Four candidates are competing in two races in the New River Valley for seats in the House of Delegates.
Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, is facing Republican Forrest Hite, and Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg, is challenged by Democrat Rhonda Seltz. The election is Nov. 5.
12th House District
For Hurst, this election took on a similar theme to two years ago when he upset an incumbent Republican in one of the state’s most contentious and expensive races.
It’s all about “New River values.” Republican challenger Hite says he’ll bring those back to Richmond.
Those values are undefined, but Hurst said it seems like the Republicans he runs against try to make them about guns and abortion.
“He has taken some pretty extremist positions,” Hite said.
Hite criticized Hurst for standing alongside Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who Hite said has “extreme views,” especially on guns. Hurst, 32, said joining O’Rourke at his rally at Virginia Tech is not an endorsement, and he encourages any presidential candidate to visit Virginia and build excitement for the November elections.
Hite, 25, also took a swipe at Hurst for standing behind Gov. Ralph Northam at a news conference earlier this year during which Northam defended awkwardly phrased remarks about abortion. Northam appeared to be talking about end-of-life care for a newborn baby that is “not viable,” but opponents used his comments to claim he supported infanticide.
“Because he’s a child neurologist and I could see how pained he was at the insinuation, that’s why I stood with him,” Hurst said. He said it’s offensive anyone would suggest politicians are in support of killing babies after they’ve been born.
Hite said Hurst “applauded” controversial legislation from Democrats that would have loosened restrictions on third-trimester abortions, but Hurst didn’t sign onto that bill.
Hurst said he would work to “roll back those regulations that I think are harmful to women.” Hurst cited the state’s law requiring women to have an ultrasound at least 24 hours before obtaining an abortion as an example of a policy intended to reduce women’s “autonomy over their own bodies.”
Hurst said that it has not been lost on him that Hite often mentions his wife or uses his wife in campaign materials. Hurst, who is not married and doesn’t have children, believes the implication is that he doesn’t understand and fight for families and the needs of children.
“I would have loved to have a family by now, but that’s not the way my life turned out,” Hurst said. “But for anybody to think I don’t want every single family in this valley to be happy, healthy, a little bit richer and close by, they’re kidding themselves. That’s my primary goal.”
Hurst left his news anchor position at WDBJ (Channel 7) to run for office following the 2015 on-air shooting deaths of his girlfriend Alison Parker and friend Adam Ward, both journalists at the TV station.
The 12th District, which includes Virginia Tech and Radford University, has been trending bluer in recent years. The district consists of Radford, Giles County and parts of Montgomery and Pulaski counties.
Hite’s campaign has noted that an analysis from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project shows the district is the most Republican-leaning district held by a Democrat.
Still, Republicans haven’t poured much money into the race to try and win it back. The GOP has set its sights on other seats it lost in 2017 as part of a blue wave in Virginia that led to Democrats flipping 15 Republican districts in the House of Delegates.
Hurst raised $592,651 this year through the end of September and had $225,560 in the bank, according to campaign finance reports aggregated by VPAP. Hite raised $38,265 during that same time period and had $24,621 on hand.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Hite said. “But my strategy is to outwork him.”
Hite was born in Alabama, but he’s lived in various states while his father served in the Air Force. He settled nine years ago in Radford, where he lives with his wife.
He’s a data resource administrator for HeartCry Missionary Society, a nonprofit that describes its goal as facilitating the advancement of indigenous missionaries around the world.
He said he’d like to work on mental health issues, particularly trying to alleviate the involvement of law enforcement dealing with people in crisis. He wants to find ways to continue to increase the pay of public school teachers so rural districts are competitive and attract quality educators.
“Education is a top priority for me,” Hite said.
Hurst has been one of the most productive freshman legislators in the House in terms of bills being signed into law. He’s had 15 signed.
He has worked to delay the construction of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline to ensure the project adheres to safety and environmental regulations and has pushed for property rights protections.
Hite said he’s also opposed to the pipeline, primarily because of the company’s use of eminent domain to seize property.
Hurst played an active role working with the Northam administration and colleagues across the aisle to pass a transportation package to fund improvements for Interstate 81. Hite said he was concerned that the plan included raising the fuel tax in localities near I-81 that don’t have the highway passing through it.
Hurst got a law passed that will flip Virginia’s remaining “dry” localities to “wet.” He said the law will help businesses that want to sell liquor by the drink avoid the tedious process of getting permission from the legislature to do so, and it’ll contribute to economic growth.
A police chief in Giles County asked him to help solve a problem where people were using a tax loophole to register new cars even though they hadn’t paid their delinquent property taxes. This hurt cash-strapped small towns, Hurst said.
“It’s the kind of thing where we didn’t set the world on fire, but a lot of treasurers and commissioners of the revenue came up to me from all over Virginia and thanked me for identifying and closing it,” Hurst said. “These small things can make a big difference.”
Hurst said when it comes to “New River values,” he doesn’t try to contain that phrase to the polarizing issues, although he won’t shy away from talking about them.
“It’s where the government can make targeted investments and play an actual role in helping every family be a little more successful or making their lives a little bit easier,” he said.
7th House District
Even though Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act is now underway in Virginia, Rush’s years of opposition to it produced a challenger with years of experience trying to help people get health care services access.
Seltz, 57, is a Medicaid enrollment worker with the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, and she’s focused on improving health care services.
“My big mantra is, whether you live or die shouldn’t be based on how much money you have,” Seltz said.
Rush, 51, joined the House of Delegates in 2012, and serves as the majority whip.
He said he’s been seeing encouraging economic results in the district in recent years, which he attributes to good policy.
“I’ve really focused my efforts on economic development and creating an ecosystem that works for rural and Southwest Virginia,” Rush said.
The 7th District includes Floyd County and part of Montgomery and Pulaski counties. It’s a firmly Republican district.
For the past few years, Seltz watched in frustration as Rush opposed Medicaid expansion. Seltz didn’t have health insurance for a long time up until this year. A relative without health insurance struggled to access treatment for alcoholism and died recently, she said.
Rush “had an opportunity to really do something for the people in this community, but he chose party over people,” Seltz said.
Rush said he stands by his opposition to Medicaid expansion due to its cost, which he worries will put a pinch on other needs in the state budget.
Seltz wants to take the Affordable Care Act even further. She wants Virginia to transition to a state-run exchange. A few other states, such as California and Massachusetts, run their own marketplace, giving them the added flexibility that comes with that control to design standardized health plans with reduced cost-sharing and high-value services.
“If other states can make this happen, Virginia can make this happen,” she said.
Seltz, 57, lives in Riner and also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Radford University’s School of Social Work. She has an adult son.
After Seltz graduated from Pulaski County High School, she lived in Washington state before returning to the New River Valley two decades ago.
Rush raised $177,450 this year through the end of September and had $80,204 on hand, according to VPAP. Seltz received $16,747 during that same time period and had $12,007 in the bank.
Rush lives in Christiansburg with his wife and daughter. He has two adult sons. He’s an investment adviser with Krupin Partners and was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. He left active duty as a non-commissioned officer in 1989. His first elected office was as a member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors.
Today, in addition to serving as the majority whip in the House, Rush is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
“I didn’t want to be whip for myself,” Rush said. “I wanted to make sure rural Virginia was in the room when decisions were being made, and I think certain things that benefited rural and Southwest Virginia maybe were helped by my position.”
These decisions include setting up a “10-10-10” formula to provide additional state aid to school divisions with less than 10,000 students that lost enrollment by 10 percent or more during the previous 10 years. The formula helps divisions dealing with chronic declines in enrollment and per-pupil state funding.
Rush celebrated Volvo’s plan to invest $400 million to expand its Dublin factory over the next six years, adding more than 700 jobs.
He’s been pleased to see the New River and Roanoke valleys clicking on job creation and other efforts. For instance, he helped shepherd through legislation for Radford University and Carilion Clinic’s Jefferson College of Health Sciences to merge as part of a strategy to address shortages in health fields.
“I always say this, I was a U.S. Army paratrooper, so I’m very mission-oriented,” Rush said. “I wake up with one mission on my mind every morning, and that’s to make the New River Valley the best place to live, work, raise a family and retire. And I think we’re on our way.”