with working in Washington to make significant upgrades to the infrastructure back home. 

“Even if you disagree with the Democrats, you still have to bring home something to your district, and we need to invest in rural infrastructure, bringing broadband out to the rural areas so businesses come in and be incentivized, that will also help with opioid problems that we have in parts of the district. If you give people jobs and resources in a way to get out of that system, that is going to help our district a lot,” he said.

In order to achieve these goals, it would be necessary to work with lawmakers from across the aisle, Hale said. “I’m all for sticking to your guns and your morals on issues that matter, but in terms of economic policies we have to compromise. You’re never going to get anything done if you’re just going to be an obstructionist. Anyone can go in and vote no on everything,” he said.

Hale also said that in order to win back the Senate, the House and, eventually, the White House, it would require Republicans to move on from the 2020 presidential election that Trump still claims he won. “I think that Joe Biden is the president and our party is focusing way too much on the past. We need to be looking at the future,” he said. “I think there is a large majority in the Republican party that is quiet on this issue, and that there is a pocket that is very vocal but that I don’t think necessarily represents the majority of the party.”

In his email, Cline also said that regaining Republican control in Washington would be a priority in the coming years. “Virginia made a resounding statement in 2021,” he said, referring to Youngkin’s victory and the GOP’s success in winning back the majority in the House of Delegates. “We are not satisfied with the disastrous results of one-party Democrat control, whether in Richmond or in Washington. My goal is to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker and elect a Republican to that position.”

However, Cline added, he knows that in order to do so, he must first win the primary in the 6th District on Tuesday. “I am confident the momentum that began in Virginia in 2021 will be carried across the country this November,” he said.

The winner of the Republican primary in the 6th district will face Democrat Jennifer Lewis this fall.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.