A Democratic congressional candidate in central Virginia temporarily shut down her Facebook page this week after receiving what she said were thousands of negative messages, some obscene and threatening, from Donald Trump supporters.
Jane Dittmar is running against state Sen. Tom Garrett (R-Buckingham) for an open seat currently held by retiring Rep. Robert Hurt (R) in the 5th District, which spans a large section of the state from the northern Virginia exurbs through the Shenandoah Valley and down to the North Carolina border.
Trump has strong support in rural, conservative swaths of the district, but analysts say Dittmar could pull off an upset if turnout is heavy in liberal strongholds such as Charlottesville.
Dittmar’s campaign received most of the online comments and voice mails after two incidents.
In the first case, an armed Trump supporter legally protested outside her office last week, unnerving volunteers, who called the police. Then reports by conservative bloggers surfaced about a 1999 car accident in which Dittmar was initially charged with driving under the influence but she ultimately pleaded guilty to reckless driving. “We sort of feel under attack on all sides by the Republicans at this point,” Dittmar said.
She accused Garrett of quietly spreading “sleazy Republican charges” as a diversion from a poor campaign finance report, which shows she has outraised him outraised him 2 to 1.
Garrett denied having anything to do with the stories and accused Dittmar on Tuesday of trying to hide “an apparent DUI arrest in which minors were involved.”
But he showed up Wednesday at a news conference Dittmar held in Charlottesville to join her in a call for more civility.
Garrett said he had faced sharp criticism from Trump loyalists after he condemned lewd comments made by the GOP standard-bearer in a 2005 video published by The Washington Post.
Garrett, who still plans to vote for Trump, could benefit from the GOP candidate because parts of the district are Trump strongholds.
On Oct. 13, Trump supporter Daniel Parks parked his pickup truck outside Dittmar’s Fluvanna County campaign office, opened the tailgate and set up Trump signs.
Alone at the time inside the office, 71-year-old volunteer Susan Wolff first locked the door. Then she went outside to talk to him. The exchange was pleasant, Wolff said, until she began to walk away and he mentioned Trump’s promise to build a wall along the southern U.S. border.
“I’m very sensitive about this because my parents were Holocaust survivors and they fled Nazi Germany,” she said. “I said to him, ‘Thank goodness there was no wall when my parents came here or I wouldn’t be here.’”
At one point during the day, Parks tucked his shirt behind his holster to reveal he was carrying a weapon, Wolff said. She eventually called 911 and learned that the county sheriff was already keeping watch in the parking lot as a precaution.
The protest, first reported by a local CBS affiliate, ended peacefully after about 12 hours when the office closed and volunteers left for the evening. Attempts to reach Parks were unsuccessful.
But the real trouble began after Dittmar posted Facebook and Twitter messages encouraging volunteers to call the police if they felt unsettled by the armed protest.
Comments began to appear on Dittmar’s and Garrett’s pages using obscene language to criticize Dittmar, according to screen shots of the comments taken by her campaign.
“She is dumb as a box of rocks they will take her head off it they don’t rape her first,” read one message. Another said: “Jane you are a retarded and should disembowel yourself with a spoon.”
By Monday night, Dittmar instructed her staff to take down the page; it was reactivated Tuesday morning with nearly 5,000 messages.
About the same time, several conservative blogs posted stories about the 1999 car accident. Dittmar said she was driving with her then-3-year-old son on a dark country road when she swerved, causing her “bumper to glance into the side of a berm.”
The air bag activated and she suffered two black eyes, a broken nose and a split lip. Dittmar said she waited for the police but got a ride home before they arrived, so she left identification on the front seat to avoid giving the impression she had abandoned the car.
She later learned she was charged with driving under the influence and not restraining a child. Dittmar said the charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to reckless driving. She said her son was in a car seat and she had not been drinking.
Albemarle County Police Lt. Todd Hopwood declined a request for the police report.
Wolff, the campaign volunteer, said Dittmar told her national attention on the armed protest might help her congressional bid.
“If I win the election it could be because of this,” she said, according to Wolff. “Everyone knows my name now.”