BLACKSBURG, Va. — Chris Hurst checks the dark clouds out the window of his Jeep Liberty as he barrels west up Route 460 to the crest of Brush Mountain. Rain starts, big drops, promising a heavy storm. Hurst hurtles down the far side, finds the gravel lot he’s looking for and pulls off the road.
He scrambles out of the car, determined to get a picture before the rain gets too intense. “How about that,” he chuckles, centering the image on his iPhone: a giant billboard reading “Giles County for Hurst. Vote Nov. 7th.”
It’s solid red country over here, so Hurst — running for the Virginia House of Delegates as a Democrat — is making a bold statement with that sign. Just up the road is a huge banner depicting the Ten Commandments and the American flag, and beyond that a billboard with a bloody cross and the slogan “Hang out with Jesus. He hung out for you.”
This is home turf for his opponent, Del. Joseph R. Yost, a Republican who has represented the 12th District since 2011. One of the youngest members of the General Assembly, Yost is from an old pioneer family and chairs the local historical society.
In a state where all the races are serving as proxies for partisan wars in Washington, the 12th is a key battleground — targeted by Democrats as one that can be flipped from Republican control, a beachhead in a region that once seemed untouchably red.
Hurst is a political novice, but a local celebrity with a tragic backstory. He was the anchor for the evening news two years ago when reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were gunned down on live TV by a disturbed former colleague. Parker and Hurst had been living together with plans to marry.
His surprise decision this year to quit TV and run for office electrified the local race. He has raised the second-highest amount of all Democratic challengers in the 100 Virginia House races — $232,000 as of the June reporting period. Republicans are funneling cash to Yost to keep up, raising $210,000. Their district is as polarized as any in the state — one side of Brush Mountain voted for Donald Trump last fall and the other for Hillary Clinton.
But at the center of all that attention and pressure, Hurst and Yost are doing something interesting — something that suggests Washington's hyperpartisan toxicity doesn’t have to play out at every level: Rather than withdraw to ideological extremes, they are converging toward the middle, staking out similar positions on many issues.
Both are opposed to the huge natural gas pipeline proposed for the county. Both want to protect manufacturing jobs, support public schools and create better mental-health services.
Yost won the endorsement of the Virginia Education Association — almost unheard of for a Republican. Hurst, the gun violence survivor, touts his support for gun rights.
And neither is a big fan of President Trump.
“I’m an unusual Republican,” Yost said.
Hurst’s version: “If there was a party that was just the No B.S. party, I’d be a charter member.”
From the outside, it would be easy to make assumptions about the 12th District. It is part of the red backcountry, the edge of Appalachia, home to the working-class whites who helped put Trump in office.
Except it’s more complicated than that. The crest of Brush Mountain is the line between Giles and Montgomery counties. Virginia Tech and Radford University are on the Montgomery side, which is economically diverse with upscale neighborhoods full of professors and business leaders. Occasional modest “We love our Muslim neighbors” signs can be spotted on the shady streets of Blacksburg.
In Giles, where the biggest employer is a factory that makes cellulose acetate and other materials for filtration devices, many of the little towns — Pearisburg, Narrows, Rich Creek, Newport — are struggling, their business districts darkened by empty storefronts.
In terms of natural beauty, though, Giles is wealthy beyond measure. The Appalachian Trail winds through the county for 50 miles, some of it along the spectacular New River Gorge. The 69-foot Cascade Falls draws nearly 150,000 visitors every year.
Those resources produce a pragmatic environmentalism among locals. There was little objection a few years ago to a natural gas pipeline for the Celanese plant, for instance, because it eliminated the factory’s coal waste and supported jobs.
But the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline is just passing through on its way to Pittsylvania County and draws almost universal outrage in both Giles and Montgomery.
During last fall’s presidential election, the Giles side of the district went heavily for Trump while the Montgomery side went largely for Clinton. With its bigger population, Montgomery tipped the overall district into the Democratic column — but only by about 500 votes out of more than 30,000 cast, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.
That edge is why Democrats think they can pick up the district this year, with blue voters especially motivated to defy the party of Trump.
That, and the fact that Hurst looks like a rising star.
Hurst just turned 30 but has the bearing of a much older man. He had to develop his anchorman gravitas early, winning the big chair at WDBJ in Roanoke when he was only 22. The station touted him as the youngest anchor in the country.
It was something Hurst had been preparing for since his childhood in the Philadelphia area. He and his dad built sets at their house so he could stage talk shows, and he did newscasts on his high school’s public-access TV channel.
He came to Roanoke in 2010, not long after graduating from Emerson College. Parker joined the station in 2015. As they fell in love their careers consumed them, but they took refuge in hiking and kayaking across the region.
Her death made headlines worldwide. She was interviewing a local economic development official on live TV when a former reporter at the station showed up and shot her, cameraman Ward and the official, Vicki Gardner, who survived.
The shooter posted his own video of the killing online before being hunted down by police and killing himself. Parker was 24, Ward was 27.
Hurst was on the air soon after, talking of his relationship with Parker. He went on living in the apartment they had shared and kept up daily phone calls with her father, who had become outspoken about guns and mental illness.
Somewhere in those discussions, as Hurst struggled to find meaning, the idea of running for office came up. After months of weighing it with his family, Hurst made the break in February. He said farewell after an evening newscast, announced that he was running for office as a Democrat and moved to a basement apartment in Blacksburg with his dog.
Many people assume Hurst is running on the issue of gun control. The Pride Fund to End Gun Violence hosted him at an event in Washington last month, along with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam — rare recognition for a candidate in an obscure state district race.
But Hurst’s position is not what advocates on either side may think. He’s a gun owner, he said; Parker liked to shoot, too. He’s leery of steps to broadly restrict access to guns. Instead, he favors measures to treat mental illness and keep guns out of the hands of children or domestic violence offenders.
Even the standard Democratic call for universal background checks is too broad, he said: “I’m just not as matter-of-fact, black or white with guns as I think people expect or want me to be.”
Guns are a nuanced issue in the district. Hunting and shooting are part of growing up here, but so is the memory of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a mentally ill student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17.
Hurst would much rather talk about raises for teachers, or his opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The need for more mental-health services. Better special-education programs. Unsexy topics that don’t make the national news but that people in the community wrestle with every day.
What he learned from the depths of his personal tragedy, he said, is the importance of place. “I came through the other side believing that I wanted to stay here and give back to the people who gave me such strength and support when I needed it,” he said.
Yost, the Republican incumbent, has faced opposition before but never someone so high-profile or well funded. If it worries him, he doesn’t show it.
At 31, Yost, like Hurst, seems mature for his years. He’s quiet in the General Assembly, seldom making speeches. With his round, tortoiseshell glasses and scruffy facial hair, Yost comes across as a young history professor.
He grew up on a farm in Giles County, went to the public schools and graduated from Radford with degrees in criminal justice. “I’ve never lived outside the boundaries of my district,” he said.
Much of what he has done since jumping into politics in 2011 is rooted in local concerns that don’t follow easy partisan patterns.
Yost worked in criminal justice for a time, in jail diversion and crisis intervention training — helping the mentally ill get treatment instead of incarceration.
In the legislature this year, Yost sponsored bills to prohibit the death penalty for the severely mentally ill and to study ways that people in jail can get Medicaid services immediately upon release. The first stalled in committee; the second was signed into law.
He has also sponsored legislation to make it legal to farm hemp in Virginia — which would help struggling farmers — and favors increased education spending. In rural areas, he said, schools do much more than teach; they’re community centers.
But Yost is most definitely a Republican. He’s a loyal rank-and-file vote for the party’s majority in the House of Delegates and thinks that government should have limits. It’s his conservative outlook, and maybe his polite demeanor, that make him hesitant to even talk about Trump.
“Federal issues don’t have the impact here they do in other parts of the state,” Yost said. “Trump doesn’t come up. We talk about our issues.”
And more than anything, that intense local focus is Yost’s secret weapon in the race against his hyper-articulate challenger. He has spent years grinding away at small-bore constituent services.
He and his aide scour the community columns in local newspapers for birthdays, anniversaries, awards, kids bagging their first buck — and Yost sends that person a copy of the article with a hand-signed note of congratulations. Dozens, every month. During the school year, he writes to every student who lands on the A/B honor roll — all 1,500 of them. “I have great strength in my arm,” he deadpanned.
In the evenings, knocking on doors for votes, Yost sees the benefit of that unglamorous work.
“I had won the award and you sent me a letter, for the community service,” said Pearisburg resident Connie Richardson, 66, when Yost asked for her support. “And I really appreciated that.”
Neighbor Scott Clark, 50, a state trooper, has known Yost most of his life and doesn’t think much of Hurst coming from Roanoke to run.
“He kind of is a carpetbagger,” Clark said. “Which I think you’d probably hear echoed in most [places]. You might not in Blacksburg, but you’d probably hear it over here. . . . There’s a pretty fine dividing line. We don’t like to be like Blacksburg, and I’m sure they don’t like to be like us.”
On the other side of Brush Mountain, Hurst stumped for votes in a Blacksburg neighborhood — sweat-stained handkerchief in his back pocket, clipboard listing voter names, a tin full of Altoids.
He doesn’t feel like an outsider, he said. Roanoke is only 30 minutes away; this was all part of his TV market. But he’s quick to point out to people who come to the door — and they all recognize him — that he lives in town.
Hurst is ready for anything when he meets voters like this. Some have burst into tears, thinking back to the tragedy with Parker, perhaps conscious of Virginia Tech’s tragedy, as well.
“I’m a trigger for some people,” he said.
At one house, two retired nurses told Hurst that they miss seeing him on TV.
“Well, I know I’m sweatier and not as made-up in person,” he said. “Just here more to listen than anything else. That’s what I used to do at the TV station as a reporter, and that’s what I hope to do as a delegate, too — listen to what’s on your mind.”
The two women — Gayle Robertson, 71, and Lynn Juliano, 63 — gave him an earful about their dislike of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. But beyond that, they said, pausing to find the words, things are just discouraging.
“Just watching what’s going on up in Washington,” Juliano said. “You know, the health care, and just . . . anyway, things are not going the way I would like things to go.”
Hurst nodded. “You know, I was in an environment where I could let cynicism keep creeping in and feel like I was powerless to make direct change,” he said. “And instead I took a leap without a safety net to do something that I’m passionate about.”
“You did, yeah, you did,” Juliano said, and she and Robertson pledged their support.
With that, Hurst was off to the next house. He has knocked on thousands of doors — with volunteers, more than 10,000, including over the mountain in Giles. Hurst isn’t willing to write off that part of the district, thus the billboard on the highway.
But the morning after the billboard went up, a small red sign appeared in front of it: “Re-elect Joseph Yost — Delegate.” Another was just up the road, and another, and another — marching deeper into Giles County.
Rachel Chason contributed to this report.