BLAND — When Tommy Dunn got the call earlier this week that Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke wanted to meet voters at his diner and convenience store, he had to check his hearing.
“Beto O’Rourke wants to come here, to Bland County?” Dunn asked in disbelief.
Bland County voted more strongly for President Donald Trump in 2016 — 82.3% — than any other locality in Virginia. On Friday, about two dozen people crowded into the small diner in the back of the convenience store — past displayed Trump 2020 T-shirts and hats — and waited for O’Rourke to arrive.
“It’s nice to be in a room with a bunch of Democrats,” Bland resident Larry Newberry told everyone.
“Especially in Bland,” Donna Muhly said.
“This is all of us,” Randy Newberry joked.
Rather than camping out like the other candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — the states that vote earliest for a party nominee — O’Rourke went to campaign where it’s believed a presidential candidate has never gone before.
Some congressional and statewide candidates have in past years passed through Bland, an Appalachian county with a population of about 6,000 people that borders West Virginia. But in recent years, Democrats running in statewide races haven’t bothered to show up there.
“That’s why I’m here today, to make sure that we write nobody off, to take no one for granted, involve every single person in this election and this campaign and the future of this country,” O’Rourke told the group.
Virginia’s presidential primary will be March 3. O’Rourke has tossed out the presidential campaign playbook, much as he did during his narrow U.S. Senate loss to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz last year in Texas, where he visited every locality, no matter how red.
“We should not be surprised when they do not vote for us when we do not see eye to eye on given issues,” O’Rourke said. “We just literally have not listened to one another and looked each other in the eye to have the necessary conversations.”
Larry Newberry, a longtime Bland resident, asked attendees if within the past two years, they’ve donated money to help pay for a funeral or cover health care costs. He asked how many knew someone struggling to pay their rent or mortgage or bills. He wanted to know how many knew someone waiting on an organ transplant.
Many of the people raised their hands.
“Why in this vast country that we’re trying to make great in the year 2019 should any of these things be happening?” Newberry said.
In a region that suffers from crumbling schools and low teacher pay, O’Rourke highlighted the need to upgrade infrastructure and provide proper school funding. He said he would pick a secretary of education with experience in the public schools system.
A woman asked about the future of a region that has seen a rapid decline in the coal industry. Financial resources are scarce to assist places affected by the coal downturn, so O’Rourke recommended boosting the size of community development finance institutions to deploy capital for developing new businesses. He also said it’s important to transition to renewable energy quickly and fully.
O’Rourke was the first 2020 presidential candidate to visit Southwest Virginia, during his fourth time campaigning in the commonwealth.
He returned to Virginia for the first time since the Aug. 3 shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, that left 22 people dead at a Walmart. Since that tragedy summoned him home, he has returned to the campaign trail focused on trying to hold Trump accountable by criticizing the president’s incendiary language about Mexicans and people of color.
“We are as divided as we ever have been before,” O’Rourke said. “And we have a president in the White House right now who seeks to drive us further apart, make us angry at one another or afraid of one another.”
Those who attended the gathering said the United States has a proud history of being a nation of immigrants, and they worry about Trump’s rhetoric and the damage it has done. Their region needs new residents, and they’re concerned that immigrants wouldn’t find it welcoming right now.
“I don’t think they would feel safe,” Muhly said.
Southwest Virginia used to vote for Democrats. But within the past decade, during declines in the coal industry and population, rural voters there and across the nation have flocked to the GOP. The region is now the most red in Virginia and Democrats have struggled to regain a foothold.
“We’ve been jumping up and down here in Appalachia for Democrats to come and listen to us,” Newberry said. “For Beto to take the time to come and talk to us means a lot.”
O’Rourke, who also made stop at the Wine Gourmet shop in Roanoke County on Friday, will continue his swing through Virginia in Charlottesville and Northern Virginia on Saturday. He’ll attend a rally at the University of Virginia and appear with Democrats competing for General Assembly seats.
Virginia has a legislative election this year, and Democrats are pushing to take over the majority of the House of Delegates and Senate.
O’Rourke stressed the importance of Democrats taking General Assembly majorities so they can “accomplish a very ambitious agenda,” like tackling gun violence. O’Rourke has called for universal background checks, a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, a gun-licensing and registry system and limiting people to buying one gun a month.
“The road to America runs through the commonwealth of Virginia,” O’Rourke said at a Virginia Tech rally following his visit to Bland.
O’Rourke stood alongside Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, whose girlfriend Alison Parker and former colleague Adam Ward were both killed on live TV while doing a news broadcast for WDBJ (Channel 7). Hurst is on the ballot this fall, opposed by Republican Forrest Hite.
“We’re not only fighting for the White House, we’re fighting for the future of this country,” Hurst said.
Hundreds of students crowded into an auditorium while many more gathered in an overflow area. O’Rourke reiterated he is writing no one off, including college students, a large portion of whom don’t vote.
“It is the only way to bring this deeply divided, and highly polarized country together again,” he said.