ROCKINGHAM COUNTY — The house sat along the side of a long, narrow gravel road in a wooded area. Houses like these in Rockingham County are sometimes hard to find, but Brent Finnegan, a Democrat running for Virginia’s House of Delegates, makes the extra effort to talk to these potential voters.
“Folks out here, they may not have heard from candidates in years because no one has bothered to make the effort to come talk to them,” Finnegan said.
When a man opened his front door, Finnegan told him he was running for the state House and asked what he wished to see from his representatives in the General Assembly.
“I wish people would pay more attention to the working folks, the grimier folks who are low on the totem pole,” the man said.
Finnegan, who is challenging incumbent Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, is among several Democrats in Western Virginia trying to flip a Republican seat in the General Assembly this fall. These are considered safe GOP seats, and Democrats don’t make regular bids for them.
These races haven’t garnered much statewide attention. Political and issue-based groups are pouring money into competitive races elsewhere in Virginia. With all 140 seats of the General Assembly up for election in November, Republicans are fighting to maintain their majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats need to capture just two seats in each chamber to control Virginia’s two legislative chambers and the governorship.
With resources going to other races, the Democrats in rural Western Virginia have formed their own coalition to share resources and provide support. Their goal extends beyond the Nov. 5 election. They want Democrats to win back rural voters.
“The brand of the Democratic Party has been damaged in rural areas, and that’s a hurdle when trying to talk about issues with voters,” Finnegan said.
Ten Democrats running for the General Assembly have formed Rural GroundGame, a group anchored in the Shenandoah Valley that’s dedicated to focusing issues and messaging on rural voters. What candidates and political activists found was the party’s strategy to reach voters didn’t fit rural areas.
When it comes to health care, the issue is not just quality, but how people in rural areas can access services provided by hospitals and specialists that may be hours distant. Voter outreach efforts didn’t take into consideration the need to drive far and wide, up mountains, and along dirt roads to talk to potential voters who haven’t heard from candidates in a long time. The 2019 Democrats have the added challenge that this is an off-year election, so there are no statewide races topping the ballot to boost turnout. Every vote matters, they said.
“It’s hard to believe your vote matters, and your government cares about you, when your elected official doesn’t bother to ask what you need,” said Democrat Christian Worth, who is challenging Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, to a rematch after losing to him in a special election Dec. 18. “It’s a lot of work to drive around these spread out areas, but the payoff is that much more important.”
All of the Democratic candidates are running on their own issues and platforms. But there are overlapping topics: getting broadband coverage for everyone, attracting more jobs with pay that provides a comfortable living, developing better pathways for postsecondary education, and improving quality of and access to health care. These are issues the candidates are trying to talk to voters about, rather than getting wrapped up in highly partisan issues like gun rights and abortion.
“We’re not necessarily talking about different issues, but it’s about the nuance of how to deliver solutions,” said Jennifer Woofter, a Democrat challenging Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford. “We want comprehensive solutions that are responsive to rural communities.”
The Democratic candidates are running scrappy campaigns. So because they’re unlikely to rake in big donations, they’re relying on small ones.
Rural GroundGame is helping with that by using ActBlue, an online fundraising platform that allows people to donate an amount that is then evenly divided among the candidates.
Wilt raised $119,000 the first six months of this year— six times as much as Finnegan, according to finance reports. Finnegan has reported 736 donations of less than $100, which is about six times as many small donations than Wilt has reported. Worth has raised twice as much as Campbell during that same time frame. She also reported 362 small donations compared to Campell’s 30.
Not all the rural Democratic candidates are involved in the Rural GroundGame. In far Southwest Virginia, Starla Kiser is the only Democrat challenging a Republican. She and Republican Will Wampler — whose father was a state senator and grandfather a congressman — are competing for the seat that opened after Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, launched a run for state Senate. Kiser is running as a more centrist Democrat in the deeply red district. She’s trying to focus on issues like helping the working class rather than divisive topics.
“The Democratic Party is a large umbrella, and a Southwest Virginia Democrat is different than a New York or Northern Virginia Democrat,” Kiser said.
Even though most of these seats are Republican strongholds, that doesn’t mean Republicans are taking it easy, said Jennifer Brown, the chairwoman of the 6th Congressional District Republican Committee.
In addition to fending off local Democratic challengers, political activists who live in areas where the Republican candidate occupies a solid red seat, or doesn’t have a challenger, have been volunteering for other more competitive races.
“We can no longer sit back and rely on our red districts,” she said. “Our red districts are being attacked.”
There is also the larger issue of the legislature’s balance of power at stake. In fundraising emails and at political events, Republican candidates warn about Democrats loosening restrictions on abortion, passing a Green New Deal and repealing Virginia’s right-to-work law that allows employees at unionized workplaces to decline to pay dues or fees to the unions that bargain for them.
“If we lose the majority, we’ll lose the rights and freedoms we worked to accomplish,” Brown said.