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A Republican primary in the newly created 17th state Senate District, which was overshadowed by litigation over an unprecedented change of the nomination process, pits two candidates against each other who give voters in the district a choice between a seasoned state delegate and a political newcomer who became nationally known as a NASCAR driver and wrestling promoter.
Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, who announced in early 2022 that she would retire from her House of Delegates seat to run for the state Senate, faces Emporia entrepreneur Hermie Sadler in the district-wide primary election on June 20, which a Richmond circuit judge ordered in March, rescinding a decision by state election officials who called for a party-run convention instead.
The chairman of the Republican Legislative District Committee for the district had filed the suit against the Virginia Department of Elections and the State Board of Elections, saying that they had meddled in internal party affairs by changing the district’s nomination method from a primary to a convention.
In her suit, Dawn Jones alleged that Susan Beals, the elections commissioner, unlawfully made the change under pressure from Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares after initially confirming the district committee’s decision to settle the nomination contest during a primary.
A lawyer for the state argued before the court that Jones was a “low-level official who went rogue,” but Judge Claire Cardwell found that the State Board of Elections was “required to order the method of nomination chosen” because Jones was the “proper chairperson designated to give notice” for the 17th District.
In an unprecedented ruling, Cardwell then granted a motion by Jones for an emergency injunction that sought to order the department to place the names of the two candidates seeking the GOP nomination on a primary ballot by the April 6 deadline.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that Virginia Republican leadership likely preferred a convention in the district because Republicans won the governor’s office in large part by avoiding a primary in the selection of Youngkin.
“A Republican primary in 2021 might have given the party a more pro-Trump nominee, and that would have really hurt Republican prospects in the gubernatorial election,” Farnsworth said. However, a governor who tries to “impose a nomination process over the objections of local party officials makes enemies and is unlikely to prevail,” Farnsworth added.
The newly created 17th District includes all of Isle of Wight, Southampton, Greenville and Brunswick counties; the cities of Suffolk, Franklin and Emporia; and parts of Portsmouth and Dinwiddie County. An analysis from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project found that the district’s share of votes from the 2021 governor’s race favored Youngkin, a Republican, by about 5% over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.
The district’s Republican nominee will face the Democratic nominee Clinton Jenkins from Suffolk, Brewer’s colleague in the House of Delegates, in the general election in November.
Brewer, 38, was first elected to represent the 64th District in the House of Delegates in November 2017, and she was the youngest Republican delegate to be sworn in during the subsequent session.
Her district, which has since been redrawn, includes the counties of Isle of Wight, Surry and Prince George, and parts of the city of Suffolk. Brewer currently serves on the House Appropriations Committee, the House General Laws Committee and the House Communications, Technology and Innovation Committee.
As a member of the House, Brewer also serves on several state boards and commissions composed of legislators and citizen members, including the Joint Subcommittee for Health and Human Resources Oversight, the Joint Commission on Health Care and the Commission on Youth.
Brewer said in a recent interview that she doesn’t believe that her decision to retire her House seat to run for the Senate was gambling away her legislative seat.
“We don’t own our districts, and the House seat that I had prior was basically divided into about five different districts,” she said. “I’ve always represented rural areas, and this Senate district is very much like that. I’m honored to be able to run for that Senate seat and hopefully continue for my communities.”
During her campaign, Brewer has cast herself as an experienced legislator with a track record of working with her colleagues from across the aisle.
“I was elected during the blue wave of 2017 when Republicans in the House lost 17 seats, and I was one of only three Republicans that won,” she said in the interview. “Each and every year I came into the majority as a determined minority where all three levels of government were under Democrat control, and I was still able to get legislation passed and make sure I was out front being an advocate for our communities and talking with people about what our issues are.”
Brewer, who was adopted when she was just 10 days old, takes particular pride in her efforts reforming state laws dealing with adoption and foster care. She has also worked with Democrats to secure funding for broadband expansion in Suffolk, Isle of Wight and Southampton, among other initiatives aimed at boosting economic growth.
“In a chamber of 100 you are one vote, and in a chamber of 40 you are one vote,” Brewer said. “So you have to be able to go to other people, sit down with them and explain our concerns, and try to find synergy. And that’s what I’ve been able to do, whether I’m in a minority or majority.”
A passionate advocate for anti-abortion policies, Brewer said that she “absolutely would have voted for” Youngkin-backed legislation that would have limited access to abortion in Virginia to the first 15 weeks after conception, with exceptions. However, House Republicans never took up the measure after Senate Democrats in January effectively killed it in committee.
“I’m adopted, so I’m obviously pro-life, but being pro-life comes with a responsibility,” Brewer said. “A lot of the work that I’ve done is encouraging adoption over abortion, making sure that we have resources that work for mothers.”
For example, during the 2023 legislative session, Brewer successfully carried a proposal that provides financial support for expecting mothers. “These bills recognize that we can do more to support our expecting mothers and ensure they have the needed financial support to take that next step towards creating a family,” Youngin said after signing Brewer’s measure in March.
Brewer has been married to her husband Andrew since 2021, and she has a 6-year-old stepson, a baby girl who is 5 months old, and two dogs. A small business owner, she launched her career training first responders, law enforcement and public safety officials before moving on to start her own marketing firm, followed by a brick-and-mortar business. She now owns and operates a small wine and craft beer shop in Suffolk, according to her campaign website.
Brewer is a founding member of the Virginia Future Caucus, which is co-chaired by her colleague Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and she recently received endorsements from Youngkin and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears.
Because Brewer enjoys unwavering support by the administration and leading Republicans, she has faced criticism from Sadler, who hasn’t shied away from labeling her a career politician whose priorities are in Richmond, and not her home district.
“Delegate Brewer has shown that in recent years that she’s changed,” Sadler said in a recent interview. “She’s become one of them. She’s become part of the problem, an establishment politician. She is more concerned about her personal political future than she is about representing the people of the 17th District.”
But Brewer rejects her opponent’s characterization of her.
“I think that is not doing this district justice to really go down that line,” she said. “What I think what this Senate seat is about and what delivering for the people is about is results. At the end of the day it’s not talking ill of other Republicans, this is about making sure that when a constituent has a concern, you are going to pick up the phone and know how to handle it.”
Yet Sadler’s strategy has proven to be successful — at least financially. By the end of the most recent reporting period, he had outraised Brewer by $183,000, with $385,000 to $202,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
For Brewer, however, money isn’t going to decide this primary.
“I ran in a primary several years ago and I was outspent, and I came out victorious,” she said. “This isn’t going to be a money-driven campaign or primary, this is going to be about making sure that you are going to people’s doors, talking to them in their homes, seeing what their concerns are and being able to effectively communicate so you can solve their problem.”
But while Brewer spent the first two months of the year in Richmond on behalf of her constituents, Sadler zigzagged through the new district, talking to voters and building alliances since announcing his bid in November, 10 months after Brewer filed her candidacy.
“I’m new at this, it’s not something I ever thought I would be doing,” Sadler said. “It’s a lot of work, but I’m enjoying the process. It’s quite rewarding for people to view you as somebody who could potentially be a voice in helping them.”
Born and raised in Emporia, Sadler earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Having raced go-karts for much of his life, he celebrated his NASCAR debut in 1992, winning the NASCAR Busch Series Rookie of the Year award.
Sadler has since competed in 66 NASCAR Cup Series and more than 250 Busch Series races, receiving sponsorships from the Virginia State Lottery and former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, among others. He founded his own NASCAR team in 2001 before joining FOX NASCAR as a pit reporter.
As a Southside entrepreneur, Sadler owns Sadler Brothers Oil Co., now a third-generation business that manages truck stops and convenience stores across Southside Virginia. With his wife, Angie, he also operates several restaurants in the Emporia area, including FOSHO Bar and Grille, Victory Lane Restaurant and a Quiznos. In total, the Sadler family employs more than 300 Virginians statewide. Sadler and his wife have three daughters, including one with special needs.
Despite Sadler’s lack of a political background, his name might help him in his uphill nomination battle against a sitting legislator, said Farnsworth, the political scientist. “Somebody who is already known to voters as a NASCAR driver is in a very good position, they obtained a lot of free media before filing a candidacy,” he said. “While this kind of job may not be enough to win a primary, it’s enough to be a serious candidate.”
Sadler said that he decided to run because when talking to residents of the districts he noticed widespread concern with the area’s representation in Richmond.
“People talk, all day and every day, about the problems we have, especially in these parts of Virginia. And that is problems with our schools, not enough support for law enforcement, crime on the streets, inflation, and protections of our small businesses that are the backbones of our economies in this part of Virginia.”
People talk about it all the time, “but nobody is doing anything about it,” Sadler said. “So I made the decision that this year, this cycle, was too important to sit on the sidelines. We cannot afford to have another career politician representing the 17th District in this area in Richmond. We need somebody who puts the needs of the people of this district first, and that’s what I plan to do.”
Sadler said that if he thought Brewer was a strong legislator — one who delivers results for her constituents — he wouldn’t be running.
“But I don’t think she is, and quite frankly, I don’t think that she thinks she’s got that great of a record. Because since we started, instead of running on her accomplishments, her campaign has been doing nothing but try to discredit, slander or throw shade at me and my family. So if she herself thought she was that great of a legislator, she could just show up and run on that.”
Sadler said if he’s elected, his immediate focus would be on legislation aimed at improving access to education and funding for local law enforcement.
“We have to make sure that there is transparency and accountability as far as the funding available for our school systems, and we have to pay our teachers the proper amount needed to retain them.” He added that he would “come in and take a leadership role” and “guide our local school boards to make sure the resources are there and that people are accountable as far as getting our schools back on track.”
Helping law enforcement and the safety of the communities and businesses in the district is also paramount, Sadler added. “We have major issues with support of law enforcement, notably down in Suffolk, where not only are we not attracting enough candidates, and a big problem in that area is the retention. That’s a fundamental problem.”
While his platform mostly aligns with that of the Virginia GOP, Sadler said that he wouldn’t have voted for the Youngkin-backed proposal that would have banned abortions in the commonwealth after 15 weeks, with exceptions.
“You never hear liberals talking about exceptions. They don’t say, ‘Have an abortion right up until birth with exceptions.’ They don’t bring that up. I just don’t think you negotiate your faith,” he said. “I believe in life, I’ll always protect life, and I support any legislation that helps to protect life. I understand what the current law is in Virginia, and I respect it, but I can’t change what my faith is, and my faith leads me to believe that life starts at conception. So if I’m elected, my job will be to represent the people based on that. I’m not ashamed of it.”
While he understands that in a divided General Assembly, legislation is often shaped by compromise and concessions from both parties, Sadler said that he wouldn’t budge on abortion law. “Of all the good things that Governor Youngkin has done, if he was going to negotiate this, I don’t think that he should have started at 15 weeks,” he said. “On this particular issue, when it comes to life, take it or leave, but I believe what I believe, and there isn’t going to be a negotiation.”
What it really boils down to in this nomination contest, Sadler said, is whether voters want “an establishment politician that is concerned about lobbyists and special interests,” or somebody who does not have political experience and “no political baggage.”
“I don’t think this district should be used as a stepping stone. We got a chance after 20-plus years of Democratic representation in the state Senate to put somebody in who’s actually going to put the people first, and that’s what I tell people what I’m going to do,” Sadler said. “I am proud to not have political experience, I think that’s exactly what the 17th District needs at this time.”
For a full list of who’s running in General Assembly races in Southwest and Southside, see our election guide.