Will even more GOP-held districts flip in Virginia?
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who is running for re-election, raises hands amid cheers with Democratic state Senator and U.S. Congressional candidate for Virginia's 10th District Jennifer Wexton during a campaign stop at the Espresso Bar and Cafe in Winchester, Va., July 5. | Jeff Taylor / The Winchester Star via AP

The surge in absentee voting in Virginia and some new polling data suggest that the Democrats might oust as many as four of the GOP’s current seven members of the state’s congressional delegation. This would be a major contribution to reversing the current 235 to 193 seat Republican majority in the House of Representatives (seven House seats are currently vacant). All commentators agree that what actually happens will depend on turnout at the base, usually low in a midterm election but this year maybe not.

The one senator from Virginia who is running for election, Democrat Tim Kaine, does not appear to be threatened by his Republican opponent, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart. Stewart’s own unsavory reputation involving links with racist ultra-right groups is now being emphasized by a barrage of media and online ads from the Kaine campaign, which appears to be having an impact. The Kaine campaign is doing this in part to make sure of their candidate’s victory, but also to help other Democratic Party candidates in the state against their Republican opponents.

Up until now, it has looked very good for the Democratic Party candidate, State Senator Jennifer Wexton, in the Tenth Congressional District. This is a wealthy district that abuts the Washington, D.C. suburbs to the east, Maryland to the North, and West Virginia to the West. The Republican incumbent, Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, has held the seat since the 2014 elections, succeeding another Republican, Frank Wolf, who had held the seat since 1981. In the 2016 elections, Comstock beat Democrat LuAnn Bennet by a margin of 53 to 47 percent of the vote, showing an erosion of Republican support in the district (which Hillary Clinton also won that year).

As the district has turned increasingly blue, mostly due to demographic changes, Comstock has tried, in vain, to distance herself from the imagery of the Trump phenomenon. An examination of her voting record belies this publicity effort; she has one of the highest levels of agreement with the positions of the Trump administration in the whole country. Her opponents have called particular attention to the campaign contributions she has received from the National Rifle Association and the “pro-gun” positions she has taken in her House votes.

For months, Comstock’s seat has been classified as “lean Democratic” by the respected Cook Political Report. A new poll by the New York Times, conducted October 11 to 15, showed Wexton leading Comstock 48 percent to 41 percent, with the remaining eleven percent still undecided. It would be very hard for Comstock to catch up in the less than two weeks remaining until the election.

Cook has classified two Republican-held seats in Virginia as “toss-ups,” meaning that they could easily go either way (and a lot depends on voter turnout). They are the Second and Seventh Districts.

The Second District includes the Southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, the city of Virginia Beach, and parts of the important port city of Norfolk, as well as parts of Hampton. It’s about 20 percent African-American and eight percent Latino, about average for the state, with high concentrations of minorities in Norfolk and Hampton especially.  The African-American and Latino population has been growing steadily. The current Congressman, Scott Taylor, is a Republican. He was preceded by another Republican, Scott Riggell, who held the seat since only from 2011 to 2017. Riggell, however, took the seat away from a Democrat, Glenn Nye, in the 2010 midterm elections.

The Democratic candidate is businesswoman and former Navy officer, Elaine Luria. A recent poll has shown her behind Taylor, 50 to 43 percent, with a four percent margin of error, in spite of a scandal in which it was found that Taylor’s campaign operatives had been circulating bogus petitions for a third candidate, in the evident hope of drawing votes away from Luria. A slightly earlier poll, however, had Taylor at 45 percent and Luria at 43, with twelve percent undecided.

To the surprise of many, the Democratic candidate, journalist Leslie Cockburn, seems to be pulling ahead of her Republican rival, Denver Riggleman, in the Fifth Congressional District, 46 percent to 45, with ten percent undecided, according to another New York Times poll carried out on the weekend of October 20-21.

The Fifth Congressional District is an immense dragon-shaped entity which runs from the Washington exurbs on the north to the North Carolina border on the south. It has two major centers of Democratic politics: the university city of Charlottesville to the North and the economically depressed, fifty percent African-American city of Danville midway on the Virginia-North Carolina Line. The rest of the district is mostly white and conservative. Nevertheless, it went for the Democrat, Ralph Northam, in the 2017 state elections, and from 2009 to 2011, it was represented in Congress by a relatively progressive Democrat, Tom Perriello. It went for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, however.

This year’s congressional race in the Fifth District has been a weird and wonderful gallop. The incumbent Republican congressman, Tom Garrett, had to pull out at the last minute when reports surfaced about unethical use of taxpayer-paid staff in his office and also of alcohol problems. In a mad last-minute scramble, the Republican Party replaced him with Riggleman, a distiller and a defender of business interests. Riggleman’s allies have accused Democrat Cockburn of anti-Semitism because of a book she and her husband wrote that criticized the Israeli government’s policy toward the Palestinians. The charge, which was made up, seems not to have stuck.

In debates, Cockburn has come out for a national single payer health care system, which Riggleman opposes. Cockburn has chided Riggleman for announcing that if elected, he will join the ultra-right “Freedom Caucus” in Congress, and for his support for the Trump administration’s huge tax cuts for the rich.

The remaining congressional district which appears to be in play right now is the Seventh It consists of a vertical swath of territory with many rural and small town areas, but also includes Western suburbs of Virginia’s capital, Richmond. The incumbent Republican Congressman, David Brat, is a former college economics professor who was first elected in 2014, replacing veteran Republican Congressman Eric Cantor, whom he had attacked from a far-right position during the Republican primary that year. Brat is a true believer in the merits of untrammeled capitalism, which he sees as intrinsically related to Protestant Christianity. He has been an opponent of “Obamacare.” On immigration, he is a policy hawk who has supported President Trump’s positions.

Brat’s Democratic opponent is Muriel Spanberger, a former CIA agent (!). In debates, she has staked out a centrist position on health care and immigration, criticizing Brats right-wing extremism. The Cook Political Report classifies this race as a toss-up.

Vangie Williams | Official campaign website

The remaining Republican-held districts are longer shots for Democratic challengers. In the First District, a long vertical strip of eastern Virginia from the D.C. suburbs to Chesapeake Bay, veteran GOP Congressman Rob Whitman is challenged by Vangie Williams, a government policy analyst and the only African-American challenger to an incumbent Republican congressperson in Virginia this year (all the Democratic challengers but one are white women). If Williams wins, she will be the first African-American federal representative ever to represent a Virginia district. Williams has called for expanded health care opportunities, broadband access to rural areas of the district, and other government initiatives to help ordinary people.

In the Sixth Congressional District, in the northern part of Virginia’s Appalachian region, far-right Republican incumbent Bob Goodlatte is retiring, so the Republican Party has nominated Ben Cline to replace him on their ticket. Cline is opposed by Democrat Jennifer Lewis Cline is noted for his anti-abortion and anti-immigrant stances, while Lewis, who defines herself as a “progressive,” emphasizes environmental, health care, and campaign finance reform themes. Lewis is endorsed by the Bernie Sanders-inspired Our Revolution organization. The issue of guns also distinguishes the two candidates, with Cline parroting the National Rifle Association line and Lewis calling for more control.

Last of the Republican-held districts is the Ninth, which comprises the southwest tip of the state, including poor Appalachian regions that are overwhelmingly white and lower income. In recent years, it has gone heavily Republican. The GOP incumbent is Morgan Griffith, who has held the seat since 1994. His Democratic opponent is Anthony Flaccavento, a small businessman and farmer. Flaccavento wants to create new employment opportunities for the many families in the district who have been impacted by the decline of the coal industry, including new infrastructure projects. Flaccavento and Griffith disagree sharply on the issue of immigration. Griffith supports Trump’s plans to seal the border with Mexico with the wall and other measures, while Flaccavento considers the persecution of immigrants to be immoral.

Who knows—perhaps more of these Republican-held districts will come into play in the remaining days of this campaign. Once again, all depends on turnout and action at the working-class base.


CONTRIBUTOR

Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.

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