When Trudy Berry, the Democratic nominee in Virginia’s 9th Senate District, was denied ballot access for the Nov. 7 election over an email error last week, it wasn’t just a personal defeat for the Lunenburg County resident.
It was also a loss for thousands of Democratic voters in Berry’s district who will have no candidate on the ballot challenging Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, the district’s longtime incumbent.
Ruff, who was first elected to the state Senate 23 years ago, is the third Republican in Virginia’s rural Southwest and Southside facing no opponent in a critical election year when all 140 legislative seats are up for grabs.
John McGuire, the Republican nominee in the newly created 10th Senate District, is also running unopposed after the State Board of Elections recently denied a request for a filing extension to Dan Tomlinson of Louisa County, who was the only remaining Democrat seeking his party’s nomination in the district after Jacob Boykin withdrew his bid.
And in the state’s westernmost Senate District 6, which Republican Glenn Youngkin carried with 82.2% in the 2021 gubernatorial election, incumbent Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, is also heading into Election Day unchallenged.
The Democratic Party’s struggle to field candidates in Southwest Virginia and Southside not only leaves hundreds of thousands of rural voters who want a choice without representation on the ballot, but it adds to the frustration that many Democrats in those areas have been feeling about being written off by the party’s leadership.
Although Shyam Raman, the executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, last week presented the State Board of Elections with a letter from Susan Swecker, the party chair, urging the body to certify Berry’s nomination, the effort came too late. And to Berry, it only served as further proof that Virginia Democrats are uninterested in putting up a serious fight to win back the majority support they once enjoyed in many of the state’s rural areas, essentially ceding entire swaths of the commonwealth to Republicans.
Berry said in an email that the DPVA is much less effective in its efforts in supporting Democratic candidates than is the Republican Party of Virginia.
“It took the Republicans less than 24 hours to certify Ruff’s 250 signatures and submit the 527,” Berry said, referring to the form affirming the party certification of a candidate. “It took the Democrats two weeks to certify my signatures and another seven days to submit the 527.”
Running in unwinnable districts
In this year’s House of Delegates elections, Republicans are running unopposed in 15 districts statewide. While Democrats are facing no GOP challengers in 20 districts, 10 of the seats that Democrats are leaving unchallenged are in the rural Southwest and Southside — areas that they have mostly deemed unwinnable in today’s polarized political environment.
But Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that it remains essential to a party’s fortune statewide that both parties are on the ballot everywhere, including in those districts where they are unlikely to win. “There are parts of Virginia where Democrats will always win, and places where they will always lose. The question is how big are the margins,” Farnsworth said.
And having Democratic candidates run in districts where they are unlikely to win can still help the party by creating an environment where they lose by less, Farnsworth said. “As rural Virginia has moved steadily more Republican, the key for Democrats is reducing the margins. If Democrats lose by 20 points instead of 30 points, that can really help statewide Democratic candidates.”
As an example, Farnsworth cited the 2022 reelection of Democrat Abigail Spanberger, the incumbent in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, who defeated the Republican nominee Yesli Vega by 52.21% to 47.56%.
“Spanberger won the more urbanized portion of the district by big margins, but she lost the more rural counties by smaller margins than Terry McAuliffe did,” Farnsworth said, referring to the Democrat’s failed second bid for governor in 2021.
Democrats, who once dominated rural districts in Virginia’s Southwest and Southside, began losing their advantage in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when many residents in those areas switched their allegiances in response to the Southern Strategy, which initiated the realignment of the South with the Republican Party by exploiting white racial anxiety about social changes to the Southern racial hierarchy.
Instead, Democrats expanded their might in the urban and growing suburban areas — including much of Northern Virginia and, more recently, the Richmond suburbs — as a result of changing demographics and the party’s identity politics strategy. Democrats also remain popular in Roanoke and in college towns such as Charlottesville and Blacksburg.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, the Democratic caucus chair, at a recent news conference at Richmond’s Capitol Square sidestepped a question about whether she was concerned about a lack of her party’s representation in Southwest Virginia.
“I’m not sure what happened in regard to anyone not being able to get on the ballot, and I’m not sure what exactly happened as regards to Senator Pillion being unopposed. But we do have a candidate running in the district that is currently being held by Senator Edwards, and we have a good candidate running there. So I do think we have candidates running in that area,” Locke said, referring to Trish White-Boyd, the Democratic nominee in the 4th Senate District.
And Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, the House Minority Leader, said in an interview last week that “it wasn’t for a lack of trying” that Democrats were unable to field candidates in the 10 House districts in Southwest Virginia and Southside.
“I think we have done a good job, we have done more than we have ever done. But we have to build from the bottom up, the grassroots, not from the top down,” Scott said. “It shouldn’t be coming from Richmond that people want to get excited about what they are doing in those communities, it has to come from each and every one of those communities, and I hope we can give people the tools that they need.”
Scott, who grew up in rural Texas, said that one of his goals for the next election cycle is “to have 100 folks run in every single district,” and that he “will go to any community” where Democrats feel a lack of support from party leadership.
Ignoring rural voters ‘could backfire’
But Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, the only remaining Democrat in the House of Delegates from west of the Blue Ridge, in a recent phone interview called on his party to invest more money in support of Democrats running in the rural areas.
“We should be making those investments on a regular basis to not only represent the hundreds of thousands of Democrats who live in rural Virginia, but to also ensure that we are speaking about issues that are important to us all. And clearly, if we had been making more of those investments year round that would have helped out statewide in 2021,” Rasoul said, referring to that year’s gubernatorial election which Democrats lost.
Simply ignoring rural voters could “certainly backfire” in future elections, Rasoul said. “While there are many reasons why Democrats lost in 2021, that election was decided by the thinnest of margins, and had we had consistent investments in these regions, it would obviously have made a difference and likely have been enough to get us over the hump.”
The political polarization of the last few election cycles has made recruiting Democratic candidates in heavily Republican districts even more challenging, said Jeanne Capello, a 74-year-old resident of Mecklenburg County and a lifelong Democrat.
“It’s definitely becoming more difficult to find people willing to run for public office. Democrats in my area like to know there are other Democrats around, but they do not want to be public knowledge, nor do they want to attend public meetings,” Capello said. “They will support candidates as much as they can without divulging too much publicly about themselves.”
Capello, who moved to the area from Arlington in 2003, said Democrats still enjoyed immense popularity in her county as recently as 2008, when Tom Perriello was elected to represent the 5th Congressional District on the coattails of Barack Obama’s first presidential election.
“We were all kind of fired up, but then [Republican] Denver Riggleman took his place, and things began to change,” Capello said, adding that the election of Republican Donald Trump as president in 2016 sealed the deal for good by creating a more hostile political climate that has driven most rural Democrats into hiding.
About 180 miles to the west in Wytheville, Alma Watson has noticed a similar challenging environment. Also a longtime Democrat, Watson moved to Wythe County from Johnson City, Tennessee, in 2017.
“I was looking for the local party, and they embraced me,” Watson said. “Small in number they were, but I learned about the kind of things that were going on in the district, and the efforts that have been made. But we just don’t have any candidates, and that’s understandable, but it’s highly discouraging.”
At 80, Watson said she is too old to run for office, which is why she said it was critical for younger people to step up. “Our group is retired, with few exceptions. A group of retired, concerned Democrats. If we had the candidates, we’d give them our support.”
Giving away pieces of the state?
Enter Dr. Fergie Reid Jr., a retired physician based in California who has made it his mission to recruit candidates to run in districts deemed unwinnable by Democratic party leadership.
“If you aren’t running anybody, you’re teaching people to give up, you’re teaching them that Democrats don’t care enough about them to even go through the motions to get a name on the ballot. And those people will vote for the Republican,” Reid said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he has lived since the 1980s.
[Read more about Reid in the accompanying story below.]
The son of Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr., who made history in 1967 as the first African American to be elected to the Virginia General Assembly since the days of Reconstruction, the younger Reid spends hours on the phone each day on behalf of the 90 for 90 Voter Registration Project, founded in 2015 in honor of his father’s 90th birthday.
“The genesis was getting somebody to run against Eric Cantor,” said Reid, referring to the former Republican majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“But the classic party line was, ‘That’s gonna be a waste of money, it’s not a winnable district, and we shouldn’t waste our resources on that,’” Reid said. “It’s so frustrating to hear that, because how do you expect to get better at something if you don’t practice? If you don’t want to do the work and suffer through the pain of being a beginner, then stop having the goal of winning. Northern Virginia wasn’t Democratic two decades ago, they worked at it, it took time, demographics moving in and out, and attitudes changing, with an underlying set of new candidates running all the time.”
Reid said 90 for 90 managed to recruit 36 candidates to run in the 2021 legislative election, when Democrats were contesting 45 seats. A total of 29 made the ballot — most of them in the deeply Republican districts of Southwest Virginia, Southside, the Shenandoah Valley and the Northern Neck.
“The forgotten areas, the strongholds of Republicans,” Reid said. “In a statewide year, Republicans run up the score there, and for Democrats to win statewide, we have to limit the margins in those areas. So forget the district win, because you have a candidate running. People come out to vote if they have somebody to vote for, but they will not come out if they don’t have anybody. It just doesn’t always work from the top down, but it works from the bottom up.”
In the 2023 election cycle, Reid said he recruited 35 candidates for both House and Senate races, including Berry, the Democrat who failed to make the ballot in the 9th Senate District, and Jasmine Lipscomb, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Danville who also did not get ballot access due to a dispute with the DPVA.
As part of his effort, Reid walks each candidate through every step of the process, from the initial contact to helping them fill out their registration forms.
“You have to make a lot of calls to find candidates,” Reid said. “People think it’s some mystery, it’s like they don’t know how to use a telephone anymore. You call people on the phone. It’s not a secret. You get a sense of people, even those who decline sometimes refer you to others that might not.”
Reid has made no secret of his frustration with Virginia’s Democratic Party leadership, which has, he said, failed Democratic voters in the state’s rural areas.
“If you want to win, run everywhere, especially in a year when there’s a statewide election. How do you not run a House candidate in every one of those districts when you’re running statewide? That’s just giving away pieces of the state. It makes absolutely no sense,” he said.
And at times, Reid said, he feels like he spends more time navigating Democratic Party hierarchies than he deems necessary.
From the Senate caucus to the House caucus, the administration of the DPVA, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee, all of these factions within the party really don’t communicate with each other all that well, Reid said. “Everybody points their finger at each other, and everybody’s got their personal interests, and a lot of that boils down to their individual personalities.”
Republicans are self-interested, too, Reid said. “But at some point the Republicans understand they either have to hang together or hang separately. They put their differences aside to win. Youngkin should have never won that election, but Democrats were all moving in different directions, playing their own game instead of playing a team game.”
Reid’s outspokenness has not always made him friends within party leadership, and DPVA Chair Susan Swecker did not respond to questions about Reid’s open criticism of the party’s recruiting efforts — or lack thereof — in the rural Southwest.
But Swecker said in an email that as a born and raised Highland County resident, she was “a living, breathing, dyed-in-the-wool rural Democrat.”
“Facts are stubborn things, but here they are,” Swecker said. “At every level, the Democratic Party of Virginia continues to be an invaluable resource for rural, suburban, and urban Democrats alike. By virtue of the very structure of the party, rural voices are deeply embedded in party leadership.”
DPVA offers training for candidates and campaigns, guiding support for local rural candidates, and intimate connections to the decision-making bodies of the party through a network of more than 120 local committees, Swecker added.
“The Democratic Party of Virginia is made of, by, and for Virginians from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and all geographies — including rural Democrats like me — and when we get our Democratic candidates elected this November, we plan to continue showing that Democrats govern for every community.”
But Matt Rogers, a Democratic strategist and the chief of staff for Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, said that DPVA leadership doesn’t give Reid enough credit for his work in recruiting Democratic candidates.
“What Fergie does is heroic,” Rogers said in a phone interview. “That man wakes up at 5 a.m. in California while people are still rolling out of the bed here on the East Coast, and he’s calling people all day long. And it’s not glamorous work, there’s not some pre-created list of people to reach out to as prospects. The truth is, it’s really hard to recruit these candidates, and it’s really hard to get them to understand that they have the backing of organizations.”
Rogers first met Reid in the beginning of 2019, when he was working for Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax. They became friends and in the following year, he helped Reid recruit Democratic candidates for every state House and state Senate race in Florida during the 2020 presidential election with the goal of making it as hard as possible for then-President Trump to get reelected.
“Trump would have to work harder in Florida,” Rogers said. “And it’s a recurring theme, a lot of the difficulties and the pushback that Fergie gets today in Virginia is the same pushback that we were getting in Florida.”
At the time, Rogers was also seeking his party’s nomination for the 47th House of Delegates district in Northern Virginia — although he did not qualify for the ballot — and simultaneously continued his work for Marsden.
“I was a candidate for the House myself, I was chief of staff to a state senator, I was an expected dad, but I spent tons of my time calling around the state, talking to party chairs and random activists to try and prospect and potentially find somebody,” he said.
But Rogers added that finding candidates to run against Republican incumbents in the GOP strongholds of the rural Southwest also remains an uphill battle because Democrats often aren’t interested in mounting a challenge due to a silent agreement between the parties that has been in place for decades, and to learned apathy.
“Everyone knows it — there is this kind of arrangement where if you don’t challenge our guy, we are not going to give your guy as hard of a time in return or act like it’s futile to contest seats in the other party’s strongholds,” Rogers said.
“But we are pushing back on that, because it’s not acceptable to deprive voters of a choice on the ballot. What happens when people go years and years without ever seeing a candidate from their political party on the ballot? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because people believe there must not be ‘any Democrats around here,’ because we perpetually don’t even field a candidate.”
‘Republicans know how to play the long game’
Jolicia Ward is one of the candidates who answered Reid’s call this year, although she wasn’t planning on throwing her hat in the ring this soon.
“I spent a lot of time last year helping other local candidates with their campaigns and did a lot of political training. I knew I was needed in this field, but I didn’t know that this year was my year — until Fergie called in February,” Ward said.
A native of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Ward moved to the Hampton Roads area as a teenager. After high school, she went to the University of Virginia College at Wise, majoring in communication and journalism before starting her career as a health administrator at various U.S. Army installations, including in Germany.
When Reid told Ward about the newly drawn 25th Senate District, a mostly rural district stretching from Spotsylvania County to the west all the way to Northumberland County in the Northern Neck, she weighed the pros and cons of running.
“Fergie said that there was no Democrat who had come forward to run, and a Republican would run unopposed,” Ward said, referring to Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, the district’s incumbent who has served in the state Senate since 2008.
“But it was already quite late, and I was hesitant,” Ward said. “That’s a big ask for somebody who hadn’t planned it for this year, but he was persistent. He was talking me through the idea of being realistic, and he told me, ‘You can do this. You don’t want to not have a choice on your ballot.’”
Ward eventually committed to running and spent a month collecting signatures. Without another Democrat seeking ballot access, she became her party’s nominee by default. And like most candidates in rural areas, Ward is running on basic kitchen-table issues, such as broadband access, child care and health care. “People need better infrastructure, a new bridge and better roads, and that’s what I’m fighting for,” she said.
Ward said that since becoming her party’s nominee, she has received no support from the DPVA, financial or otherwise. “My campaign is 100% grassroots, it’s all low-dollar donations from people in the communities or from some other Democrats who have run before in these kinds of districts. That’s where my funding is coming from,” she said.
Having raised a total of $7,800 as of June 30, Ward trails far behind Stuart, who has raised $317,000. “There are several other rural candidates that are not getting the support that they need,” she said. “If you don’t have anybody on the ballot or you have someone who lacks the funding, you don’t just neglect me, you neglect all of the people. That’s why for me, it’s personal. Focusing only on competitive districts, where does that leave everybody else?”
While her lack of campaign funding has not discouraged her from giving her best, Ward still urges the DPVA to provide more support to rural Democrats running in red districts.
“People need to know that somebody is there who gives a damn about them,” Ward said. “If we just let Republicans run unopposed, then what? Then all we do is prove that nobody cares about them. Republicans know how to play the long game, they do it every year and they do it every week, so give us what we need to win.”
Without the backing of her party’s leadership, Ward has been leaning on other grassroots groups for help, including Rural GroundGame, a political action committee founded in 2019 in Harrisonburg as a response to a need to support rural Democrats in Virginia.
“A hard truth is we are coming from a place where there aren’t enough Democrats running for office, and those Democrats that have stepped up haven’t received the support that people like myself and other organizations really wish they had been receiving in the past,” said Ian McNally, the group’s executive director.
However, McNally said that the DPVA has somewhat stepped up its game in recent years.
“The state party has been changing how they have been operating over the past few cycles, and I think that while with some candidates there were some filing discrepancies and failures, it’s also important to point out the fact that DPVA staff have been driving up and down the commonwealth to make sure that they are training and offering support to local Democrats, and they are doing that work.”
While Rural GroundGame is working to recruit candidates, McNally said his group is also helping to organize local Democratic committees.
“If certain areas of the commonwealth go untouched by Democratic campaigns, committees and activists, for multiple cycles, and then you kind of cross your fingers and hope they turn up in a presidential or gubernatorial year, we do have a recipe for electoral disaster in those areas,” McNally said.
“If we talk about ourselves as a big-tent party, and if we talk about running everywhere, representing everyone, then we’ve got to do that. We have to walk the walk, because we are pretty good at talking the talk.”
McNally added that he was also grateful for the help Rural GroundGame has received from Democrats elected to both statewide and local offices, including Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and particularly Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia.
“Senator Kaine has and continues to really put in the miles in his car, but he has also directly supported candidates in rural areas that have fewer resources,” McNally said, referring to Kaine assisting Democratic candidates by helping to purchase or get access to campaign tools such as electronic databases.
“I really can’t overstate how important that is,” McNally said. “Providing access to these tools early on so the campaigns can get active and engaged and start talking to voters instead of worrying about fundraising is truly transformational.”
Kaine said in an email that Democrats are delivering for rural Virginia and rural America.
“Southwest and Southside are critical regions of Virginia that Democrats must not take for granted,” Kaine said. “My wife Anne’s family is from Southwest Virginia and we’ve been visiting the area for decades, long before I entered politics. I look forward to hosting events with some fantastic Democratic candidates in these regions who are putting forward smart solutions for our communities.”
But for Democrats like Berry, the nominee in the 9th Senate District who didn’t make the ballot, promises from high-ranking party officials might ring hollow.
“The feeling among us Democrats out here is that party leadership no longer cares,” Berry said. “And the party should be helping all candidates, not just those who they think can win, because it would help Democrats in statewide races and win donorship back. But if they ignore us for too long it’s going to be to their detriment.”
‘That guy from California’ has made it his mission to recruit Democrats in Virginia
When Virginia Democrats refer to him as “that guy from California,” Dr. Fergie Reid Jr. can only scratch his head.
“It’s ridiculous, because I’m from Richmond, and Dad is one of the most historic people from Richmond, period,” Reid said in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived since the 1980s.
But the son of Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr., 98, who in 1967 was the first African American to be elected to the Virginia General Assembly since Reconstruction, has been a thorn in the side of some Virginia Democrats who don’t appreciate that Reid sometimes doesn’t mince his words, especially when he alleges that his party could do more to help candidates and voters in the state’s rural Southwest and Southside.
“My recruitment efforts in the service of running candidates throughout the commonwealth expose that some folks aren’t doing their homework. And that makes some of those folks uncomfortable, because they don’t like hearing the truth, which is unfortunate, but understandable,” Reid said.
Together with his father, Reid runs the 90 for 90 Voter Registration Project, founded in 2015 in honor of the elder Reid’s 90th birthday. The father-son duo’s mission: to recruit Democrats to run in districts that have been long neglected by party leadership.
The initial idea behind 90 for 90 was to register 90 new voters per precinct per year. “That’s 2,600 or so odd precincts in Virginia, and the math works out to about a quarter of million new voters every year,” Reid said. “And when you bring in that kind of fresh electorate, generally things won’t get stale, and powerful interests won’t be able to control everything, they’ll actually have to do the work.”
Reid, who was born in 1959 at Richmond Community Hospital — at the time one of just two hospitals in the state’s capital that cared for Black patients and the only one that hired Black physicians — spent his early childhood in Richmond’s Northside before the family moved to Glen Allen, where Reid’s father and 96-year-old mother, Jacqueline, resided until 2016.
Reid said that as a child he integrated an elementary school on Chamberlayne Avenue and, later, St. Christopher’s School, an independent Episcopal day school for boys. But after ninth grade he moved to Massachusetts, where he graduated from high school. “It was not a healthy environment being the only Black child at St. Christopher’s,” he said.
In 1982, Reid graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he majored in psychology. He then moved to Los Angeles and attended medical school at UCLA, did his emergency medicine residency at Martin Luther King Hospital in Compton and continued working in Los Angeles through the rest of his career in emergency medicine.
Reid also worked in the movie industry, doing anything from consulting to crew work and acting. “It’s unusual for Hollywood to have a physician who is interested, so some took advantage of that,” Reid said, adding that he did movies with Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, the Coen Brothers and Tom Hanks.
“It’s good work, if you can get it,” he said.
But it was his father’s work and witnessing its impact at a young age that inspired Reid to join his father in running 90 for 90. “Dad was breaking down doors and trailblazing, and causing people heartache. So when you get to be a certain age, you know what’s going on,” he said.
And as long as Democrats remain underrepresented in the rural areas of Virginia, Reid said he will continue to make those phone calls and build his network of candidates.
“Candidate recruitment should be done by folks in Virginia. But, for the past several cycles, because no one else has taken on the task, I’ve done a significant amount of that work,” Reid said.