Folks in Southwest Virginia often feel overlooked. At least some of them won’t have to worry about that in 2023. Whenever people around the state talk to me about politics, there’s always one question they have these days: So, who’s going to win that Wren Williams-Marie March contest?
A proposed nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia? I haven’t had anybody outside Southwest ask about that. But the nomination fight between two rookie Republican legislators who now have a tangled history (and an upcoming court date)? That’s what gets people’s attention.
I have no idea who will win but we know now how one of them will win: They’ll do it in a primary next June.
That decision, made by party leaders in the district, is potentially significant because sometimes the method of nomination determines who wins. Just ask former U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County. In 2020, challenger Bob Good got the 5th District Republican committee to not only approve a convention, but a convention held at Good’s church. From that moment on, Riggleman was a goner. More conservative activists usually dominate a Republican convention; a primary, with a wider electorate, dilutes their strength.
Williams certainly doesn’t lack conservative credentials. He’s one of the most conservative members of the House of Delegates. Heck, he was even a lawyer for Donald Trump in the 2020 recount in Wisconsin. He just has the misfortune of being drawn into a district that now includes a legislator who is also one of the most conservative in Richmond – and who seems to thrive on controversy.
Williams had always been pushing for a primary and warned that March wanted a convention that would involve a smaller number of party activists – the Bob Good route, if you prefer. I don’t know that March had ever officially stated a preference for the method of nomination, but we know Williams definitely wanted a primary. This week, party chairs voted unanimously (with the Galax chair absent) to go with a primary. To some extent, this would seem to be a procedural victory for Williams. Whether this translates into an actual victory, well, we’ll see. One thing seems certain: A lot of money is going to get spent on persuading likely Republican voters in the district that covers part of Henry County and all of Carroll County, Patrick County, Floyd County and Galax.
I don’t dare handicap this race, but geography tells us a few things: The nomination will probably get decided in Carroll County. That county accounts for 34.6% of the vote in the district. Adjacent Galax is 7.7% so together that’s where 42.3% of the vote is. Williams’ home county of Patrick accounts for 21.2%, March’s home county of Floyd accounts for 18.1%. The balance – 18.31% – comes from Henry County, which a) Williams currently represents and b) is closer to his home base than hers. All these numbers come courtesy of the Virginia Public Access Project, which has done the hard work of doing the math. As a nonprofit, we’re in the business of asking for money – you can help us provide more journalism through a budget-friendly monthly donation here – but so is VPAP, so spare a few dollars for them, too. We couldn’t do a lot of the analysis we do without them.
Now, if I were writing this, oh, say 30 years ago, I’d add up the counties that Williams now represents – Patrick and Henry together amount to 39.5% of vote. Then I’d compare that to Floyd County, with 18.1%, and say that Williams begins what a significant home turf advantage. Thirty years ago, though, social media didn’t exist. Geography counts for a whole lot less than it once did; identity politics both left and right have made sure of that. The identity politics on the left tend to be more aligned with ethnicity, race and gender; the identity politics on the right more cultural but they are two related factors reshaping our politics. We certainly can’t assume that every Republican in Patrick and Henry is for Williams or that every Republican in Floyd is for March. Still, this is where the vote is.
The irony is that while the primary will be highly entertaining – if you consider a barroom brawl entertaining – it won’t really mean anything to the state’s overall balance of power. Voters can certainly weigh in on the style they prefer their legislator to adopt. Based on her legislative history, March seems completely focused on cultural issues. Williams may be equally conservative but can also be found engaged in the economic development issues that other rural legislators can often be found working on – in his case, pushing for the proposed Southern Connector road in Henry County. In terms of a voting record, though, that district will wind up with a conservative legislator no matter what. VPAP tells us that this a district that voted 78.7% Republican in the 2021 governor’s race. That’s also something that would make this primary hotly contested no matter who the candidates are: The primary is tantamount to election.
This is a good segue to point out that there are other nomination battles shaping up in this part of the state – they just don’t involve a candidate who has sworn out an assault warrant against the other, as March has done.
House District 56: A three-way Republican contest
House of Delegates District 56: This district runs from Appomattox to Goochland County. Or, if you prefer, from just outside Lynchburg to just outside Richmond. This is a 64.9% Republican district that has no incumbent – and so far three Republican contenders. The biggest name is that of former U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham County, who is attempting a comeback after leaving Congress after a single term to focus on his battle against alcoholism. The other candidates are Appomattox lawyer Kevin Bailey and Jennie Wood of Goochland, who describes herself as a “marketing strategist, nonprofit & political fundraiser, and photographer.” The political weight of this district is in Fluvanna County, which accounts for 30.57% of the voting strength. Further behind are Buckingham County at 19% and Goochland County at 18.7%. (Note that the district doesn’t cover all of Fluvanna or Goochland, just parts). From a geopolitical point of view, the question is whether the next delegate will be someone closer to Richmond (Wood) or closer to the traditional heart of Southside (Garrett and Bailey). We also don’t know what sort of following Garrett retains after a four-year absence from politics. We also don’t know yet how this nomination will be settled – via primary or convention. But we do know that whoever prevails will almost certainly be sitting in Richmond.
Senate District 3: Head vs. Hanger? Or Head uncontested?
Senate District 3: This district runs from Roanoke County to Augusta County, has no incumbent and voted 68.1% Republican last year. Some lucky Republican will surely win a state Senate seat here. So far, there’s just one candidate for the Republican nomination – Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County. Redistricting drew him into the same House district as Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, so Head has attempted to solve that by running for this seat. The question is whether state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, paired with state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, will move into this district. Even though I said above that geography doesn’t matter as much as it used to, it does still matter. It’s also the easiest thing to measure. Botetourt County and the part of Roanoke County that’s in this district add up to 34.3% of the voters in the district. Staunton, Waynesboro and the part of Augusta that’s in the district add up to 35.8%. That means, geographically speaking, Head and Hanger would begin with roughly equal bases – again, assuming Hanger really does move and assuming geography matters.
Senate District 11: Deeds vs. Hudson
Senate District 11: The third big nomination battle we know about is on the Democratic side. This district runs from Albemarle County to Amherst County and last year voted 58.5% Democratic – and probably will again, barring something quite unsual. I’ve written some about this district before. State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, has moved to Charlottesville to avoid getting stuck in a Republican-dominated district. Unfortunately for him, Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, has also decided to run for the Senate nomination. As I mentioned before, this nomination will likely get settled in Albemarle County; that locality accounts for 51.7% of the vote. Hudson will have the advantage of fighting on her home turf in Charlottesville while Deeds will be fighting on adopted turf. He does have one potential advantage in Albemarle: He’s run in the whole county in previous elections (his old district stretched from Bath to Albemarle). She’s only run in 10 of the county’s 23 precincts; that’s all she’s had in her House district. On the other hand, there might be a primary contest to fill her House seat which would likely boost turnout in Charlottesville.
House District 53: Who will run here?
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on word for what nomination contests might take shape in some other districts. We have multiple instances of legislators being paired in redistricting. The most curious to me is in the Lynchburg area where both two Republican delegates — Kathy Byron and Wendell Walker – are paired together. Meanwhile, next door is a district with no incumbent – that district covers part of Bedford County, Amherst County and part of Nelson County. The logical thing would be for one of them to move into that district. The danger in waiting is that someone already living in that district wakes up one morning, looks in the mirror and says “hey, I could be a state legislator.” The other pairings yet to be resolved all involve Republican delegates – Israel O’Quinn and William Wampler, both of Washington County; Danny Marshall of Danville and Jim Edmunds of Halifax County; John Avioli of Staunton and Ronnie Campbell of Rockbridge County.
House District 41: Bowman vs. Obenshain (and then vs. Franklin)
Finally, there are two other contests worth noting. Redistricting created an open House seat that covers western Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County. House District 41 is fascinating because it’s potentially competitive. It went 55.5% Republican last year but in years past those precincts voted 51% Democratic in the 2017 governor’s race. Two Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination – Chris Obenshain and Lowell Bowman. As of this week, there’s now a Democratic candidate, Lillian Franklin, formerly chief of staff to Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke County. No matter who wins the Republican nomination, that race will probably be the second biggest one in this part of Virginia next year.
Senate District 4: Edwards vs. Suetterlein in November 2023
The biggest will cover part of that same district, just on the Senate side. Redistricting has drawn state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, in the same district – one that voted 54.7% Republican last year. It’s entirely possible that’s where control of the state Senate (now 21-19 Democratic) might get decided. That’s the one people ought to be asking about.