Christian Worth, 49, is a rarity in these parts, a Democrat running for a seat in a district where rock-ribbed Republicans have dominated for generations.
She is one of 10 Democrats running in the strongly Republican districts along the Blue Ridge Mountain spine of Virginia, from West Virginia to the North Carolina border. They have banded together in an unusual coalition, calling themselves the “Rural Ground Game,” convinced that the party can recover areas that were once Democratic but that too willingly ceded to Republicans over the past decades.
Short of big-money donors, they have pooled resources to share one consultant, who provides individual field plans for each race, coordinates schedules and exchanges policy ideas. The candidates have a polished joint presentation for when they seek funds and volunteers from around the state, including a late-September visit to the deeply blue Arlington County. They also have a candidates-only conference call every Monday at 9 p.m. in which they trade tips on everything from policy to yard signs.
The Nov. 5 contest is shaping up to be a pivotal state election. Democrats believe they are within striking distance of winning control of the legislature. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot; Republicans are defending a 20-19 edge in the Senate and a 51-48 advantage in the House of Delegates, with one vacancy in each chamber.
But in this mountainous portion of the commonwealth, where cellphone signals do not always penetrate and the lack of universal broadband vexes residents, the Democrats have a steep climb.
Voters in this Lexington-centered district, District 24, gave Corey Stewart, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, 63 percent of the vote in 2018. Ed Gillespie, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 2017, got 65 percent of their vote. President Trump, in 2016, took almost 66 percent of the vote.
It’s the same in most of the communities along the Interstate 81 corridor.
“For Democratic candidates in these deep red districts . . . the equivalent would be like running for office in Utah,” said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. The school’s latest voter poll shows Democrats have an edge this fall, but that’s a statewide number.
A major factor in these rural races may be gun policy, although Worth says her neighbors are more interested in health care, school funding, workforce training and clean energy.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll in early October found guns are a top concern for Virginia voters this fall and majorities support gun-control proposals pitched by Democrats, including statewide bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips as well as limiting gun purchases to one a month.
The poll also found that voters who are most concerned about guns split almost evenly between supporting Democrats and Republicans. That signals that both sides of the gun-control debate are energized to vote.
Republican incumbents have defeated efforts to pass bills like that in the past few years, and most are sticking with their strong gun-rights positions.
Worth’s opponent, incumbent Ronnie Campbell (R-Rockbridge), who won the seat by defeating Worth in a special election last year, pledges on his website to stand with fellow Republicans “to stop liberal attempts to take our guns.” He did not respond to several interview requests.
About 90 miles northeast in Edinburgh, House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) is facing his first general-election battle in 10 years. He told about 100 residents Wednesday at a candidates forum that the Democrats in the General Assembly “are among the most radical progressive Democrats in the land. . . . One of the governor’s proposals would turn law-abiding gun owners into felons,” referring to a bill that would have required owners of assault weapons to turn in their guns within six months or face a felony charge.
Gilbert, whose biggest donor is the National Rifle Association, has sponsored bills aimed at expanding the right to carry a concealed firearm. In 2012, he was the chief co-sponsor of a bill that repealed the law limiting gun buyers to one gun a month. He was also among the GOP leaders who shut down the legislature’s special session on gun violence in July after 90 minutes without hearing a single bill. The GOP-controlled legislature referred the legislation to a study committee to report its findings after the election. He said at the debate that he is proud of his pro-gun stance and called the NRA “America’s number one longest [lived] civil rights organization.”
Gilbert’s challenger, political newcomer Beverly Harrison, tied the shutdown to a $200,000 donation the NRA gave in September to Gilbert’s political action committee.
She has raised just 7 percent of his war chest, and she is acting as her own campaign manager.
At the debate Wednesday, Harrison doggedly countered Gilbert on policy, attacking him for refusing to raise the minimum wage, his opposition to Medicaid expansion, his support of Virginia’s right-to-work law and saying that he has conflated the federal Equal Rights Amendment with late-term abortion.
Shenandoah Republican Committee Chairman Randy Gilbert is so confident of victory that he said he is sending volunteers to other districts to help struggling candidates. The challenge, even for Democrats motivated to turn up midweek to an evening debate, is clear.
“We’re predisposed to support the women,” said Farimah Schuerman with her husband, Doug, after the candidates forum, which also included a lively debate between incumbent Mark Obershain (R) and challenger April Moore (D). “Clearly Beverly won the debate because she was so specific about [Gilbert’s] voting record. Will she win the election? No chance in hell.”
Of the 10 Democrats running in these red rural districts, Worth has a better chance than most. She received a surprising 40 percent of the vote when she first ran for the office against Campbell in December. In this fall’s rematch, she has outraised him through the end of August. A self-funded independent candidate, Billy Fishpaw, is also in the race.
It was that 2018 special election that convinced Worth and others that there are more people willing to vote for Democrats in rural Virginia than had been previously recognized.
But while she has gotten financial help from the state party, not everyone in the rural coalition has. Some have received donations from Democratic political action committees, and the statewide Democratic caucus provides training, information on bills and weekly check-ins. But cash is scarce.
While none overtly criticize the state party, Worth told a handful of Arlington Democrats last month that “we’re doing more with less. . . . We’re doing the equivalent of a political barn-raising here.”
“It’s a real David and Goliath situation,” Harrison said in a separate interview. “In an ideal world, if the state caucus would provide seed money to get vetted candidates started, pay for the voter data, get you some walk cards — a rural assistance program would be transformative.”
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker said that the party has to apportion limited funds based on which seats are the most likely to flip in November but that it supports every Democrat taking on a GOP opponent, especially those who have not been challenged in years.
State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), one of the few Democratsrepresenting the Shenandoah Valley, said that although the districts were drawn to elect Republicans, “there’s a sense of upheaval” in the air this year as Democrats try to build on their electoral successes since 2016, which includes winning races for governor and U.S. Senate and flipping 15 legislative seats as well as three congressional seats.
The November election is an “off-off” year contest, with no statewide or presidential races on the ballot to attract voters to the polls. Turnout for these elections is typically low and tends to favor Republicans, although there are signs that voters may come out in higher numbers than in the past.
“There’s a path” to victory, Deeds said from a party fundraiser in Lexington. “It’s hard, but it’s a path. If we could get every federal-election-year voter out in this district, we’ll win.”
Nearly 2,000 people came out to the 45-year-old Clifford Sorghum Festival, and Worth attempted, in her quiet way, to make the most of it. She had neglected to put a campaign sticker on her navy blue sweater, and she was not handing out campaign brochures. Instead of glad-handing the crowd, she had long, one-on-one conversations with whomever she met, many of whom don’t live in her district.
“You’re really looking to meet people and, through a conversation, have a ripple effect,” she said later. “Having great conversations can be as worthwhile as knocking on 50 doors.”
After watching some young women compete in a ring-jousting competition, she was game to try.
She mounted Ricochet, a brown gelding, and speared two of the three 1¼ -inch rings hung along the 80-yard track, a respectable showing considering she hadn’t been on a horse in more than 20 years.
“I’ll be smiling all day,” the attorney said as she dismounted and removed her borrowed helmet. “A lot of things about campaigning are really, really hard — this was really fun.”
Worth made at least one potential convert that Saturday afternoon. Mason Thomas, 27, a singer in the bluegrass band and a Virginia Tech graduate, spoke with Worth for at least 10 minutes. They talked about farmers and loggers.
“I’d like to know more about her,” he said later. A Republican, he wasn’t sure if he lived in her district but said, “I’m very impressed that, as a Democrat, she’s willing to support agriculture. I’m going to do some research on her.”
Other members of the Rural Ground Game are:
Jennifer Woofter, a business executive, running against Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Bedford) southwest of Lynchburg; David Zilles, an engineer, running against Wendell Walker (R) for an open seat west of Lynchburg; Jennifer Kitchen, a community organizer, facing Chris Runion (R) and Janice Allen (I) in an open seat northwest of Charlottesville; Brent Finnegan, who works at James Madison University, in a rematch against Del. Tony O. Wilt (R-Rockingham) in a district that includes Harrisonburg; Elizabeth Alcorn, a dentist, challenging Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) in a district northwest and southeast of Charlottesville; Tim Hickey, a teacher, challenging Del. C. Matthew Fariss (R-Campbell) south of Charlottesville; and Virginia Smith, a retired teacher and a children’s book author, challenging state Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. (R-Mecklenburg) in south central Virginia.