Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, is challenged by Democrat Jennifer Lewis. Photos courtesy of the campaigns.

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For Jennifer Lewis, running for public office has been a dream that she first shared with her diary as a fifth-grader. “It’s definitely something that I knew I was always going to do eventually,” the Democrat from Waynesboro said in a phone interview last week. 

In 2018, Lewis first ran in Virginia’s strongly GOP-leaning 6th Congressional District, hoping to succeed Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who had represented the district since 1993. But Lewis stood no chance against Republican Ben Cline, a 16-year veteran of the House of Delegates, who defeated her by 59% to 40%. This year, the Democrat from Waynesboro is once again on the ballot, hoping to prevent Cline from returning to Washington, D.C. for a third term after Nov. 8. 

“When I lost that first race against Congressman Cline I told everybody I was going to give it another try,” Lewis said in the interview. “I definitely believe in fighting for what you believe in, and fighting for your dreams and your passion. Being in Congress is one of my dreams, and I don’t believe anyone should give up on their dreams after one failed try, so here I am trying again.”

Lewis, 41, a mental health worker who grew up on a small, family-owned dairy farm in upstate New York, has been known for years around Waynesboro and Augusta County as a community activist and volunteer for various local groups, including being a leader in the fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. After her failed first bid for Congress, Lewis ran for an open seat in Virginia’s 20th House of Delegates district, but was defeated by Republican John Avoli of Staunton by a margin of 18 percentage points. 

Lewis is well aware that her rematch with Cline is an uphill battle in a deeply conservative, recently redrawn district that 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. 

But she sees her challenge as a duty to hold accountable an incumbent in a district where no Democrat has won in decades. “I believe there should be an opponent for every race, there should be some sort of competition, nothing should ever go unopposed,” she said. “When I first moved to Waynesboro and saw that Bob Goodlatte often ran his races unopposed, that’s just bad for democracy, it’s bad for the constituents of the district.”

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that the 6th District has been redrawn last year in a way to give Republicans an even greater advantage. “The Interstate 81 corridor has always been the backbone of Virginia conservatism, and this district is red by a margin of about 2 to 1,” Farnsworth said. “The northern edge of the district used to be in the 10th, which was a far more competitive district than this one is.”

There aren’t a lot of openings for a Democratic candidate in a district this red, Farnsworth said. “Lewis’s campaign also hasn’t had a lot of success fundraising in large part because of the conviction among donors that other races would represent better investments,” he said.

As of Oct. 19, the end of the most recent reporting period, the Democrat had raised just over $140,000, according to data gathered by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracking money in politics. With over $914,000, Cline has outraised his challenger by more than sixfold. 

“Like other incumbent Republicans in Virginia, Ben Cline has been a reliable conservative,” Farnsworth said. “He may not generate the attention that you’d see from other new members like Bob Good, but he is a reliable conservative vote for the party.”

Lewis said that Cline’s financial advantage is evidence that his priorities are elsewhere. “My average campaign donor is your average citizen donating $20,” she said. “When you look at Congressman Cline’s donors, it’s the NRA, it’s Verizon, it’s Toyota, it’s these big corporations. And when you think about why Congressman Cline votes the way he does, look at his donors. His purpose is to protect his donors, and protect their interests, not the constituents he has been elected to represent.”

And Lewis hopes her challenge forces Cline to address issues that she said he may not have discussed otherwise – such as affordable housing for mental health patients. “I’m constantly trying to find that for my clients, a program like a group home or an assisted living facility, and I’m constantly coming up against roadblocks,” Lewis said. “If I have a client who wants inpatient drug recovery, they have to go two or three hours away from home to get that. We need to bring those resources to our community.”

Cline avoids engaging with his Democratic constituents, Lewis said. “It’s so frustrating, not even as his opponent but as constituent, because he refuses to hold town halls, and he does not attend community events. He’s not accessible, he’s only voting for things that his party tells him to vote for, and he absolutely refuses to support anything that a Democrat has sponsored, even if he knows that it would help the people of the 6th District. It’s dangerous to have a representative that can’t see beyond party politics to do his job.”

Tyler Adams, a spokesman for Cline’s campaign, said in an email that the congressman has held over 40 town hall meetings since taking office in 2019 in order to receive feedback and input from his constituents – including at least one in each locality of the 6th District. “During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person town halls were not possible, he held numerous telephone town halls with health experts and officials to keep his constituents informed,” Adams said.

But despite keeping a lower profile, Cline also voted in lock-step with his far-right Republican colleagues in Washington, Lewis said. “He is no different than Marjorie Taylor Green, he’s no different than Jim Jordan, no different than all of these extreme MAGAs,” she said, referring to members of the GOP caucus who continue to support former President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again policies. 

In fact, during his second term, Cline sponsored just eight bills – including a proposal relating to veterans issues and small businesses – none of which were signed into law. During the same time, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, his colleague in the 9th District, introduced 21 bills. And Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, who represents the neighboring 5th District, sponsored 35 proposals. However, none of Good’s measures were enacted into law either. 

When asked about his legislative record in a phone interview last week, Cline, 50, pointed at a measure he introduced dealing with healthcare in rural areas that was rolled into the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act of 2022, or PACT Act, which directly addresses the impact on veterans and others who were exposed to environmental toxins, burn pits, radiation and Agent Orange due to their time in service. 

“I am very proud of my record that I am bringing back to my constituents, because not only is it important that we stand strong for those values that make the Roanoke and Shenandoah valleys special, and that means just as much pursuing legislation as well as standing against liberal legislation,” Cline said in the interview. “Fighting against the radical left has resulted in me pushing the red button a lot on a lot of (Speaker) Nancy Pelosi’s legislation, but I am proud of my effort of working across the aisle on issues where we share an interest, most notably on veterans and small business issues.”

Cline called his job “a dual effort,” where half of what he does is in Washington working on legislation, and the other half, which he said is “equally, if not more important,” is the constituent casework that he does from his four district offices back home in the 6th. 

“I have more district offices than any other Virginia member, and our staff works on cutting through red tape, helping with passports, helping with veterans benefits, you name it. They are the experts on so many different things,” he said.

During his current term, his office has handled 98,000 responses to the phone calls, letters and emails, and 4,000 constituents received help with individual case work dealing with a federal agency. “When it comes to the IRS, getting income tax returns processed and the refunds, we got $2.7 million returned to the taxpayers. Those are numbers that I’m most proud of when it comes to the constituents,” Cline said.

When asked about their priorities for the 6th District, both Cline and Lewis name inflation as a top concern. Efforts to tame high prices in the United States — largely through interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve – aren’t bringing prices down much yet, and Democrats and Republicans offer very different solutions.   

“How can we most immediately address the inflation that this administration has caused through their reckless spending? It’s through energy independence and a return to the policies of the previous administration that resulted in more support for domestic exploration and infrastructure necessary to support it,” Cline said.

Cline also named rising crime rates as an area of major concern. “Roanoke has one of the worst years for murder rates in its history,” he said. “We need to support law enforcement instead of demonizing them, and defund efforts need to be rejected. This is where I differ significantly from my opponent who has embraced the Defund the Police movement.”

Lewis added better healthcare – including mental health – to her list of priorities. “When I knock at people’s doors and I tell them that I am a mental health worker, they tell me a little bit more about their struggles, and that’s been really eye opening for me to see how many people are struggling out there, and how consistently Ben Cline always votes against mental health funding.”

Both candidates couldn’t be further apart than on the issue of abortion. Cline, an unapologetic anti-abortion candidate who believes that life begins at conception, said he would consider backing any measures by Congress aimed at limiting access to abortion. 

“I am pro-life, have been throughout my time in the state legislature, and in the Congress, and I continue to stand strong in support of measures that support life, so I would support efforts at the federal level to further defend life and I am happy to consider those on a case-by-case basis.” 

Lewis said she would support efforts to codify Roe v. Wade on a federal level, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized the right to privacy implied in the 14th Amendment protected abortion as a fundamental right. “Congressman Cline says he is for small, limited government, but then he wants the government in the most intimate decisions in your life,” Lewis said. 

Another area of major concern for Lewis is the effort by the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in 2021 and the attempts by some Republicans to challenge the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in which former Vice President Joe Biden defeated Trump, the incumbent. 

“Congressman Cline refused to certify the election results, something that he still stands by,” Lewis said. “That’s very dangerous territory to have a representative who knows the truth and pushes this false narrative just to rile up his base and to stay in the good graces of Trump.”

Cline was among a group of 147 Republicans who voted against certifying the election results. He also was one of 126 Republican members of the House to sign an amicus brief in support of Texas v. Pennsylvania, a lawsuit filed in the United States Supreme Court contesting the results of the election. 

In last week’s interview, Cline doubled down on his vote against certification and reiterated his concern that some electors were chosen by states where “unelected bureaucrats changed the state laws surrounding the presidential election,” which he alleged was in direct violation of the Constitution. “The lawsuit that I signed an amicus in support of was rejected by the Supreme Court on standing,” he said.

Cline said that he was hopeful that his constituents will hand him another term on Tuesday.

“My views are the views of the majority of the residents in the 6th Congressional District, my positions are the positions of the majority, and they have supported me by electing and reelecting me to office, and I am optimistic that they will be reelecting me again. I am anxious to get back to work in the majority this time on their behalf, for our shared values,” he said.

And if Republicans regain the majority in the House, as widely expected, they would get to work immediately.

“I think energy independence is going to be immediate, I think that we need to take action to reduce inflation by moving back toward energy independence,” Cline said. “Because energy markets are forward-looking, simply signaling to the markets that the United States is going to become aggressive in promoting domestic energy production will help bring down the cost of energy globally, which will actually filter through the markets, businesses, farms, and food markets to immediately have an impact for families across the 6th District. That is what I would like to see happen immediately.”

Cline’s opponent, however, hopes that her campaign shows voters that they have a choice in this election. 

“Folks in the 6th District just have been ignored for so long that many people just think it doesn’t matter, and they don’t think that there is a choice,” Lewis said. “So we just need folks to understand that we do deserve better and that we deserve a representative who is going to call them back, who is going to fight for our shared values. It’s high time that we finally get that.”

Lewis said that she is well aware that being a Democrat in a deeply Republican district won’t exactly increase her chances of ousting Cline, but she said she hoped that her upbringing makes her more relatable. 

“Yes, I am a Democrat, but I am also a Democrat who was born and raised on a dairy farm,” she said. “I’m a mental health worker, I rescue kittens, I am a very non-scary person, I just want healthcare and affordable housing for everybody, and those ideas are not scary, they are not threatening to anybody, they are going to uplift everybody.”

The 6th Congressional District. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

Markus Schmidt

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