STUART, Va. — Wren Williams was all set to dig into his biscuit, bacon and eggs at the Stuart Family Restaurant when a white-haired woman rushed over from a nearby booth. Mary Fulcher wanted Williams to know that she was praying for him to win his House of Delegates race this fall so he could go to Richmond and take on the Democrats.
“We need to get rid of every dad-burn Democrat we got,” said Fulcher, 83. “They’re selfish. They think they know everything and they don’t know nothing.”
Williams, 32, didn’t mind the Monday morning interruption. After all, it was people like Fulcher who powered him to one of the most surprising outcomes of Virginia’s June 8 primaries, in which the first-time candidate defeated a seven-term incumbent for the GOP nomination in this hilly, rural 9th District House seat south of Roanoke.
Almost no one had thought Del. Charles D. Poindexter (R-Franklin) was vulnerable — he had top ratings from the National Rifle Association and the ultraconservative Family Foundation — but Williams trounced him by about 25 points. And he did it in a way that caught even other Republicans off-guard: by running to the right.
“It’s hard to get further to the right of Charlie Poindexter,” said Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who helped recruit Republican candidates this year but didn’t foresee Williams’s victory.
Williams managed the flanking maneuver by sticking closely with former president Donald Trump. He put his law practice on hold for two months at the end of last year to join the Trump campaign’s legal team challenging the presidential vote count in Wisconsin. When Poindexter said during the primary race that he didn’t see actual evidence of voter fraud, Williams hammered him for being soft.
Now Williams will move on to a general election that promises to be one of the most polarized in the state. His Democratic opponent, Bridgette Craighead, is a Black small- business owner who organized Black Lives Matter rallies last summer at the far opposite end of the district in the town of Rocky Mount. She also was instrumental in getting two Rocky Mount police officers fired for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The district — which includes Patrick County, most of Franklin County and part of Henry County — is close to 90 percent White. The nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project ranks it as one of the most Republican districts in the state, so Craighead faces an uphill climb.
But in a broader context, the success of Williams’s approach in the primary suggests both promise and peril for Republicans in Virginia this year. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are on the ballot along with governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Although Trump’s “big lie” message whips up the party’s base, it does not play well across the state’s vast, diverse electorate.
GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin softened his stance as soon as he won the nomination in a party convention last month, finally acknowledging that Joe Biden legitimately won the presidential election.
But Trump’s narrative of anti-establishment grievance continues to hold enormous power in places such as Williams’s hometown of Stuart and the surrounding Patrick County. Trump got about 70 percent of the vote here both times he ran.
“The general feeling in Patrick County is that Trump won the [national] race but they stole it from him,” said Harold Dean Goad, 79, a member of the Stuart Town Council. Although court after court has found no evidence of significant fraud in the election, the accusation fits a local sense of political and economic betrayal.
Here, the textile and furniture factories that powered the economy mostly shut down or moved overseas by the 1990s, and many blame the Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement. Patrick County’s only hospital went out of business a few years ago. During the coronavirus pandemic, students had to sit outside empty school buildings to use the WiFi because they didn’t have broadband at home. Now the state is requiring a new name for Patrick Henry Community College — which serves the counties of Patrick and Henry — to avoid honoring the slave-owning Founding Father.
It adds up, Williams said, to a feeling of being under attack.
“If you talk to these folks who live in Richmond and D.C., if you kind of say, ‘Stop picking on us, we’re happy to be where we are,’ they’ll basically chastise us and say, ‘Well, why? You should move,’ ” he said. “Well, we like this area.”
Williams casts himself as fighting back. As an initial volley, he pledged that the first bill he’ll introduce if he wins in November will be to prohibit the state from mandating the teaching of either “critical race theory” or the New York Times’s 1619 Project about American racial history.
Never mind that state education officials say there is no such mandate, nor any plan to issue one; parents groups in Williams’s district have been up in arms about the prospect, fanned by reports of parents in Loudoun County and elsewhere confronting their school systems about it.
That bothers Craighead, who said Williams’s rhetoric sounds nothing like standing up for the needs of the community.
“Let’s talk about real stuff instead of stuff constantly dividing us,” Craighead said. “For [critical race theory] to be his first priority — I feel like that is just another form of suppression of another race . . . I’ll just say it — it’s another form of White supremacy.”
Asked about that comment, Williams responded in writing that “parents from Franklin county to Chesterfield county and up to [Loudoun] county would disagree with Ms. Craighead’s unfounded accusation of white supremacy.”
'A movement going on here'
Williams sees family wherever he looks in his hometown, an old railroad hub with 1,400 residents that was renamed for Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, born nearby. Williams’s great-grandfather built a row of storefronts at one end of Main Street and once owned a grocery store in the building that Williams renovated for his law offices.
“In elementary school, I was related to seven teachers,” he said, which meant his parents would know immediately if he ever got in trouble.
Family drew him back to town after college, law school and an MBA. And family members have been the top funders of his campaign so far, apart from money he has loaned himself. Of the more than $217,000 he raised before the primary, at least $38,000 came from relatives; he and his law firm contributed nearly $6,500; and Williams loaned himself $130,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
His grandfather founded a successful wood flooring manufacturer that employs 150 people at its main location just outside town, a facility five football fields long. At 84, Buddy Williams still works long hours every day and sees his grandson as perfectly positioned to restore a political system that he sees as failing.
“People in Virginia are so fed up with the same hogwash that’s going on,” Buddy Williams said, listing abortion, illegal immigration and people “forgetting God all the time” as major problems.
His grandson, he said, “has got a movement going on here.”
Wren Williams has shaken up the local political scene in just the past three years. With the confidence he gained as an Eagle Scout who served as class president from eighth grade through high school, Williams took over a local Republican committee that the state party had declared defunct because there were so few Democrats to organize against.
He used techniques he picked up at the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership to recruit and manage slates of conservative candidates who won majorities on both the county board of supervisors and the school board.
“They would not have won without Wren,” said Goad, the town council member. He said Richmond is the next logical step for Williams, and faulted Poindexter for not standing up to demand that something be done about the possibility of fraud in Trump’s election results — though there has never been a serious suggestion Biden’s 10-point margin in Virginia was questionable.
Poindexter could not be reached for comment. He told the Martinsville Bulletin before the primary that he favored strengthening voter ID requirements and ensuring the accuracy of voter rolls, and suggested Williams might have run against him “to advance his political career with the party.”
Williams said he has seen evidence that improper votes were cast in Wisconsin, though the state’s courts dismissed several lawsuits alleging that. And he said he believes there are enough questions in other states to suggest that Trump should have won overall.
After spending two months working on Wisconsin, Williams was eager to spread the word back home about his suspicions. Since then, though, he has worked to register people to vote and encountered resistance from those who say the voter fraud claims have made them fear that their votes won’t be counted.
“I’m like, no, I need you,” he said. “It’s really disheartening.”
'We want him in Washington'
Despite his support for the former president, Williams is not a Trump wannabe. He comes across as mature for his years, bookish behind wire-rimmed glasses and with the cheerful demeanor of a country lawyer. He condemned the violence that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, though he draws a distinction between the people who went earlier in the day to hear Trump speak and those who broke into the halls of Congress.
He does not blame Trump for inciting the violence, which he attributes to “a lot of foolish people [who] did a lot of bad things.”
Craighead, by contrast, is a newcomer to politics, a hair salon owner who said she felt compelled to run after last year’s social justice protests. “I’m running to improve the quality of life for all Virginians,” she said, listing renewable energy, good jobs and access to housing and health care as priorities.
She lives in a more affluent and diverse end of the district, near Roanoke and Smith Mountain Lake, and said she is not hearing people complain about election fraud or critical race theory. She questioned why Williams would cite those as priorities.
“I just feel he’s using these for his own agenda,” she said. “I don’t feel this is a real problem that our constituents face here in Virginia.”
Craighead and Williams have not met; with summer campaign season looming, Craighead has yet to venture down to Williams’s end of the district, about an hour away.
Williams said he doesn’t think she’ll find a receptive audience here.
“This area is a very conservative area, and most of the ideology that she is bringing to the forefront, we just don’t really align, it doesn’t match this community,” he said. With her “progressive values,” he said, “she does not fit this community.”
Walking down Main Street earlier this week, Williams stopped to talk with William Hughes, 71, who moved here from Florida to be closer to family. Hughes leaned in to Williams’s ear, whispered something, then pulled back and said, “I’m here to help but that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Hughes declined to reveal the election strategy he’d been confiding to Williams, but said he was confident in the young candidate. “He has a very strong base here,” Hughes said. He’ll get to Richmond, he predicted, “and being his age, he’ll be able to get in, establish himself and make a difference.”
He smiled. “Once he does that, we don’t want him in Richmond. We want him in Washington.”