About three dozen GOP activists will gather Saturday in a Shenandoah Valley high school auditorium to decide who will replace Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) on the midterm ballot in November.
The freshman congressman abruptly ended his bid for reelection on Monday after admitting he is an alcoholic, leaving the party without a nominee five months before the election.
The district is conservative, but there’s pressure to choose a candidate who doesn’t alienate any factions of the party and can overcome potentially high Democratic turnout in liberal enclaves such as Charlottesville.
Within hours of Garrett’s Monday announcement, a handful of hopefuls from Fauquier County to Danville began wooing the GOP committee members in his district, looking to lock up a majority — 19 votes — needed to clinch the nomination.
Phones rang, Facebook pages emerged. Requests for meetings sprang up.
“Before Tom could even wipe the tears from his eye, people were calling us,” said Diana Shores, a member of the committee. “They were circling like vultures.”
Shores, who with her husband, Chris, have worked for candidates for years, immediately grasped the weight of the task before the committee.
Unlike a regular election, there would be no radio ads or rallies. Instead, 37 men and women would decide at a meeting governed by complicated rules and procedures.
“What an exciting display of raw democracy in action!” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who is working to reelect President Trump.
Each of the 23 cities and counties in the sprawling 5th Congressional District, which is larger than New Jersey, are represented on the committee. Members include the head of the Virginia Tea Party, a politically savvy pastor and a town councilman who works for a state lawmaker. There are retirees, contractors and at least one college student.
Most, if not all, consider themselves conservative and want to know where candidates stand on taxes and regulation, the Second Amendment and school vouchers.
Builder Carlton Ballowe of Nelson County quizzed candidates as he drove nails and spread drywall mud, his phone pinned between his ear and shoulder. He was working on a job with a tight deadline and had to multitask.
“All of us unit chairs are veterans of these political wars, for lack of a better word,” he said. “We don’t tend to get apoplectic about it. Nobody I know has hit the panic button. We do take seriously the responsibility put upon us.”
A candidate entered the race late Thursday with fundraising experience and roots in the district: state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), a lawyer who once chaired the committee that will decide the winner.
Trying to stop him are Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner and former Air Force intelligence officer who briefly ran for governor on a populist platform last year; land-use activist Martha Boneta, and Del. Michael Webert (R-Marshall.)
Also running are two men who unsuccessfully sought the nomination against Garrett in 2016: Navy veteran Joe Whited and Michael Del Rosso, who also sits on the committee as head of the Charlottesville GOP.
Candidates were asked to declare themselves by Thursday evening, but quirks of the rules make it possible for a surprise candidate to swoop in Saturday during the meeting and pick up enough votes to win.
The meeting takes place weeks after a contentious battle for the nomination in the neighboring 6th District represented by retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R).
For that reason, state GOP Chairman John Whitbeck urged 5th District members to disclose conflicts of interest and consider abstaining if they, their spouse or close relatives were paid by candidates in the past six months.
“I firmly believe that anything less will create a dark cloud around the process and damage our candidate in the November” election, he told members this week. “I can think of nothing worse for unity than a protracted fight in the State Party over the nominee.”
Democratic nominee Leslie Cockburn has strong support in deep blue Charlottesville, but the home of the University of Virginia isn’t reflective of a district that independent analysts say is “likely” to vote Republican or “leans Republican.”
Local observers say a successful GOP nominee will do well with moderate to conservative voters in Fauquier, Albemarle and Fluvanna counties, home of the largest media market in the district and the economic base.
But that candidate must also win support south of Nelson County and down to the North Carolina border, a region with some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the state. Once known as a hub for textile, furniture and tobacco production, Southside Virginia suffered from trade agreements that cost the region manufacturing jobs.
Members of the committee have their own criteria.
Diana Shores wants to know where candidates stand on social issues and spending, but also what candidates’ families think of them running, who they support for speaker of the House and whether they would join the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus. Garrett is a member of that caucus.
“If they can’t tell you, they’re not ready,” said Shores, who is social media director of the national anti-abortion rights group Day of Tears. “You’re asking people to send you to Washington, D.C.; you better know the answers to those questions.”
Ballowe, the builder, said after asking a battery of questions, he’ll decide based on “seat of the pants and gut,” knowing candidates seeking office can shade the truth.
“I’ve been at this a long time,” he said. “You can do all the technical things but at some point, you’re implying a degree of exactness that doesn’t exist.”