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Elections matter — except when they don’t.
One that apparently won’t matter is the general election this fall for a House of Delegates seat in parts of Bedford, Campbell and Pittsylvania counties.
Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt broke the news last week that Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County, had failed to meet his party’s deadline to file for reelection. That’s not surprising given Fariss’ legal troubles: He faces two felony charges stemming from a traffic incident and, with the exception of Donald Trump, criminal charges generally don’t help a candidate’s prospects.
That means the only candidate who did meet the deadline is automatically the Republican nominee in that district: former Campbell County Supervisor Eric Zehr.
More to the point, that means Zehr has effectively won the election. At present, there is no Democratic candidate in the district and even if there is one, it may not matter. This is one of the most Republican-leaning House districts in the state. The Virginia Public Access Project computes that Glenn Youngkin took 79.24% of the vote in these precincts in 2021.
I understand the noble instincts of both parties when they field candidates in unwinnable districts — give the people a choice. Still, you’ve got to find someone willing to do that. I’m more of a realist: Barring something shocking, Zehr will be the next delegate from the 51st House District and not a single vote has been cast.
True, Fariss could still run as an independent; he’s got until June 20 to file that paperwork, but I’m skeptical. It’s hard for anyone to win as an independent and his legal problems may be politically insurmountable.
The last time Zehr ran for office he lost; he was defeated for reelection as Rustburg District supervisor in 2017. How does someone go from losing a local election to being ushered into the General Assembly without an election?
There are several layers to that answer.
A procedural one is that Zehr was the only candidate to file for the nomination. If Ramblin’ Joe The Hobo who lives in a shack down by the railroad tracks had been the only person to file, he’d be the candidate right now. Given that most incumbents get renominated if they want to be, it’s noteworthy that Fariss drew any competition at all.
It’s entirely possible — maybe even likely — that if Fariss had filed for renomination, Zehr would have beaten him for reasons I outlined in a previous column. The short version: The district lines have changed and about half of this district is completely new to Fariss, so there’s no built-in allegiance. Also, Zehr has positioned himself as a more conservative alternative; that’s often as appealing in Republican politics as a more liberal alternative is in Democratic ones. Zehr is also backed by one of his former colleagues on the Campbell County Board of Supervisors — U.S. Rep. Bob Good — and that matters a lot, particularly in that district, and particularly in a convention setting where a relatively small number of party activists can command a majority. (That’s how Good defeated Rep. Denver Riggleman for the Republican nomination in 2020, by orchestrating a convention rather than a primary.)
A deeper answer lies in the polarized nature of our politics today. This district is so strongly Republican that whoever wins the Republican nomination is going to win the election. However, even that is an incomplete answer. We do live in a more polarized society and there are fewer places in Virginia that are truly competitive than there once were — see my previous column on that. That doesn’t really explain this district, though. Northern Virginia was once competitive but is no longer; this part of rural Virginia, though, has always been conservative.
Since VPAP used the 2021 governor’s race as a metric for measuring the partisan lean of this and other districts, let’s go back through previous gubernatorial races in the counties in this district.
Only one Democrat in the modern era (which I date from Linwood Holton’s election in 1969) has carried Bedford County in a governor’s race — that was Gerald Baliles in 1985, who took 51.9%.
The last Democrat to carry Pittsylvania County in a governor’s race was William Battle in 1969.
No Democrat in the modern era has ever carried Campbell County in a governor’s race.
We’ve certainly seen these counties become more Republican over time but this has always been a conservative part of the state. Over the past four gubernatorial elections, which cover two Republican years and two Democratic years, Campbell County has always voted 70% or more Republican, with Youngkin topping out at 78.4%. The point: In such a conservative part of the state, we shouldn’t be surprised that the conservative party, the Republican Party, is dominant here. Political polarization is a real thing but this district isn’t the best place to illustrate it. We have always had localities where one party has a lopsided advantage — and where winning that party’s nomination is tantamount to election. This is simply one of those.
Still, I feel compelled as a journalist to point out that here’s a candidate who effectively just got elected without a single vote being cast. That’s not unheard-of. We have lots of incumbents in noncompetitive districts who will get reelected the same way; the difference here is that this is a new candidate. If any voters are unhappy about that, well, they should have filed for the Republican nomination.
Before you get too surprised, consider this: There are at least three other districts in this part of Virginia where a brand-new legislator will effectively get picked in the coming weeks before any general election can be held.
On Saturday, Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth County, surprised us by announcing his retirement. Within seven minutes, his legislative aide, Jed Arnold, declared his candidacy for House District 46. The deadline for other candidates to get into that race is tight: They have until Thursday to circulate petitions to make the primary ballot. At present, there’s no Democratic candidate and likely won’t be. That district is even more Republican than the one Zehr will represent: It voted 81.4% for Youngkin in 2021. If no one else files for the Republican nomination by Thursday, Arnold is as good as elected for the same reason that Zehr is.
In the House district just to the east of the one that Zehr will surely wind up representing, we are seeing competition now, even though we probably won’t in the fall. The 56th House District that stretches from Appomattox County to Goochland County is another strongly Republican one; it voted 64.9% Republican in 2021. For the moment, there’s no Democratic candidate, so the Republican nomination is effectively the election. (Even if there were a Democratic candidate, winning the Republican nomination would still effectively be the election.) Here, we have three Republicans seeking that nomination: former Rep. Tom Garrett of Buckingham County, Kevin Bailey of Appomattox County and Jennie Wood of Goochland County. As Ralph Berrier Jr. reported for Cardinal last week, a political fight erupted in Appomattox over how delegates should be allocated. Bailey succeeded Friday in winning what he claimed to be 90% of the delegates from the district’s second-biggest locality. Whether that gives Bailey an advantage in the May 20 convention, we’ll see, but whoever wins that convention is almost surely the next delegate from that district.
Then there’s House District 53, which covers parts of Bedford County, all of Amherst County and parts of Nelson County. In 2021, this was a 73.35% Republican district — so whoever wins the May 6 convention between Tim Griffin and Sarah Mays can probably start planning how to decorate their office in Richmond. There is a Democratic candidate, Sam Soghor, but I’m a realist. This is one of the reddest districts in the state.
There are other Republican conventions set, one of which is also guaranteed to nominate a new candidate: Lowell Bowman and Chris Obenshain are seeking the GOP nomination in a May 4 convention for House District 41, which covers parts of Montgomery County and Roanoke County. That district, though, is a more competitive one (VPAP estimates says it was 55.46% Republican in 2021) and there’s a Democratic candidate (Lily Franklin) running there. That puts it in a different category. November voters will get a real say there.
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‘Push poll’ for Hanger vs. Head is in the field
Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt broke another story last week: State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, is taking some soundings to decide whether he should move into a district to seek reelection. You’ll recall that redistricting put three senators in the same district: Hanger; Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County; and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County.
Deeds has since moved to Charlottesville, where he’s in a primary battle with Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. Hanger has let the deadline pass to file for the party nomination; Obenshain has won that nomination by default. However, Hanger has been pondering whether to move cross-county into an open seat district that runs south to Roanoke County. If so, that will put him into a primary battle against Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who already has TV ads running in this enlongated district.
Hanger says he hasn’t made his mind up but last week sent out a campaign-style mailing to the new district. Since then, we’ve learned that there’s also a poll in the field that tests a Hanger-Head matchup. It’s a “push poll,” meaning it’s not meant to be objective but to “push” respondents toward particular answers.
For instance, one question in the poll is:
Which of the following candidates would you be more likely to vote for in the election for Virginia state Senate?
A candidate who has never served in the State Senate and if elected would not serve on the Finance Committee or the Budget Conference?
A candidate who is the most senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is a member of the House Senate Budget Conference and has been rated as the most effective member of the legislature?
That latter resume describes Hanger. If the choice is framed that way, who wouldn’t pick the more senior legislator?
Just to make sure, another poll question offers this choice, which doesn’t mention any names but sets up how a Hanger vs. Head race might get framed from Hanger’s point of view:
Which of the following candidates would you be more likely to vote for in the election for Virginia state Senate?
A candidate who is a conservative but has made compromises with the Democrats to pass legislation that creates jobs, helps farmers and small businesses and improves healthcare and transportation?
A candidate who says he is the most conservative and will not compromise but has never passed any major legislation to benefit the people of his district?
I suspect Head would dispute the notion that he’s never passed any important legislation — he might point to his bipartisan legislation creating a high school for adults in Roanoke that Cardinal’s Lisa Rowan wrote about last week — but he might well happily claim the mantle of the most conservative candidate in a Republican primary.
Hanger has until Thursday to decide whether to move — and establish residency in the new district. This will be an exciting week in politics, and not simply because of what’s happening in a New York City court on Tuesday.