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Less than two months after he was elected to his first term in Virginia’s state legislature in November 2021, Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, learned that he had been drawn into a newly created district with a Republican colleague, Del. Marie March, another freshman lawmaker from Floyd County.
Before both delegates even took their first oath of office, it was clear that the 2023 nomination fight in the 47th House District would become one of the most watched contests of the year, pitting two far-right incumbents from the same party against each other.
But for Williams, facing an intraparty challenge had always been a real possibility when he first decided to run. He said he decided then that he wouldn’t let that stop him.
“I knew that there was always a chance that I would be redistricted with someone else, but it honestly wasn’t something on my mind then,” Williams said in a recent interview. “I didn’t feel like I could wait, and it was almost like, whatever happens, happens. I needed to get out there and try, because I didn’t feel like anyone else was trying for our community.”
An attorney and longtime political operative from Stuart, a small town in deeply Republican Patrick County, Williams, 34, took a two-month break from his law firm after the 2020 presidential election to join then-President Donald Trump’s legal team challenging the election results in Wisconsin, where Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, had edged out a victory by a mere 20,000 votes.
Although his effort failed, it boosted Williams’ profile back home in Patrick County.
“Our district, especially my county, was just really hurting. We were losing jobs and people, and we were very far in debt,” Williams said of his motivation to become politically involved.
“That’s really what got me into politics locally, which got me involved in the GOP. And then we started building some consensus and a grassroot movement here in the county, and that led to my work with Trump. And when I got back from that, that’s when the talks of stepping up to the state level and representing our area began, with other people calling on me to run.”
In early 2021, he decided to challenge seven-term incumbent Del. Charles Poindexter in the 9th House District. In the June primary that year, he defeated Poindexter by 63% to 37% of the votes. Five months later, he trounced Democrat Bridgette Craighead by a 54-point margin.
“I’m glad I did, because I feel like the work that I have been able to do for the district is the work that we have been needing for a long time, a breath of fresh air. Somebody who is a conservative, effective leader who can just get behind a project and push through to completion,” Williams said.
About 25 miles north of Stuart in Floyd County, a local entrepreneur who at the time owned Due South BBQ in Roanoke and Fatback Soul Shack in Christiansburg also pondered a bid to run for the House of Delegates.
Much like Williams, March, 45, also was a die-hard supporter of former President Trump. In early 2021 she faced backlash for attending the pro-Trump protests in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. Video footage shows her at the Washington Monument, but she has always denied having taken part in the storming of the Capitol. “They called me an insurrectionist. I was never at the Capitol,” she told conservative podcaster Scott Bunn in an interview.
When Del. Nick Rush, R-Montgomery County, the incumbent in the 7th House of Delegates District, announced his retirement after serving five terms, March seized the opportunity. In the primary election that June, she received 54% of the vote, defeating her Republican opponents Sherri Blevins and Lowell Bowman.
March was elected in November 2021, squashing Democrat Derek Kitts 66% to 34%. She was appointed to the Counties, Cities and Towns, Health, Welfare and Institutions and Public Safety committees.
But it didn’t take long for March to find herself in the center of her first controversy. In late December, several weeks before she was sworn in, she abruptly ended her association with a GOP strategist convicted of several federal corruption charges and pardoned in 2020 by then President Trump.
John Tate, owner of JFT Consulting, had joined March’s team in the final stages of her campaign along with his wife, Beth, whom March had introduced as her legislative aide in an interview with Bunn, the conservative podcaster, just days earlier. Only when Cardinal News inquired about her connection with Tate, a legislative aide stated that the consultant’s contract would end that very day.
March did not respond to several emails requesting an interview for this story.
But Williams also faced a rocky start in the legislature when a bill aimed at eliminating critical race theory that he had prefiled erroneously noted, in part, that high school students would be required to learn about “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.”
The proposal had confused Black abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass with Democratic U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, who famously debated his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln seven times in 1858. The Division of Legislative Services — a nonpartisan state agency providing drafting services for lawmakers — later claimed responsibility for the error, but by that time Williams had become the target of widespread mockery and ridicule on social media.
During their first legislative session, both March and Williams proved themselves as culture warriors, taking on controversial issues like religious freedom, abortion and critical race theory, a curriculum unpopular on the political Right that acknowledges that racism is institutionalized and is embedded in America’s history, legal systems and policies.
Throughout their first session, a potential primary battle loomed large over the two lawmakers who suddenly found themselves drawn into a new district that now includes Carroll, Patrick and Floyd counties, parts of Henry County and the city of Galax.
While both candidates kept their home bases under the new maps, each lost their former districts’ biggest localities. For Williams, that was Franklin County, and for March, that was much of Montgomery County and part of Pulaski County. The district is considered safely Republican — Glenn Youngkin won it with 78.1% during the 2021 gubernatorial election, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The winner of the GOP primary on June 20 will face Democrat Patty Quesenberry in the general election in November.
“The key issue in this contest is who can present themselves as the most compelling ideological reflection of this conservative district,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “While both candidates are conservative, the primary will be shaped by the extent to which being a combative Republican is better than being a productive Republican.”
For much of last year, March and Williams managed to stay out of each other’s ways. That changed in September, when March swore out an assault warrant against her opponent after he had bumped into her at a GOP fundraiser in Wytheville. But at a trial in January, a judge found Williams not guilty, stating that the prosecution “fell short” in proving the contact between the two legislators was intentional.
For March, it was just one more incident in a number of controversies she ignited last year.
In November, March made news when she called for ousting Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, who was reelected for a sixth term in Congress by securing a record vote that month. Claiming that it was time for generational change in the representation of Virginia’s 9th Congressional District, she stopped short of announcing her own challenge.
Less than two weeks later, March stirred up another controversy by attempting to politicize the death of Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, criticizing him for his efforts to protect abortion rights as Virginia Republicans and Democrats put aside their partisan differences and together mourned the veteran lawmaker.
March also feuded with local authorities over her business dealings. In December, a special prosecutor tasked with untangling an ongoing legal dispute between the lawmaker and Pulaski County over alleged zoning violations relating to the Big Red Barn, an event venue that she acquired in June 2021 to host agritourism affairs and political stump speeches, absolved the county from any wrongdoing in the case.
And while Williams during the 2023 General Assembly successfully recast himself as a savvy lawmaker who despite his conservative convictions has often worked in unison with Democrats in Richmond to get legislation passed, March continued to live up to her reputation as the anti-establishment candidate, alienating even many of her Republican colleagues, including Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, with whom she clashed over a policy disagreement in January.
With no favors left from members of her own party, March failed to pass a single bill of the 17 measures that she filed during the 2023 legislative session, making her the only legislator this year who couldn’t get any bills past her own party.
Williams, who filed 19 bills, got nine of them passed. As an attorney, he serves on the Courts of Justice, Public Safety and Privileges and Elections committees, and has made supporting law enforcement one of his legislative priorities. Just recently, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, appointed Williams to the Virginia Crime Commission, stating that his “extensive legal background and his strong record of leadership on public safety in the House of Delegates” make Williams “an ideal choice” to join the commission.
“I hear a lot of law enforcement bills, and for me it’s important to protect our law enforcement officers and stand up for them,” Williams said in the interview, adding that this is where he sees the biggest contrast between himself and March.
“It’s frustrating when your opponent is advocating against things like qualified immunity, which I wholeheartedly support, and I think it’s mandatory that we keep that in place for our law enforcement officers to actually be able to do their jobs,” Williams said of the doctrine that protects state and local officials, including law enforcement officers, from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right.
Williams cited legislation he successfully sponsored in 2022 that allows law enforcement officers to expand the surplus military equipment they are allowed to buy. “That was important because of the kind of guns and weapons that we see domestic terrorists and other bad guys using nowadays,” he said. “We need our law enforcement officers to be able to step up and challenge that.”
This year, Williams filed a measure that adds petit larceny to the list of offenses included in the definition of “racketeering activity” to address an increase in the theft of catalytic converters and related crime rings.
“This bill, it’s going to set up felonies for somebody who is operating an organized catalytic converter crime ring. And we see it all the time, it’s gotten to the point where people are in open daylight under cars with saws cutting out catalytic converters.”
Williams said he also takes pride in the Religious Freedom legislation that he got passed this year, after a failed attempt in 2021. The law prohibits the governor or another governmental entity from imposing restrictions under the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Services and Disaster Law on the operation of a place of worship that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on any other business, organization, or activity.
“It was impossible to pass that thing two years ago when we brought it the first time, because the Democrats didn’t want Glenn Youngkin to get a win, and that was one of his campaign platform taglines, that we’re not going to close our churches and leave our liquor stores open like Ralph Northam did during the pandemic,” Williams said. “If something should ever happen again, and there is a governor in place who thinks that shutting down churches is a reasonable thing to do, my bill will hopefully protect us against that.”
Most recently, Williams also helped the Floyd County Public Service Authority get nearly $1.5 million for drinking water construction in a mix of grants and low interest loans from the Virginia Department Of Health.
Williams had initially lobbied the General Assembly for an itemized $1.8 million in a $5 million budget amendment to fund drinking water repair and construction in Floyd County, but the latter is still tied up in the ongoing budget negotiations.
“That was really cool to be able to pull that off, because we had been working with Floyd officials to get that budget amendment into the budget,” Williams said. “But because of the work that the local officials had done to get me the numbers that they needed to write the grant application and packaging, they did a superior job in applying. And what we focused on was really trying to push it over the edge and get the Department of Health to realize how important that was. I’m glad we could get that done.”
The irony that the state funds will benefit Floyd County — his opponent’s home turf — isn’t lost on Williams. March in a Facebook post thanked unnamed officials from Floyd “that worked hard to secure the funding for Floyd’s well water infrastructure,” but she did not name Williams.
“Small counties like Floyd have many needs that Richmond doesn’t understand. Basic needs like clean drinking water are a necessity. Way to go, Floyd!” she wrote.
Williams said that he got involved because Floyd County officials contacted his office.
“The town of Floyd was looking for somebody to advocate, and they reached out to us and we were able to get that in,” he said. “One of the things that we have been doing is getting with our localities much sooner to emphasize how to important it is for them to get us their numbers, get us what they need so we can get it into the budget sooner than later, and work with them on developing creative programming so we can actually fix some stuff.”
Williams also received the endorsements from Gilbert, the speaker of the House of Delegates, and Earle-Sears, the lieutenant governor – an unusual move as high-level party officials usually do not get involved in nominating contests between incumbents who are members of their own party.
Williams has also outraised March on the campaign trail. By March 31, he had raised $188,000, more than five times the $38,000 raised by March.
“I think people want a conservative, proven and effective leader. They want somebody who can get things done and get things accomplished,” Williams said. “They don’t want somebody who is just going to blame everyone else for their own failures, and that’s the message that I’m going to bring to the doors. I get things done, I’m a full-blooded, red American conservative, faith and flag.”
For a full list of legislative elections in Southwest and Southside, see our election guide.