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Democrats choosing nominee in suddenly competitive Virginia congressional district

Democrats in central and Southside Virginia are choosing a nominee for an open congressional seat that the party thinks it could win for the first time in more than a decade.

Republicans last week ousted freshman Rep. Denver Riggleman in favor of Bob Good, who calls himself a “biblical conservative,” to the delight of Democrats surveying their field of well-funded hopefuls competing in Tuesday’s primary.

“I think everybody sort of breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Bring it.’ Bob Good really does not reflect the view of voters in this district,” said Suzanne Long, chairwoman of the 5th District Democratic committee.

Four Democrats are on the ballot in the primary, which is being conducted mostly by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic but also has in-person voting from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

They are R.D. Huffstetler, a Marine veteran and former congressional chief of staff with Silicon Valley experience; John Lesinski, a retired Marine Corps colonel and former elected official in Rappahannock County who works in commercial real estate; Claire Russo, a former Marine intelligence officer and advocate for victims of military sexual assault; and Cameron Webb, a physician, former White House fellow and health policy researcher.

Applications for absentee ballots were due June 16, and in-person absentee voting was allowed through Saturday.

Huffstetler had the most cash on hand by the start of June, with $286,811, followed by Russo with $201,530, Webb with $139,661 and Lesinski with $36,078, reports show.

Good’s campaign consultant, Chris Shores, declined to distinguish among the Democrats.

“No matter who they nominate, there is no doubt that they will adopt the radical agenda of the left — supporting restrictions on our gun rights, defunding police departments, weakening our individual rights and liberties, expanding government, and adopting extreme climate policies that will cripple our economy,” Shores said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether Republicans will coalesce around Good, who won 58 percent of the 2,500 votes in a drive-through convention, a tiny percentage of the number who will cast ballots in November. Good opposes abortion without exception, supports eliminating birthright citizenship and embraces a hard-line immigration policy that he says puts “Americans first.”

Two independent analysts — the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which is based in the 5th District, and Cook Political Report — shifted the race from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican” immediately after Good’s nomination.

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Good’s relatively weak fundraising — he had $34,000 cash on hand at the end of May — as well as his failure to file a state elections form on time and his untested performance in a general election contributed to the change, said J. Miles Coleman, an analyst at the Center for Politics.

However, Coleman said, 5th District voters are open to conservative, populist candidates, from President Trump to Corey Stewart, the state party’s bombastic 2018 Senate nominee. The sprawling district includes deep-blue Charlottesville as well as reliably red areas from Southside Virginia to the North Carolina border.

“Culturally, it’s probably the most Deep South part of Virginia,” Coleman said, “You could see some elements of a perfect storm helping Democrats here, but at the end of the day it’s still a district that voted for Corey Stewart by 2 points.”

Here are sketches of the top three Democratic contenders:

Rural roots, Harvard degrees

Huffstetler, 42, is running as an entrepreneur who says his rural upbringing and family ties to the region help him relate to voters. He lost the party’s 2018 nomination to Leslie Cockburn in a party-run convention.

“I have unimpeachable credentials in a rural community, and I want to get that message out so we can go win this district,” he said in an interview, adding: “Nobody’s going to out-redneck a Huffstetler. My dad’s two brothers are nicknamed Gub and Worm.”

The North Carolina native moved to Georgia in the third grade, graduated from the University of West Georgia in 2001 with a degree in chemistry and joined the Marines, where he worked in aviation operations and was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

He used the G.I. bill to earn master’s degrees from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School and worked five years at start-ups in the San Francisco Bay area.

After that, he lived in D.C. for a little over a year while he served as chief of staff to Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), whom he met at Harvard. He moved to Virginia in 2016, lives in Charlottesville with his wife and daughter, and is running for office full time.

Huffstetler said many in the district, which he called “a strange mix of Piedmont and college town,” can relate to his story of losing his father to an OxyContin overdose. If elected, he would pursue a public health-care option, expanded rural broadband and recruitment of teachers to rural areas through loan forgiveness.

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Green New Deal and Black Lives Matter

Lesinski, 63, spent four years on the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and four years chairing the county school board, according to his website.

He served four years as an active-duty Marine officer and 22 years in the reserves, and says his 35 years in working in commercial real estate would position him to help bring more jobs to Virginia.

The Democrat calls the coronavirus pandemic “a tipping point” for America and says he would focus on health care, the climate crisis and passing and infrastructure and investment bill to bolster the nation’s bridges, tunnels and airports, paid for with low-cost debt.

“Safely restarting the economy will be first and foremost in addressing all three issues,” Lesinski says on his website. “But as we rebuild and reshape America, we must ensure that new and bold measures provide equal opportunity and justice.”

His platform includes supporting a Green New Deal, universal broadband, demilitarizing police and Medicare-for-all. Like the other candidates in the primary, he favors expanding rural broadband.

Since the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, he has joined protests in Charlottesville and issued a statement saying “Black Lives Matter.”

“While most police officers are good and decent people who do their jobs and do them well, police brutality is tearing our country apart,” the statement says. “People of color are the victims, but it is on all of us, especially white Americans to listen to their experiences in this country, speak up when we see bad behavior, act, and make this injustice stop. It is our patriotic, moral, and ethical duty as Americans.”

Lesinski called Good an “intolerant extremist” and said he believes he has a chance in the primary, despite having less visibility and far less money to spend than his opponents.

I’ve been punching above my weight since the beginning,” he said.

Marine and rape survivor

Russo, 40, is a Marine veteran and rape survivor who turned her personal experience into a mission to improve the handling of military sexual assault cases. As a mom and first-time candidate with national security bona fides, she hopes to follow the lead of freshmen Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, who flipped red Virginia districts in the 2018 blue wave.

“Over the course of the last few years, politics just felt so personal,” Russo said. “I could not stand on the sidelines and watch the abhorrent leadership in the White House dragging this country through the dirt.”

Russo was born and raised in Fairfax County before moving to Iowa with her family and graduating from Tulane University. She led a team targeting insurgent networks as an intelligence officer in Iraq and later worked as a civilian with the Army in Afghanistan.

In 2004, she was drugged and raped at the Marine Corps Ball. The military declined to press charges against her assailant, but he was convicted in a civilian court, at the time a landmark ruling.

“I had spent my whole life wanting to be a Marine, and so it was real hard for me to feel like the Marine Corps had failed me and wasn’t living up to what they were, in telling me it wasn’t a crime to be raped,” she said.

Russo became a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellow studying the role of women in combat and conflicts. She and her husband, an Army Special Forces officer, moved to a home on the line between Albemarle and Greene counties in 2007. They have three children.

She has been endorsed by Emily’s List, which backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion access; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.); and four congresswomen, including Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.)

Health policy and social justice

Webb, who turns 37 on Sunday, has built his career around health care and social justice, work that he says prepares him to serve in Congress amid the coronavirus pandemic and outrage over the police killing of George Floyd.

“As an African American man, I know very well that we don’t need validators and we don’t need someone to empower us, the power already lies with the community,” he said. “It’s about being one voice of the many.”

The Spotsylvania native graduated from University of Virginia, has a law degree from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and a medical degree from Wake Forest School of Medicine.

He was awarded a White House fellowship in 2016, during the Obama presidency, working on health care policy and the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Webb and his wife and two children have lived in Albemarle County for three years. In addition to clinical work and teaching, he is director of Health Policy and Equity at UVA’s School of Medicine.

If elected, he said he would work to create a public health-care option that is critical to universal coverage and work on criminal justice reform. The campaign arm of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed him last fall, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) formally backed him last week.

“In politics, you don’t get to pick your moment,” Webb said. “The moment we’re in just connects so much of my experience and expertise, and that’s what made people take notice.”

This story has been updated to include additional information on candidate John Lesinski.

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