Arriving at the Middleburg Barn to cast an early ballot in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District Republican primary last week was a bit like walking the red carpet, except the fawning fans were passing out campaign literature while trying to shake your hand.
“Need a sample ballot?” candidate Mike Clancy, a lawyer and Oracle business executive, asked voters, handing out “ballots” that blurred out everyone’s names except his.
But as the voters shuffled in, their chosen top candidates were about as all over the map as the dozens — hundreds? — of campaign signs that decorated the property.
“Jeanine Lawson will be number one — she’s just very vocal about things that are important to us,” Prince William County voter William Hanson said of the Republican county board supervisor, a top contender in the race, citing Lawson’s opposition to a controversial data center project.
“Brandon Michon — I like what he says about safety and schools,” Middleburg voter Pat McCann said of the Loudoun County parent who has frequented the school board meetings.
The lack of clear unity among voters underscores the challenge of running in a crowded 11-way primary as voters prepare to select the nominee during a party-run firehouse primary Saturday. Republicans are aiming to nominate the most viable candidate to defeat Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) in November, undoubtedly a heavy lift for the GOP even in a midterm election year with tough national head winds for Democrats.
The 10th is one of three Virginia districts that national Republicans are targeting this year, along with those represented by Democrats Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria. But this formerly red Loudoun County-anchored district has steadily trended blue over the past decade — President Biden won the district as it’s drawn now by 18 points — only adding to the importance for Republicans to select a candidate with the right credentials if they want a shot at flipping the seat.
“At the end of the day, it’s probably going to be a hard flip,” said J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “We have it as safe Democratic. Our thinking was that if it didn’t flip [in the 2021 gubernatorial race], it’s probably not going to flip in 2022.”
So why, then, are more Republicans competing in this race than anywhere else in the state?
Geary Higgins, chairman of the 10th Congressional District GOP Committee, said he believed it’s because Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) made inroads in the district during his run for governor. Loudoun County was largely the epicenter of a cornerstone of Youngkin’s campaign: parental rights in education, railing against critical race theory and pandemic-related school closures — a host of education issues that riled up the Republican base and that are still motivating voters to some degree.
Youngkin lost the district to Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe by under five percentage points — a small enough margin to lead Republicans to say a victory could be within reach this year, especially after redistricting. Though the district remains blue, McAuliffe’s margin narrowed to under two percentage points in the new map.
“We saw what we could do in last year’s election, and if anything, the economy and the national situation is certainly boding well for our candidates as well,” Higgins said.
Lawson and Navy veteran and first-time candidate Hung Cao made frequent appearances in voters’ lists of their top candidates; the firehouse primary is employing ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to rank multiple candidates instead of just picking one. A smattering of other first-time candidates like Michon, Clancy and Caleb Max, the 24-year-old grandson of former 10th District congressman Frank Wolf, have mounted spirited challenges as well.
Some have leveraged personal connections to those hot-button education issues in the district seeking to build rapport with parents.
Cao, for example, has been supporting the Coalition for TJ — a group of parents who sued over the Fairfax school district’s decision to eliminate an arduous entrance exam at the elite Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology and change the admissions process to boost student diversity. Cao, a Vietnamese refugee who went on to the Naval Academy and a 25-year career in the military, was in the school’s first graduating class and has opposed those changes as well, arguing they discriminate against Asian Americans. (A federal appeals court left the admissions changes in place while the case is pending, as did the Supreme Court.)
Michon, on the other hand, is popular among Loudoun County parents at school board meetings — and even some students old enough to vote — after he went viral and landed on Fox News for giving an impassioned speech opposing school closures. “Standing up at our school board meeting was a really big deal to me,” said Georgia Riccobene, an 18-year-old college student and recent graduate of Loudoun Valley High School who came to Middleburg Barn to vote for Michon.
But Virginia-based Republican strategist Jimmy Keady said Republicans’ best bet to defeat Wexton would probably be with a female candidate — namely Lawson, who leads in fundraising and is one of the most visible candidates with a record in public office. Suburban women and moderate voters helped Wexton flip the seat blue in 2018. Now, Keady said, Republicans need a candidate who can relate to that same demographic to flip it back.
“Having a woman in there who can really talk about kitchen-table issues, particularly in that part of the state, will be huge for Republicans,” he said.
Lawson has raised more than $900,000, far outpacing the other candidates and giving her more reach in one of the nation’s most expensive media markets and regions. She served on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors for roughly eight years as the area turned increasingly blue, something she argued in an interview makes her best-primed for a tough campaign against Wexton.
“I’ve survived some really tough political times for Republicans in Northern Virginia,” she said. “I believe I have that proven ability of appealing not just to our base, but to voters in the middle.”
She’s made battling “wokeness” a key part of her image, releasing an ad this month in which she boasted about opposing “woke indoctrination” in schools and the “woke equity agenda locally.” In an interview, she said she and fellow Republican board supervisor Yesli Vega wanted to “defund” the county’s Office of Equity and Inclusion — part of a broader Republican assault on the concept of promoting racial equity. Youngkin dismantled equity programs in education, for example. And at a forum Tuesday night, Lawson drew cheers from the crowd after saying she walked out of an unconscious bias training during a Prince William County Board meeting.
🚨New Ad🚨— Jeanine Lawson (@JeanineLawsonVA) May 4, 2022
Radical Democrats have pushed a woke agenda in our schools and across all levels of government. On the Board of Supervisors, I’ve voted against their woke equity agenda every time. In Congress I will continue to stand up for you and continue to make woke go broke. pic.twitter.com/wOtGAPYxz1
Lawson is one of three women in the race — Theresa Coates Ellis, a Republican on the Manassas City Council, made an argument similar to Lawson’s about her ability to win races in a blue area. But she and candidate Brooke Taylor have not been nearly as competitive in grass-roots fundraising as Lawson.
“She’s raising money hand over fist because she’s a known quantity,” Keady said of Lawson. “There’s a [former 10th District representative Barbara] Comstock-like thing that is happening here, where you have a very strong woman who has run for office before and can fundraise in competitive areas. Given the environment, and that market in particular, you’ve got to be able to raise money.”
Cao, however, has made significant strides with grass-roots donors in the most recent quarter, outraising Lawson in the final stretch and impressing political observers, considering he came into the race with little name recognition.
In an interview, Cao said he decided to run for Congress after watching the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, where he served until as recently as early last year. It reminded him of the Vietnam War, he said, when he and his family fled the country as refugees — a story many voters said they found compelling as they decided to support Cao.
“He has nothing but my respect — his story is incredible,” said voter Ian Griffiths, a Navy veteran and retired federal law enforcement officer.
Cao said he has been focusing voter outreach on minority groups in the increasingly diverse district, where non-White voters make up 44 percent of the voting-age population.
“A large portion are immigrants, and this country is turning into what we ran away from,” Cao said of voters he has connected with. “They’re seeing things like freedom, liberty being infringed upon. Family values that we hold dear are being eroded. Education — it’s basically indoctrination.”
Coleman, the elections analyst, said the success of Youngkin, a former private equity executive with no previous government experience, shows that Republican voters have an appetite for “outsider candidates” and that the Republican nominee would do well to expand the tent with minority-voter outreach. But Coleman said whoever emerges as the nominee should tread carefully on culture-war issues if they want to defeat Wexton, noting the need to win over independents and centrist Democrats in the general.
“You really need a Frank Wolf-type Republican to win in this district, somebody who’s not too ideological,” Coleman said. “When Frank Wolf was in Congress, he was known for bringing the bacon home, making sure the Metro was funded.”
Wolf, as it happens, has endorsed his grandson in the race. And as Max greeted voters on that crowded sidewalk, he made carrying on his grandfather’s legacy the core of his closing pitch. For one longtime Wolf supporter who stopped to hear him out, that made the difference.
“I’m looking for a candidate who will work with both sides of the aisle,” said Bundles Murdock, a former prominent Middleburg Town Council woman. “We’ve become so divisive that we’re not getting much done.”
Republicans can vote at select locations across the district from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, as long as they pledge to support the nominee in November. Other candidates include Loudoun County School Board member John Beatty; Air Force veterans John Henley and Dave Beckwith; and small-business owner Jeff Mayhugh.