On a warm but cloudy late September day in 2019, Taysha DeVaughan, a community organizer from Wise County, traveled to Washington, D.C., with several members of the nonprofit Alliance for Appalachia to speak with lawmakers in support of miners suffering from black lung disease.
The group also visited the office of Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, at the Rayburn House Office Building, to lobby on behalf of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a safety net designed to provide medical care and financial support for miners with black lung and their dependents.
“We met him outside in the hallway, and we brought with us a resolution from the Big Stone Gap town council about how important it was for our miners to make sure that we have healthcare for them,” DeVaughan recalled the moment she met the congressman in a phone interview last week.
Griffith, DeVaughan felt, was trying to brush them off. “He didn’t give us a lot of time, and he was very transparent about wanting to talk to the corporations first and these companies,” she said.
The experience ignited the desire in DeVaughan to take her efforts as a community organizer to the next level. “I knew I had to do a better job if we are this easily dismissed, and we are not being heard. That kind of started my thinking process of going big or going home,” she said in the interview.
When Democrats one year ago lost Virginia’s governorship and Republicans won back the majority in the House of Delegates, DeVaughan decided that it was time.
“We felt defeated as Democrats,” she said. “I stand for the working class, I stand for human rights, and for the disenfranchised living in poverty. The Democratic Party champions all those things, and that’s why I decided to challenge Congressman Griffith as a Democrat.”
Now 32, DeVaughan is running in one of Virginia’s most conservative districts against a Republican career politician who has represented the 9th since 2011, following a 17-year career as a state delegate, including 10 years as the Majority Leader. Since his arrival in Washington, Griffith has won reelection four times, every time by a wide margin. The most recent time, in 2020, he ran unopposed, securing 94.4% of the vote.
A native of Lawton, Okla., and a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, DeVaughan moved to Virginia in 2011 after her father became the Director of Flatwoods Job Civilian Conservation Center in Coeburn.
Upon graduating from UVA Wise in 2018 with a BA in Communications, she began her career at the Appalachian Community Fund as a regional organizer. She currently works as the nonprofit’s donor engagement coordinator, and she also serves as the president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and is a former gubernatorial appointee to the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice.
“I felt like there is a narrative out there that it is us versus them, red versus blue, but when you live in rural communities and you know your neighbors, it’s not like that at all,” DeVaughan said when asked why she decided to run in a deeply Republican district where challenges from Democrats are widely considered lost causes.
“We’re very much more purple, and the national talking points aren’t what binds us together. I felt like it was important for me to remind everybody that this is more of who we are, that we are more aligned than we are opposed. The current representative just does not do the job that I felt like he is capable of doing,” Vaughan said.
Griffith did not respond to several emails to his campaign requesting an interview.
The 9th District covers a large swath of southwestern Virginia, including the New River Valley and the Virginia side of the Tri-Cities. Griffith announced in December that he would run for reelection in the 9th, despite finding his hometown Salem in a newly redrawn 6th District after the Virginia Supreme Court approved new maps.
Because members of Congress are not required to live in the district they represent, Griffith was able to again run in the 9th, which now includes Craig County in return for moving some Roanoke County precincts into the 6th. Griffith’s bid avoided challenging Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, the incumbent in the 6th, over the Republican nomination in that district.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that in the past three decades the 9th District may have seen the biggest political shift of any district in Virginia. “Thirty years ago, when there were still many jobs in mining, there was a much stronger Democratic presence in the 9th, and more competitive elections,” he said. “The current version of the 9th is very hospitable to Republicans, and nobody calls it the ‘Fighting Ninth’ anymore.”
When a district is drawn to overwhelmingly favor one party over another, “the main struggle that a dominant party candidate has is in the primary, not the general election,” Farnsworth said.
Earlier this year, Griffith briefly faced a primary challenge by fellow Republican Kimberly Lowe. However, the district’s GOP committee found her application for candidacy ineligible partly due to some clerical errors in the paperwork, but primarily because she did not submit a petition signed by at least 1,000 eligible voters. Consequently, the longtime incumbent became his party’s nominee without opposition.
“Congressman Griffith has been effective at limiting Republican challenges during his nominations,” Farnsworth said. “In this deep red district, voters are looking for an aggressive conservative, who supports guns, opposes abortion and blocks aggressive federal efforts in the commonwealth.”
And Griffith, 64, checks off all these boxes. He currently serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and he is a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus and the Liberty Caucus, among others.
Like his Republican colleagues Cline and Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, Griffith was one of the 147 Republican members of Congress who objected to certifying the 2020 presidential election. On the day after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Griffith attempted to strike from the congressional record the words of Rep. Connor Lamb, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who said in an impassioned floor speech that GOP objectors to President Joe Biden’s victory didn’t need to “strip this Congress of its dignity” any more after the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denied Griffith’s motion.
One month later, Griffith said that his office had received more than 4,000 constituent messages related to the presidential election, the Electoral College vote and congressional certification, and the attack on the Capitol.
Standing by his vote, Griffith said in a statement that he had taken no decision lightly. “Each vote is significant, and I study the issues thoroughly. The votes I took related to the election and President Trump’s impeachment are grounded in my reading of the Constitution and my commitment to its core principles.”
DeVaughan, however, said that even in the conservative 9th District she has encountered very few voters who consider election integrity a top priority. “Yes, it’s important, but when we really start talking about what do you want to see your representative work on, it’s the economy, housing, childcare,” she said. “So a lot of times I will have that conversation about the 2020 presidential election, but we have these processes in place for the transfer of power, and our elections are very safe.”
DeVaughan also said that she has no problem squaring the environmental policies of the Democratic Party with the needs and sensibilities of the communities in the coalfields of Appalachia.
“Where I come from we have a ‘yes, and …’ approach,” DeVaughan said. “Yes, we have to protect our air, water and people from being poisoned, and we have to be building towards a future that includes renewables, and other innovative ways of energy. But we also have to make sure to strengthen the infrastructure for some of the fossil fuels that we already have, like making sure that our pipelines cannot be hacked,” she said.
“I will tell people that we can do what’s best for the public at large while also protecting the group who are most vulnerable – and that’s what environmentalists are, we are protecting those who don’t always have a voice, and it is not a hindrance to development. It is a global shift into renewables and electric cars, but we don’t even think of the power grid in this area, so it needs to be both.”
Farnsworth, the political scientist, said that Democrats are wise to run a candidate with a connection to the mining towns dotting the district. “The challenge for any Democratic candidate in the 9th is to try to figure out a way to connect to struggling communities that many of which have seen better times in the past,” he said. “But that probably won’t be enough.”
If her campaign coffers are any indication, DeVaughan’s bid may seem ill-fated. As of Oct. 19 – the deadline for the most recent reporting period – the Democrat had raised just about $56,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracking money in politics. By that same time, Griffith had raised $755,000 for his reelection campaign.
DeVaughan said that she has done her best, but the choice is now that of the voters in the 9th District. “It’s hard to hold someone accountable when they have more money than you and more reach than you, but the cries for transparency and accountability have to come from constituents and from our own people in this district. I can draw the contrast, but it’s the people in this district who need to see the difference themselves.”
DeVaughan said she had been working to make up for her monetary shortcomings with a more targeted messaging, weighing the results of the Republican’s policies and votes against Democratic accomplishments in the past two years, from infrastructure improvements to capping insulin prices and combating domestic abuse against women.
“These are the things that Democrats have gotten done, this is how our policies impact our district, and this is how our current congressman has voted on that, and nine times out of 10 it will be a no,” she said.
DeVaughan’s campaign has also invested some of its funds in 24 billboards across the district touting what she calls Democratic accomplishments and Republican failures. “We are saying, ‘look at the congressman’s voting record, there is an alternative choice of someone who wants progress, who wants productive means of moving us forward,’” DeVaughan said.
Whether or not her strategy will work will be determined on Nov. 8, but DeVaughan remains cautiously optimistic. “A lot of independents and leaning Republicans have been very responsive to this campaign,” she said. “It’s just a very different way of reaching the community.”