ABINGDON — Of the six General Assembly seats in far Southwest Virginia, only one Democrat is challenging a Republican in the deep red region.
Far Southwest Virginia was once firmly Democratic soil, but one by one, Democratic politicians saw their support fade and give way to what is now a Republican stronghold. Since 2014, there hasn’t been a Democrat from the coalfields in the legislature. Democrat Starla Kiser is hoping to restore support for Democrats in Southwest Virginia.
Kiser, a doctor, and Republican Will Wampler, an attorney whose father was a state senator and grandfather a congressman, are seeking to succeed Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, in the House of Delegates.
Political figures in the area attribute the political shift to changing priorities in the region that identifies itself through its association with coal and by the Republican Party’s magnetic pull with rural voters.
Kiser, 35, realizes a Democrat — even a more moderate one — staging a comeback will face a steep uphill battle. Two Republican parents raised Kiser on a farm in Dickenson County. She’s voted for Republicans before, she says.
“I don’t look down on Republican voters,” Kiser said. “Around here, it’s about working people who want to be respected and heard.”
Jack Kennedy — Wise County’s clerk of circuit court and a former Democratic member of the General Assembly — said social issues have become a main lightning rod in drawing rural voters across the country to the Republican Party. He said the region isn’t receptive to progressive or more liberal Democrats.
“This region responds well to populism and having that personal touch,” said Kennedy, who unsuccessfully ran against Wampler’s father for the state Senate in 1991.
Fred Parker, who has been treasurer of Washington County for nearly three decades, said there are plenty of conservative Democrats in Southwest Virginia who favor both gun rights and restrictions on abortion.
“People think you can’t be a conservative and a Democrat,” Parker said. “Political rhetoric has made it hard to get that through to people.”
Kiser supports gun rights and the coal industry. She’d like to see strengthened unions and improved access to job training. In an area where people struggle to get access to quality health care, she’s been vocal with her concerns about Ballad Health taking over ownership of three coalfields hospitals.
“There is a lot more that unites people out here than divides us, so I want to focus on issues that can best move the needle forward,” she said.
Wampler, 28, is a conservative Republican who returned to Southwest Virginia after going to school and working elsewhere in the state. His focus is on building a future economy that will attract residents.
“People are leaving because of a lack of opportunities, a lack of good-paying jobs,” Wampler said.
This November — when all 140 seats of the House of Delegates and Senate are on the ballot — is the last election cycle before Virginia redraws its state and congressional election districts based on new 2020 census population data. For far Southwest Virginia, where the population has been declining for years as other parts of the state gain residents, this likely means losing representation in Richmond to expanding urban or suburban areas.
The region’s two Senate seats also are likely to be reshaped during redistricting. For one of the seats, Pillion is opposed by independent Ken Heath, the town of Marion’s director of community and economic development. The other, Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell is running for reelection against independent George McCall, a Tazewell County banking executive.
“We need this area to be well represented in Richmond,” Wampler said.