Keep up with our political coverage by signing up for our free daily email newsletter and our new weekly political newsletter, West of the Capital.
Not long after Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt (with an assist from Grace Mamon) broke the news about a state legislator being charged with two felonies stemming from a traffic incident, the pro-Democratic site Blue Virginia tweeted: “Appalling behavior by Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County.”
That, of course, assumes Fariss is guilty even though it’s part of the American tradition that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
I suspect had this been a Democratic legislator that the site might have been forgiving.
More importantly, though, voters in Fariss’ district have been forgiving.
When Fariss first ran in 2011, the Altavista Journal reported he had four misdemeanor convictions: three for hunting violations and one for a DUI in 1997. “That same year, the News and Advance reported a 2002 emergency protective order required Fariss to stay away from a Lynchburg woman, who told police he crashed through her back door to get into her house when she told him to leave,” the website C-ville reported. Fariss went on to win that year with 53% of the vote — to 41.2% for the Democratic candidate, while a conservative independent took another 5.6%.
In 2016, Fariss pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run that resulted in property damage. Fariss’ attorney at the time said in court that the delegate’s Mountain Dew had spilled while he was driving down a country road in Campbell County and when Fariss went to retrieve it, he ran off the road, hit some shrubs, a mailbox, a road sign and about 60 feet of fence. Fariss left the scene — his attorney said he was shaken — but later returned, left a note for the property owner and paid for the damage. In an unrelated incident, he was charged with misdemeanor breach of the peace after a parking dispute in which a Campbell County man said Fariss “threatened violence.” Fariss filed his own charges, alleging that the other man threatened to hit him with a brick. A judge found both not guilty.
The next year, voters reelected Fariss with 61% of the vote, more than he’d ever gotten before in a contested race. In the two elections since, he’s been reelected with even bigger shares of the vote — 63% and 65%.
At a time when voters seem perpetually angry at politicians, how is it that voters in his district are so forgiving? I suspect the answer is in the polarization of our politics. Fariss has the benefit of being in a strongly Republican district, and voters everywhere often are more inclined to support someone on their own side — no matter what they’ve done — over someone on the other side.
Let’s take a closer look at that district.
The district that Fariss was first elected from in 2011, and has represented since, is an oddly shaped district that includes part of Campbell County, then wraps around to the east to take in Appomattox County and Buckingham County, then north to cover part of Nelson County and part of Albemarle County. Put another way, the district starts south of Lynchburg and winds up at the Charlottesville city limits.
This is a classic case of gerrymandering. These lines were drawn by Republicans when they controlled the House of Delegates, and every redistricting map ever drawn by one party or another has been drawn to advantage their side and disadvantage the other. In this case, Republicans chopped up Democratic-voting Albemarle County and distributed the parts to four different House districts, effectively “burying” the Democratic vote in three Republican-heavy districts and then putting the rest into a district with Charlottesville, which was going to vote Democratic anyway. One of those districts crossed the Blue Ridge and was mostly anchored in Augusta and Rockingham counties (represented by Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham). In fact, it stretches from the outskirts of Charlottesville to the West Virginia line, in all defiance of geography and road systems. Another is the district that loops south of Lynchburg; that’s the one that Fariss won. Aside from the portion of the district that’s in Albemarle County, the rest of that district is strongly Republican. By contrast, the newly drawn maps we’ll have for the next decade split Albemarle into just two districts, both strongly Democratic (which no doubt played a role in the decision by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, to retire), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s stick with the district that Farris has been representing.
Working our way south from Albemarle in that district he’s held: Nelson County voted 55.5% for Republican Glenn Youngkin in 2021, making that county somewhat competitive. But Buckingham County voted 63.3% Republican, Appomattox County voted 80.3% Republican and Campbell County voted 78.4% Republican. In some of the Campbell precincts that are in Fariss’ district, the Republican vote was even higher: 86.0% in New London, 86.1% in Bedford Springs, 89.5% in Three Forks.
In 2021, Fariss’ Democratic opponent, Ben Moses, spent 6.1 times what Fariss did, yet Fariss won by his biggest margin ever in a contested race (proof that money isn’t everything in politics). I hate to say that anything is impossible, but, practically speaking, this is an impossible district for a Democrat to win — or a Republican to lose.
In his first election, Fariss lost Albemarle and Nelson but won everywhere else, and that was more than enough. In subsequent elections, he lost only Albemarle. In some of those elections, the vote in Nelson County was close. In 2017, the first election after that 2016 hit-and-run charge, Fariss carried Nelson by just six votes. But he took Campbell by 4,717 votes. The voters who knew Fariss best — his neighbors in Campbell County — that year gave him 71.4% of their votes. In the most recent election, that vote share in Campbell went up to 72.3% of the vote, exceeded only by the 77.5% of the vote he polled in Appomattox County. In one Appomattox precinct, Spout Spring, Fariss took 88.2% of the vote. These are what we used to call “rock-ribbed Republican” counties, some of the strongest Republican counties in the state. Whatever voters there thought about Fariss’ court troubles, they simply had no intention of voting for a Democrat. So the Democrat spent six times as much? He could have probably spent 60 times as much and still lost. I appreciate the nobility of offering voters a choice but as a cold-eyed realist, I find it difficult to understand why someone would spend so much money on a race where the outcome is so certain — and, from the Democratic point of view, so unfavorable.
The districts that candidates will be running in this fall will be the first drawn by a neutral party — two special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court. Their mandate was to draw logically shaped districts and they drew them without regard for where incumbents lived — and yet Fariss wound up in a district that’s even more Republican than the one he currently represents. How can this be? See what I said earlier about this part of Virginia being very Republican.
The new district covers all but a small corner of Campbell County, adds the southern half of Bedford County, and then brings in a smidge of northern Pittsylvania County to make the numbers work out. It’s a pretty coherent district, far more so than the gerrymandered district Fariss has represented, but there’s simply no way to draw a competitive district there. Campbell, as we’ve seen, voted 78.4% Republican in 2021. Bedford was even more Republican — 79.1%. Pittsylvania was 75.3%.
I do not have to be Nostradamus to predict that a Republican will win this district in November. That could be Fariss’ greatest comfort — but may also be his biggest danger. Even before these charges, he faced competition for the Republican nomination, from former Campbell County Supervisor Eric Zehr, who boasts endorsements from several prominent Republicans in the district. (Update: Zehr has also been endorsed by Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, with whom he once served on the Board of Supervisors).
This is what happens when districts become so lopsided one way or another: The real election here isn’t in November; that’s just a formality. The real choice won’t come in any election at all; it will come in a convention to select the Republican nominee, which is another way of saying it will be a meeting of party insiders. They may not think of themselves as party insiders, but, effectively, they will be — a relatively small number of party activists willing to spend time on some yet-to-be named day to go through the parliamentary procedures of a convention. Fariss could get voted out without ever having to face the voters again. Fariss is certainly a conservative; no one in Richmond would think otherwise. But Zehr is positioning himself as even more conservative, which is often appealing to Republican party activists. (Just as a Democratic incumbent being challenged from the left is often in some peril, as well.) In Zehr’s case, this includes an endorsement from the commander of the “Campbell County Militia.”
The newly drawn district may be logically shaped but it’s also not helpful to Fariss because it shears off most of the counties where he’s been running. The Virginia Public Access Project says that 45.8% of the district is outside Campbell County, so that’s entirely new territory for Fariss. He starts with no obvious advantage over his nomination challenger in Bedford and Pittsylvania, and perhaps even a disadvantage since Zehr has the support of two Bedford County supervisors. The question is which of the candidates has an advantage even in their mutual home county? Zehr doesn’t appear to be universally popular in Campbell County. He won election in the Rustburg District with 53.7% of the vote in 2013 but then got voted out in 2017 when voters picked independent Jonathan Hardie over him with 50.9% of the vote to Zehr’s 48.9%. That may not matter, though, in the fevered confines of a Republican convention — if Zehr can mobilize the party’s most rightward elements. I have no idea how much the criminal charges against Fariss will hurt him politically, but it’s certainly hard to see they help him in what, on paper, sure looks like a difficult renomination anyway.
Fariss has declared his innocence and will get his day in court; Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell will be the special prosecutor.
To survive politically, Fariss needs to prevail in two venues, both the court and the convention. But if he does, I feel quite confident in saying he’ll be reelected in November. This is a district whose voters show no inclination whatsoever to even consider a candidate with a D after their name.