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Appomattox County has long touted itself as the place “Where Our Nation Reunited” in acknowledgment of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant that effectively ended the Civil War. Now, Republicans gunning for the House of Delegates hope to find some unity in Appomattox that so far has eluded them.
A pitched battle has erupted to choose a Republican nominee for an open seat in the newly configured 56th House District, which covers seven heavily GOP-leaning Central Virginia counties. Among those counties is Appomattox, where candidates are sparring over the nomination process, with one candidate alleging that an “old-boy network” is preparing to pre-choose a local candidate over two others in a mass meeting scheduled for Friday night.
Considering the district’s Republican tilt, the GOP contest is essentially tantamount to winning a House seat. The Republican candidate will be the likely winner in the general election in November, when voters will elect 100 delegates for a chamber where Republicans currently hold a 52-48 edge.
Gunning for the nomination are Appomattox attorney Kevin Bailey, former 5th District U.S. Representative Tom Garrett and Goochland County businesswoman Jennie Wood. All three candidates boast their conservative bona fides: support for gun rights, opposition to abortion, support for small businesses and other familiar issues. Political unity, however, has been battered by political rancor.
Republicans will choose the 56th District nominee in a convention May 20 at Cumberland High School. The winner must receive a majority of the 223 delegates, all of whom will be selected for the convention by the Republican committees across the district. The delegate process follows a fairly complex formula, by which each county’s voting power is weighted through a combination of population and Republican vote share in the past two federal elections. In other words, a county with high population and a history of high Republican turnout will get to send the most delegates to the convention.
Under those rules, Fluvanna County will send the highest percentage of delegates at 27%, which accounts for 60 delegates. Appomattox County is next with 23%, followed by Goochland County (22%), Buckingham County (15%), Cumberland County (10%), Prince Edward County (2%) and a tiny sliver of Louisa County that will get one delegate.
The plan for picking Appomattox County delegates has become contentious, with Garrett’s campaign accusing an opponent of attempting “to hijack the democratic process openly, in broad daylight, in front of six witnesses,” according to a statement issued earlier this week.
The statement alleges that a candidate wants to use the “dishonest, unethical practice of slating” delegates, which basically means that a committee would send its entire slate of delegates to back one candidate, rather than allow each delegate a separate vote. Slating is allowed under Republican Party rules but is often controversial.
Garrett did not name the candidate who wants to use slating, either in the written statement or in a telephone interview on Thursday, but the candidate who would likely benefit the most from “slating” Appomattox County to secure all the county’s votes in a convention would be the hometown candidate Bailey, an attorney and farm owner.
“While another candidate and I have been working to win a convention,” Garrett’s statement read, “the third candidate is apparently working to rig one.”
Bailey did not respond to phone and email messages left for him Wednesday and Thursday.
In a statement Thursday, Wood’s campaign said: “Creating a circumstances that has the potential to divided Republicans it not a strategy that is helpful to maintaining our advantage in the House of Delegates and winning a majority in the Senate. I’m hopeful that my opponent’s campaign will take advantage of the opportunity to clear the air at the mass meeting and endure a fair and civil process.”
Garrett said in an interview that “an old-boy network in Appomattox County” is trying to pick its preferred candidate.
“Voters should choose the candidates,” Garrett said. “Candidates should not choose the voters.”
The tensions speak to the importance of the nomination campaign. The Republican convention will be a high-stakes affair because the winner will be the heavy favorite to win the House of Delegates seat. The district, which has no incumbent after being redrawn during last year’s statewide redistricting process, votes in favor of Republicans usually by 20 percentage points, according to analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.
“Whoever wins this nomination will be the next delegate,” Garrett said.
The campaign marks a political comeback attempt for Garrett, a former state senator and U.S. congressman from Louisa County who opted not to run for reelection in 2018 after a single term in Washington, citing alcoholism for his decision to exit politics. He said he has completed a 12-step program and talks openly about being an alcoholic. He said that he has been sober for nearly five years.
“I am working for the opportunity and the honor to serve again,” he said.
Bailey is a first-time candidate who ranks opposition to abortion and support of law enforcement among his top priorities.
“The answer to America’s problems is NOT more government,” according to Bailey’s campaign website’s list of prevalent issues. “The answer is stronger families. Limited government and lower taxes will allow your family to keep more of YOUR hard-earned money. My focus in Richmond will be to adopt policies that make every Virginian household stronger and more prosperous.”
Bailey has cited his lack of political experience as an asset.
“I’m not a politician,” he told Lynchburg television station WSET last December. “I’m just a regular guy that owns a farm here in Appomattox, that practices law, [and] is an elder at the church. That’s who I am and that’s who I’m going to be.”
Wood, a professional photographer and marketing consultant, is a single mother of two children whose website says she is “passionate about individual liberty in a child’s educational choices” and is “100% pro-life and will lead the fight to protect all life, starting at conception.” She also wants to repeal red-flag laws that take away guns from people courts determine could be a threat.
Her campaign website also says that she will “promote Constitutional Carry legislation, stand up against federal magazine capacity restrictions, and ensure we always have the right to defend ourselves and our families.”
According to the most recent campaign finance reports listed on the Virginia Public Access Project website, all three candidates were close in terms of fundraising as of the first of the year, which portends a potentially close nomination race. Garrett had raised $10,155, Bailey $10,000 and Wood $6,136.
The Appomattox County Republican mass meeting will be at 7 p.m. Friday at the Appomattox Community Center.