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In contest for Black’s seat, focus on gun violence, response to Justin Fairfax allegations

A mailer put out by the Republican Party of Virginia, which Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) and other Democrats say plays on a racist stereotype of black men preying on white women. (Antonio Olivo/The Washington Post)

With longtime Republican state Sen. Richard H. Black leaving office at year’s end, Democrats appear poised to win the Loudoun County-area seat he’s held on to as his district turned increasingly blue.

Del. John J. Bell (D-Loudoun) and Loudoun County Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) are each catering their message to moderate voters, particularly white women. Both parties have poured massive resources into Tuesday’s contest, which they consider key in the battle for control of the Virginia Senate.

The campaigns are rooting their appeals in social issues. Bell aired a dramatic commercial about bullets flying through playgrounds and schools. And the state GOP sent fliers on behalf of Higgins that refer to allegations of sexual assault by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, which Fairfax — who is African American — described as racist.

The mailer features a white woman with duct tape over her mouth, and accuses Bell of “silencing women” for not supporting a GOP effort to hold legislative hearings about the Fairfax allegations that would have included testimony from his accusers. Like Fairfax, both of those women — Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — are African American.

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Fairfax, who denies the sexual assault allegations and has filed a $400 million defamation lawsuit over them, accused Republicans of trying to win votes by conjuring the negative stereotype of a black man preying on white women.

“This is the oldest racist trope in American history,” the lieutenant governor said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Political analysts say the mailer reflects the importance of white female voters to Republicans in a fast-growing suburban district where the population of African Americans, Latinos and other minority groups has increased.

“African American voters and Latino voters are going to vote overwhelming Democratic, and Republicans tend to do well with the white male vote,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

“So, the most politically appealing option for a Republican candidate in a suburban district is the focus of this advertisement,” he said.

John Findlay, executive director of the state Republican Party, denied the flier was racist and criticized Bell for not supporting creation of a bipartisan panel in the Virginia legislature to hear the allegations against Fairfax.

Bell, 56, has called for Fairfax to resign but says the allegations against him should be dealt with in court. He called Higgins’s mailer “shameful.”

Findlay said that “if Bell has a problem with the mailer, then he should not have voted against a hearing for Fairfax’s victims.”

Higgins, 66, a northwestern Loudoun County supervisor since 2008, declined to answer questions about his Senate campaign.

Encompassing Loudoun County and parts of northwestern Prince William County, the 13th Senate district has been represented by Black, 75, since it was created in 2011.

The conservative lawmaker, who served in the House of Delegates from 1998 through 2006, drew attention for comparing same-sex marriage to polygamy and incest and traveling to Syria to show his admiration for President Bashar al-Assad.

He fended off Democratic attempts to unseat him through a combination of responsive constituent services and popular stances against rampant development and rising highway tolls.

But the onetime GOP stronghold increasingly has shifted in Democrats’ favor. Voters favored Hillary Clinton (D), Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in recent elections. An October survey from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy showed that about 60 percent of voters in Black’s district and three other areas with competitive state Senate races are unlikely to choose someone who supports President Trump.

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Bell, in office since 2016, said he represents the concerns of those more moderate voters. “This district does not want someone who is too far to the right or too far to the left,” he said. “They want someone who take a moderate, reasoned, pragmatic approach.”

He has primarily focused on gun violence, including the TV ad that shows him finding a rifle bullet on a youth football field. Bell says he’ll propose increasing the state-mandated distance between firing ranges and homes from 100 yards to 500 yards. That idea, which gun owners groups oppose, stems from recent incidents in Loudoun where stray bullets from target shooters on farms hit houses and grazed one woman’s arm.

Bell said he will also push for the state to buy back privately owned roads, such as the Dulles Greenway in Loudoun, where rising tolls prices are a source of frustration for commuters.

Higgins has accused Bell of supporting toll increases on the Greenway, a reference to an unsuccessful attempt by the delegate to extend a state agreement with the limited partnership that owns the 14-mile roadway. The agreement partially ties annual price hikes to the area’s cost of living, instead of allowing the group to dictate rates.

Higgins vows to fight for more state transportation funding in the region and to bring more broadband Internet access to rural portions of the district. He supports loosening gun-control laws and says he’d oppose climate-change initiatives, questioning the science behind calls to reduce global warming at a recent candidates’ forum in Leesburg.

“We’ve had hurricanes as long as man has been alive,” Higgins said, according to a report in Loudoun Now. “We’ve had rain events as long as man has been alive.”

Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) — who steered $432,000 into Higgins’ campaign in October — said the race is “exceedingly close.”

Ryer declined to comment on the GOP mailer, saying he has not seen it. But, he argued, the larger point is that Democrats refused to give Fairfax’s accusers a chance to air their allegations. “All these women wanted was a hearing and the Democratic delegates wouldn’t give it to them,” Ryer said. “It’s really that simple.”

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) poured $785,000 of his caucus’s funds into Bell’s race in October. He predicted that Trump’s deep unpopularity in the region will generate voter enthusiasm in Bell’s favor.

Black said it’s possible that prediction is correct. “It’s a coin toss,” the senator said.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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