Republicans will pick a candidate to run for the newly drawn 41st state House District at the CrossPointe Conference Center in Christiansburg on May 4. The choice will be between Chris Obenshain, a Montgomery County prosecutor who holds a long list of endorsements from local party leaders, and Lowell Bowman, a contractor and business owner who stresses his working class roots.
Created as part of the redistricting approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in 2021, the 41st District has no incumbent. It covers most of Montgomery County, except for Christiansburg, and parts of western Roanoke County.
About the district
This is one of the most competitive House districts in the state. In the 2017 attorney general’s race, this district voted 50.6% Democratic. In the 2017 lieuteantant governor’s race, it voted 51.2% Republican. Those are the two races cited by the court-appointed special masters who drew the district lines.
In the 2021 governor’s race, this district voted 55.5% Republican.
Read more about all the districts in our region in our election guide.
The Republican who wins on May 4 will face Democratic candidate Lily Franklin, former chief of staff for Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, in November.
Jo Anne Price, chair of the Republican Party in Montgomery County, says party leaders elected to pick their candidate through a mass meeting because it’s the process “closest to the people.”
To get voters to attend the meeting, Price pointed out, the hopeful nominees have to burn some shoe leather. “The candidates themselves have to visit the homes of voters and convince the voters to come and vote,” she says. “We’re not advertising it all over the place.”
Bowman said he didn’t have a preference about which process the party used for picking a nominee, but Obenshain said he would have preferred a firehouse primary where voters could have gone to locations in Roanoke County and Montgomery County to make their pick. “I think it’s good when more conservatives can get involved and choose the Republican nominee,” he said.
Virginia-based political analyst Chaz Nuttycombe, who specializes in state legislative elections, feels confident Obenshain, who he views as having deeper ties to the area’s Republican community, will become the party’s choice. “Obenshain’s got more of a visible campaign effort and has the resources he needs to win the nomination,” Nuttycombe said.
At the end of March, Bowman had raised $52,269 in campaign funds, with $50,000 coming out of his own pocket, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“I really don’t want to owe anybody,” Bowman said. “I just don’t want them calling and wanting a favor one day. I want to be able to do what I think is right.”
Obenshain had raised $77,037 as of the end of March, according to VPAP. He donated $32,000 to his own campaign.
‘I think it’s important for candidates to show they are committed to the effort it takes to run a campaign,” Obenshain wrote in statement. “But it is just as important to show that you have the ability to convince others to join the team and support that effort.”
An analysis filed by the two “special masters” who drew the new district maps rated the 41st as the most competitive district in the western third of Virginia. In the 2021 governor’s race, 55.5% of voters in this district went for Republican nominee and winner Glenn Youngkin.
Nuttycombe predicts a Republican will win the seat in November. “It’s hard for me to see Democrats [winning] that district this year, unless Biden’s approval improves substantially,” he said.
About the candidates:
Chris Obenshain, 44
Obenshain headed to Capitol Hill to work for then Sen. George Allen after graduating from Bridgewater College. He was busy at the Russell Senate Office Building on 9/11 when a plane struck the Pentagon.
“We drove past the Pentagon that morning, and then to see it on the way home that day, to see the smoke coming out of that building,” Obenshain said. “It was an intense day. It changed my life.”
Obenshain joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2002 as an enlisted soldier, working as a mechanic. “I felt a responsibility to serve my country,” Obenshain said.
He kept with it through law school at the University of Virginia and while beginning his career as a prosecutor the New River Valley. Today, Obenshain is a major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Obenshain moved to Richmond in 2010 when then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli hired him as an assistant attorney general. There, he met Jennifer Beville, the woman who would later become his wife, while attending church.
He and Jennifer returned to Montgomery County in 2018 and are raising two young sons. “We love it here,” he said.
Obenshain hails from a political family. His father, Joe Obenshain, ran for state senate in 2003. His uncle Richard “Dick” Obenshain was running as the Republican nominee in Virginia for the United States Senate when he was killed in an airplane crash. His cousin Mark Obenshain is a state senator from Harrisonburg.
Even so, Chris Obenshain said it wasn’t a foregone conclusion he’d one day run for office. He was happy being a conservative activist until about two years ago. Then, Obenshain said he began thinking he might create more change as an elected representative.
“My wife and I have both been working parents,” he said. “Kind of seeing how things are just getting tougher and harder for working families, and just experiencing that ourselves. Everything from formula to fuel to groceries to utilities, all that stuff going up and just really getting harder. Those are the kind of things that motivated me to really get off the sidelines.”
A graduate of Cave Spring High School, Obenshain grew up in Roanoke County. He notes his family has lived in Montgomery County for almost 100 years.
The fact that he’s lived in both Roanoke and Montgomery counties uniquely prepared him to represent the somewhat geographically unwieldy district, Obenshain says.
“There are certain things in which Montgomery County is more like areas to the southwest of it,” he said. “And then, there’s also some other areas in which, Montgomery County might have more things in common with Roanoke County.”
Additionally, Obenshain believes his time in the reserves has endowed him with leadership experience Bowman and Franklin lack.
“It has taught me how to work together as part of a team,” Obenshain said. “When you’re a legislator, you’re one of 100 people. You can’t get anything done if you’re just working by yourself.”
Obenshain stressed he can collaborate with folks who think differently than he does.
“I’m open to working with anyone to do things that, again, make life better for the families in this region,” he said. “If there’s somebody on the other side of the aisle who’s willing to work with me on a funding issue, on a common issue, I’m absolutely willing to work with that person.”
This week, Obenshain picked up the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, who called him “a proven conservative leader.”
Lowell Bowman, 41
In 2021, Bowman ran for the Republican nomination to represent the 7th House of Delegates District. Marie March won that nomination and later the seat.
Bowman threw his hat in the ring that time primarily out of frustration, he said. He was upset about the response he said he received from workers at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in Richmond when he complained about what he saw as over-regulation he had to deal with as a contractor.
“You try to tell them that something is hurting your community,” Bowman said. “And it’s like, ‘Look, these are the laws that need to be changed because of this reason.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, tough, it ain’t our problem.’”
On the issues
Both Obenshain and Bowman describe themselves as pro-life but neither would specify what type of restrictions on abortion they’d support.
Both received an AQ rating from the National Rifle Association. That’s equivalent to an A rating for a candidate who has a voting record. Candidates without voting records answer questionnaires about their views.
Both Obenshain and Bowman are vocal proponents of allowing public education funds to be used for students to attend private schools or to homeschool.
On Gov. Glenn Youngkin wanting to invest millions on industrial site development in the state:
Virginia needs project-ready sites for Virginia to be competitive, Obenshain says.
However, he also wants state economic leaders to keep an eye out for small businesses.
“I’ve talked to a lot of small business owners who feel sometimes they get, overlooked in favor of these massive companies that everybody’s trying to lure,” Obenshain said.
“We need to try to be attracting industry,” he said. “We don’t want the industry going to Tennessee, and we don’t want to lose out to North Carolina, so we have to be competitive.”
Bowman stressed that the state does need to be “smart when it spends its money.”
On Gov. Youngkin’s efforts to see a small modular nuclear reactor developed in Southwest Virginia:
“I support an all-of-the-above energy policy,” he said. “I think we need to have a broader approach to energy production and generation, and I think nuclear power is one component of that.”
“With it having the word ‘nuclear’ in it, I’m sure there’s people who don’t want it in our backyard,” he said. “I don’t know how it would affect the community. I haven’t delved into the economics of it [and] how it would affect everybody environmentally.”
What types of bills would you introduce if sent to Richmond?
“Tax relief for families is going to be a focus,” Obenshain said.
As a prosecutor, Obenshain said, he has seen the impact that the criminal justice reform measures enacted by Democrats in the General Assembly in 2020 and 2021. He feels those laws have left communities less safe. “We’ve seen it in Roanoke City, and it’s spilling out into the counties,” he said.
Obenshain said he would like to introduce bills to do things like give judges more freedom to deny bail and to allow judges to incarcerate probationers for their first technical offense and to put them in jail longer than 14 days for a second offense.
“I would like to see school choice,” he said “I’m definitely going to go after that.”
Bowman’s other priority will be dealing with state over-regulation.
“I really want to try to dial that back,” he said.
This time around, Bowman is running primarily as a response to how poorly he feels his daughter was treated by the Montgomery County School System after she was allegedly raped by another student.
Both Bowman and his wife, Stevie Bowman, who’s the chair of the Moms for Liberty in Montgomery County, a conservative activism group, have spoken publicly about their daughter’s experience at several school board meetings. Brenda Drake, spokesperson for Montgomery County Schools, told Cardinal News that she was unable to comment on “the specifics related to a student discipline issue,” however.
Bowman said his daughter’s attack happened in 2021 outside of school. At school board meetings, he has complained that administrators at Auburn High School, who were not trained in working with sexual assault victims, interrogated his daughter without informing him and his wife first.
Stevie Bowman now homeschools their daughter and their two younger sons.
The experience has made Bowman passionate about what he calls school choice or allowing public education funds to be used for students to attend private schools or homeschool options.
“What about the parent who don’t have the means to homeschool?” Bowman said. “And the kid has got to go back to school with all that? If it saves the lives of two or three girls every year, honestly, I think it’d be worth having it.”
Initially, when asked if he is the candidate more aligned with Make America Great Again principles, Bowman demurred.
“I’m my own person,” he said. “So I’m not Donald Trump. I’m not Ron DeSantis. I’m trying to go up there to do the right things. I want to make some changes. We desperately need changes made up there.”
After ending the phone interview, Bowman later called back to clarify. “I do support Trump,” he stressed. “I do support his policies.”
A graduate of Carroll County High School, Bowman agreed that he and Obenshain take similar stances on many issues. “Our differences really, I think, are in our perspectives and the way we grew up,” he said. “I grew up pretty poor. I don’t know that he did.”
A first-generation college student, Bowman worked his way through school. After starting out at New River Community College, Bowman then headed to East Tennessee State University to study land surveying. After transferring to Virginia Tech for civil engineering, Bowman worked for the university’s facilities department.
“It makes you appreciate it,” Bowman said. “You don’t drink your tuition.”
For several years, Bowman worked as a consultant designing roads and utilities for industrial and commercial projects. Around 2011, he founded Bowman-Griffin General Contractors, LLC with Todd Griffin, who he’s been friends with since the fifth grade.
“We’re two totally, highly motivated individuals,” he said. “We don’t live lavish lifestyles . . . both of us just work. We don’t have any hobbies or anything.”
When the company first launched, Bowman said they took most any job they could get. “You put in somebody’s mailbox, if they asked you to,” he said. “Now we’re doing a little bit more larger projects.”
The business wins utility and commercial jobs across the state. “We’ll go up in Northern Virginia, some out toward Richmond, some all over Southwest and then, we will go down toward Martinsville,” he said.
The pair also owns Bowman-Griffin Waste Management, a waste hauler in the Twin County region. Additionally, Bowman raises calves on two farms. “I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.
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