A few of those attending Thursday's news conference in Abingdon for the Washington County Democratic Committee. Photo by Susan Cameron.
A few of those attending Thursday's news conference in Abingdon for the Washington County Democratic Committee. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Members of the Washington County Democratic Committee are rebranding themselves as rural Democrats who embrace the Second Amendment.

The move was the idea of committee Chair Susan Stancill, who said Thursday the state and national Democratic Party can’t connect with rural, working-class voters largely because of their failure to understand the importance of the Second Amendment to voters.

Susan Stancill, chair of the Washington County Democratic Committee. Photo by Susan Cameron.

She said she was inspired by the book “Deer Hunting with Jesus, Dispatches from America’s Class War.” Written by Joe Bageant, it is about the author’s return to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia, and the income inequality and problems facing the working poor there.

“When I read it, it was an epiphany for me. It just gave me a validation of an insight that I thought I couldn’t have as an outsider. … It congealed everything that I’ve learned in my political experience with all these campaigns and traveling around the 9th District into a realization that one size of Democrat doesn’t fit and if we’re the big tent party, we’re going to have to make room for rural Democrats who are responsible gun owners,” said Stancill, who leads regular discussions on the book.

During a news conference at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center and Marketplace in Abingdon, Stancill said rural voters are being underserved by Democrats and Republicans.

“I don’t know which is the more disrespectful course of action,” she said. “To pretend to see rural voters, but have absolutely no real sense of their lives and the challenges they face, which is what the Republican Party has done. Or to treat rural voters as invisible and ignore their lived experience, which is what the Democratic Party has done.”

For rural residents of Southwest Virginia, guns are a unifying, cultural tradition that are often passed down from generation to generation, she said. Gun safety is taught at an early age and rural gun enthusiasts are responsible gun owners, Stancill added.

J. Miles Coleman, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said such moves as rebranding by Democrats are happening across the country.

“Southwest Virginia used to be more hospitable to Democrats, but that’s just not the concept there anymore,” he said Thursday night. “Traditionally, in Virginia, you’d see more Democratic strength in Southside or Appalachia, and now the Democrats just aren’t connecting there. The mentality may be to try something new.”

Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Virginia, said Republicans have been running up huge margins in rural Virginia over the past two decades, with the exception of Southside counties, where there are large African American populations.

“In Southwest Virginia, the Democratic vote has simply cratered,” Holsworth said. “In 2001, Mark Warner obtained 45% of the vote for governor in Washington County. In 2021, Terry McAuliffe obtained 20%. The cultural issues that benefit Democrats in urban/suburban areas (gun safety legislation, climate change, abortion) are far less popular in Southwest Virginia.”

He added that until 2021, the Democrats were running so well statewide while the GOP “tanked” in Northern Virginia that their decline in rural areas did not have much of an impact. But it clearly played an important role in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s election.

“The Virginia Democrats have now developed a rural Virginia initiative,” he said. “But what is happening locally in Washington County surely indicates the extent of the challenge the state party faces in rebuilding a coalition that can generate increased support in Southsiide and Southwest Virginia.”

Ellie Sorensen, press secretary for the Republican Party of Virginia, said in reaction to the rebranding announcement, “We’re glad to see that they’re with us on guns, but they still stand in opposition to rural Virginians on most fundamental issues. This is perfectly in line with their agenda of trying to look like moderates by agreeing with us on one or two positions, while disguising their far-left agenda on many other important topics.”

Stancill also said that Democrats have recently passed some of the most impactful legislation in years, including the Infrastructure Bill, which will update the power grid and bring needed transportation, roads, internet and health care to Southwest Virginia.

She said several Democrats hold office in Washington County but acknowledged that no Democrat has been elected state delegate, senator or member of Congress in the area for many years.

Southwest Virginia used to be known as the Fightin’ 9th District because of the close contests there between Democrats and Republicans, but it’s just not competitive anymore, Coleman said.

A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Stancill worked on a campaign of Anthony Flaccavento, who twice challenged current U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and lost.

Stancill said it’s her “fondest wish” for her party to field a quality candidate for the General Assembly from Southwest Virginia, but candidates with experience are needed.

“We’ve got to grow the bench, which means getting our young people interested in holding office and learning that they have their own voices,” she said.

Stancill read a statement saying rural Democrats believe “that the Bill of Rights and all other rights conferred by the Constitution must be taken as a whole. It is not a menu that one can order from based on personal taste or belief. That means the protections conferred by the Second Amendment are co-equal with the protections conferred by the First Amendment and all other constitutional rights.”

The news conference drew about 70 people, several of them members of the United Mine Workers of America.

Two Democratic candidates also announced they are running for county offices: Christina Clark Rehfuss, a county native and entrepreneur who will challenge Republican Mark Matney for the position of commissioner of revenue; and Julianne Miles, a veteran and teacher who is running against Charlie Hargis for the Madison District seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

The election is Nov. 7.

Susan Cameron

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for nearly 40 years. She is based in Bristol. Reach her at susan@cardinalnews.org.