The election in Virginia’s 51st House of Delegates District, which started off as a likely shoo-in for Republican Eric Zehr after incumbent Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County, missed the deadline for filing to once again seek the Republican nomination, turned into a competitive three-way contest in June when Fariss entered the race unexpectedly as an independent candidate.
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Zehr, a former Campbell County supervisor who became the GOP’s nominee by default in June, and Fariss, an 11-year veteran of the legislature who was recently indicted on two felony charges in an alleged hit-and-run that injured a woman he was seeing romantically, are facing Democrat Kimberly Moran, a small-business owner from Bedford County, on Nov. 7.
Fariss’ bid as an independent candidate changed the dynamics of the race, said David Richards, a political analyst and chair of the political science program at the University of Lynchburg.
“If there is an interesting race in the House of Delegates — and there are plenty — the 51st District certainly qualifies,” Richards said. “This is a new district, but it tends to vote, based on previous election info by the Virginia Public Access Project, at about 70 to 85% Republican.” The district includes parts of Bedford, Campbell and Pittsylvania counties.
Whether Fariss missed the filing deadline for the Republican nomination by accident — he had already been charged in the hit-and-run case at the time — is not known. Fariss did not respond to several emails asking for an interview for this story.
“It is speculation, but he may have been worried that he would lose to Zehr, because Fariss is embroiled in a court case where he is charged with a felony,” Richards said. “Instead, Zehr got the nomination for the GOP, forcing Fariss to run as an independent.”
A Lynchburg native and a resident of Rustburg, Fariss, 55, was first elected to represent what at the time was the 59th House of Delegates district in 2011, succeeding Del. Watkins Abbitt Jr., an independent who retired after 26 years in office.
Fariss currently sits on the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources committee, the Appropriations and Public Safety committees, and the Health, Welfare and Institutions committee.
According to the biography on his website, which has not been updated since he was charged in the hit-and-run case, Fariss is married, and he cites his wife, Crystal, and their three children as the reason he’s running for office. His website also describes him as “first and foremost a Christian family man committed to serving his family and community.”
Fariss has operated a country store, managed real estate and farms, raised cattle and operated numerous businesses. He is co-owner and vice president of the Lynchburg Livestock Market, the largest livestock market center in Virginia, the website says.
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Zehr moved to Virginia from upstate New York to attend Liberty University in Lynchburg, where he graduated with a master’s in counseling. He served on the Campbell County Board of Supervisors from 2013 to 2017, and he chaired the local GOP committee from 2015 to 2017.
Because of a very religious upbringing that discouraged the pursuit of political interests, Zehr, now 52, said he showed no interest in public service until he took a government class at Liberty.
“That’s where I heard for the first time that, in fact, Christ is king in every aspect of life, even in the civil realm, and therefore it’s good for Christians to be involved. And that freed me,” Zehr said in a recent interview. “I compare myself to children who weren’t given an education as a young person, they really wanted it, so when something’s withheld from you it creates more of a desire for that thing.”
Zehr, who considers himself a proud culture warrior, said that he decided to run for the House of Delegates to change the culture in Virginia.
“We’ve got a culture that doesn’t support law enforcement, we’ve got a culture coming off the COVID and Northam era where we were shutting down businesses, where we were isolating from one another. And we have seen a culture that is putting parents last instead of first, that’s putting the state in control when it comes to our children’s education, and it’s coming down to education versus indoctrination in some cases,” Zehr said.
As for his legislative priorities, Zehr underscored his determination to preserve the Second Amendment, traditional gender roles and the integrity of elections.
“We have got to protect our unborn, but we also have to protect our children as our culture is trying to undermine their God-given sexuality,” Zehr said. “I want to see us develop a culture where boys are affirmed to be men, girls are affirmed to be women, and to embrace that rather than reject and change that.”
Zehr said that residents in his district are “very concerned” about their right to defend themselves. “I believe the Constitution gives each of us that right, and that means carrying whatever kind of weapon we need to do so.”
Zehr said that he opposes any attempt at further regulating gun ownership, including Virginia’s red flag law, which allows for temporary firearm removal from individuals believed to be at risk of harming themselves or others. It was passed by Democrats in 2020.
“We’ve got gun control already in a sense that people are required to go through certification for concealed carry, and of course if you’re convicted of a crime or you are using a weapon to commit a crime, you’ve just given up your right to keep them,” Zehr said. “Red flag laws are a little bit too far. I think we need to be careful that we’re not setting up a system where just because I don’t like you, you get your rights infringed upon.”
But his biggest legislative fight, Zehr said, would be aimed at ending the right to abortions in Virginia. While he said he’d vote for Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to limit access to abortion at 15 weeks, to Zehr, that legislation does not go far enough.
“My goal is to protect as many lives as I can,” he said. “I believe that life begins at conception, that the civil magistrate has the duty to protect innocent lives, and therefore I would support trying to save children from conception. But I am going to support anything I can to save as many children as possible. I’m not giving up until every innocent life in Virginia is protected.”
Asked whether he would be willing to work with Democrats if the latter succeed in keeping their majority in the state Senate or even flip the Republican majority in the House of Delegates, Zehr said that there is little room for compromise.
“I know what I believe, I know what is right and I know what is wrong, and there is a difference between right and wrong, and I am not going to give up until what’s right is accomplished,” he said.
Zehr added that while he also realizes that conservative lawmakers may not accomplish everything they want, they must hold firm and reject compromise — especially when it comes to abortion legislation. “We can’t start with where the Democrats want us to begin and let them just sort of incrementally pull us to the left,” he said.
While he realizes that Republicans are “not going to ever achieve perfection,” he is still not willing to compromise, Zehr said. “Every life deserves the protection of the state, and until we achieve that, I’m not letting go. But am I going to obstinately refuse out of puristic motivation to help if we can start working towards life at conception? No, I am going to work to move that bar closer and closer to where it should be.”
Zehr said that he is aware of the risks of running in a three-way contest with the potential of splitting the Republican vote.
“I’m doing everything I can to avoid this scenario,” he said. “Every day I’m calling people, I am out on the campaign trail. Every moment I get I am knocking on doors. I can’t speculate on what could happen, all I can do is race as hard as I can, and that’s what I am doing now through Nov. 7. There is nothing but pedal to the metal to make sure we don’t split this vote. But we have to be realistic, there is the potential of this happening.”
Richards, the political analyst, said that the election in the 51st District could go several ways.
“Voters might back Fariss because he is a name they know, and maybe they like his politics. The last time he ran, he got over 64% of the vote. So he is popular and a known quantity of people may vote for him out of habit,” he said.
However, the felony indictments against Fariss might help Zehr in this contest, Richards said.
“People may vote against him because of the court case, which does not paint him in a flattering light, and because his independent run can be seen as a spoiler for the GOP nominee.”
With a total of $95,000, Zehr has also raised the most money in this race. While Fariss still has $65,000 cash on hand, the bulk of that is left over from previous fundraising before his recent criminal indictments. In 2023, he only raised $4,000.
“Notably, Fariss has gotten the cold shoulder from most or all Republican Party officeholders and the party itself, while Zehr has gotten endorsements from local and state Republicans, including Representative Bob Good,” Richards said.
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Moran, the Democrat, has raised just under $5,000, making her the least-funded candidate in the race.
And in a recent interview, Moran said that she had no illusions that she’s facing an uphill battle in a deeply Republican district.
“I’m running because there weren’t any Democrats running,” she said. “A friend got in touch with me and let me know, and I kind of got the ball rolling in my head and I jumped right in.”
A native of New Jersey, Moran, 38, grew up in Moneta and lives in Bedford County with her husband, David, and their three children.
Moran is a certified tax preparer who also works in the hospitality industry, and with her children she runs a small business, Sweet Dream Cotton Candy, where they make and sell cotton candy at community events. She is also in the process of getting her real estate license.
As a Democrat running in a very conservative district, Moran said that when talking to voters she tries to avoid discussing national issues, such as the indictments of former President Donald Trump or conspiracy theories about a stolen presidential election.
“Those aren’t my scandals, not for me personally,” she said. “I think it’s a lot easier to speak with Republicans about things that we actually have in common instead of talking about things that just kind of push us apart. And I do find that a lot of the time we have a common ground.”
National politics, Moran said, aren’t relevant to her campaign. “This is about our locality. At the end of the day, when I’m talking to people, I’m just talking to people, because that’s all we are. I know we lean left or we lean right, but at the end of the day we meet in the middle. When we stay on these roads it’s a lot easier for us to have common ground.”
Instead, Moran said she focuses on issues like funding for public education. “This is something that is always at the top of most people’s lists. We underfund in Virginia on the national average, and the United States seems to be underfunding as a whole as well. I would really like to see actual funding and resources go to the public schools that are something that we need nowadays.”
If elected, Moran said that she would also do more to help care workers in rural areas of the state.
“We have people in charge of our most vulnerable and our most precious, and we see that the pay structures don’t really accommodate for these people to stay and really make careers out of these different jobs across the board,” she said, adding that she would like to see more direct funding for after-school programs and daycare workers as well.
Unlike her Republican opponent, Moran would like to see abortion rights protected in the commonwealth.
“I know everybody is looking at Virginia about abortion rights and reproductive rights, and I think that at the very least we need to stay where we are at,” she said. “I don’t think it would be good for us to go backwards, since we have been living with these decisions for more than 50 years. I would definitely like to champion that we keep all those intact.”
But Moran said that she was torn on legislation proposed by some Democrats that would do away with all restrictions to abortion, including late-term abortions until the moment of birth.
“That’s a tough one,” she said. “Because if you’re talking about the last trimester of a pregnancy, we can and do have success with the incubators for the babies to go on and live a healthy natural life. I couldn’t understand a late-trimester abortion unless it was really a life-or-death situation for the mother, in which case I do feel a lot of times we could probably save both. Late trimester, I don’t know if I could support that. I would have to look at it more case by case.”
And on gun legislation, Moran said that she supports “common-sense gun laws” designed to protect others from harm.
“It’s not about taking your rights or disarming the population. It’s just much more about making sure that the guns don’t fall into the wrong hands,” Moran said, adding that she considered Virginia’s red flag laws as part of a justified effort for the latter.
“I don’t think that is something that is of permanence, but if anybody is having a hard time and they are thinking ultimate results, I think it is absolutely our duty to come in and make sure that these people are in a safe spot so they don’t cause harm to themselves and definitely not to anybody else as well,” she said.
“If you have any kind of history of violence, that really, especially on a case by case basis, this is something that most of us can get behind. Anything to protect the people, and keep guns out of children’s hands. It’s just about being a responsible gun owner at the end of the day.”
Moran is aware that she must tread carefully if she wants to take advantage of Zehr and Fariss potentially splitting the Republican vote.
“I would still think that it might be a shock, because it still is very heavily Republican, so I don’t even know if an even split would do too much,” she said. “But I think it’s important that our area went from really looking like we’re just going to have a shoo-in for Eric Zehr to choices. And that’s what we need, especially since everything is changing so much.”
If Moran holds on to 30% of the vote — likely the maximum a Democrat would get in this district even if Fariss and Zehr split the rest — “one of them will get more than 30% of the vote and win,” said Richards, the political analyst.
“The danger is if Moran creeps closer to 40%, which is not likely, but not impossible. Then Fariss and Zehr splitting the rest may lead to both of them getting less than Moran’s 40%.”
And the latter scenario, Richards said, would be “a disaster for the GOP, whose hold on the House of Delegates may hinge on a few seats. And that would in turn sink Youngkin’s hope to claim a GOP sweep.”
Fariss, Richards added, is “playing with fire” by running as an independent candidate.
“But in the end, I think that he will be able to get a plurality of the votes, perhaps about 40 to 45%, which will allow him to beat both Moran and Zehr. I would expect him to join the Republican caucus, and if he can beat his felony charges, go on to another term in the House of Delegates,” Richards said.