Year of Fear, Chapter 27: In rural Virginia, a tale of two Congressional districts

August 25, 2020

Virginia is an irregularly shaped state spanning both sides of the Chesapeake Bay and sliced into segments by rivers and mountains. One of the original thirteen colonies, Virginia once claimed land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Kentucky was sliced off in 1792 and West Virginia in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, a war that produced wounds that are still not healed.

Because of geography, rapid population growth along the Interstate 95 and 64 corridors, and a good bit of gerrymandering, the state’s eleven Congressional Districts have developed unusual shapes over the years. The 1st and 7th Congressional Districts—where I have lived, worked on newspapers, and voted since 1987—run roughly north and south and parallel one another. And they make pretty good specimens if you are trying to get a sense of what’s going on at ground level in this strange and monumental election season.

Not that figuring what’s going on is easy. For one thing, so much is different this time around. Gone, thanks to COVID-19, are opportunities for candidates to meet tens of thousands of voters at the Hanover Tomato Festival and The State Fair of Virginia in Caroline County. Gone, too, are many smaller county fairs, as well as the food, beverage, and music festivals. COVID-19 is not the only difference this time around. There is also the rapidly changing face of the media, which dictates different strategies for the candidates and tosses into elections an element of the unknown.

Although they have a lot in common, the 1st and the 7th districts also have exhibited some differences over the years.

1st District

Virginia’s 1st District, sometimes billed as “America’s First” because it included Jamestown for more than a century, includes Caroline and Hanover Counties, where I wrote for two weekly newspapers until their demise in 2018. It has sent Republicans to Congress since 1977, usually by comfortable margins. This is still rural, small-town Virginia, although proximity to rapidly growing metropolitan areas has brought suburbs and demographic changes. 

This year’s 1st District race pits a longshot Democratic nominee, Qasim Rashid, against Rob Wittman, the Republican who has represented the district since 2007. 

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Wittman, who is sixty-one, was first elected in 2007 in a special election after the incumbent died. He was re-elected in 2008 and every two years since. Wittman worked for twenty years with the Virginia Department of Health as an environmental health specialist and later for the Division of Shellfish Sanitation. Regarded as somewhat moderate compared to current Republicans, Wittman commutes to Washington DC from his home in Montross, near George Washington’s birthplace, experiencing the same highway gridlock as many of his constituents. He has been a champion of the local seafood industry, is strong on veterans’ affairs, and is pushing for greater broadband access in rural communities, which is in tune with many of the voters in his district.

Qasim Rashid, who is thirty-eight, of Garrisonville, was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a JD from the University of Richmond School of Law. He has worked as a human rights lawyer and has written several books, including The Wrong Kind of Muslim, which Kirkus Reviews called “a heartfelt memoir of Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination and oppression” in his native Pakistan. Rashid won the Democratic nomination for Congress in the June 23 Primary, narrowly defeating Vangie Williams, who was the Democratic nominee in 2018 and gave Wittman his strongest challenge to date.

7th District

Virginia’s 7th District was also considered a GOP sure bet for decades. It is less rural and arguably more cosmopolitan than the 1st. It sent Republicans to Congress from 1971 to 2016. Yet in 2020 it is regarded as one of the nation’s key battleground districts. 

First-term Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, who is forty-one, of Glen Allen, a Democrat, seeks reelection. A former teacher and former CIA officer, Spanberger flipped this once-Republican stronghold in 2018, defeating the two-term Republican incumbent, Dave Brat, by fewer than 6,800 votes. But this didn’t all happen all at once. Attitudes within the district and the geography of the district itself had changed. 

Republican Eric Cantor had been elected to Congress in the 7th District in 2000 and rapidly climbed up the ladder. He was chosen to be the House minority whip in 2009 and then moved up to House majority leader in 2011. For years, Cantor easily bested the sacrificial lambs that the Democrats put up in his district. Then it all imploded when he lost his own party’s nomination in the 2014 primary, becoming the first sitting House majority leader in history to lose his congressional seat.  

Cantor lost to a political neophyte—Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Hanover County, and a darling of the Tea Party and several conservative radio talk show hosts, who portrayed Cantor as someone who spent too much time in the Nation’s Capital and too little time tending to the concerns of his constituents.

In a 2016 Washington Post interview, Cantor said, “It turned into an anyone-but-Cantor vote. But it was also a little bit of canary in the coal mine.” Cantor did not elaborate on what message the dead canary was sending, but after his defeat in the primary, Cantor resigned his seat and Brat was elected to finish his term, and won reelection in 2014 and again in 2016.

That year, Donald Trump won the 7th District with fifty-one percent to Hillary Clinton’s forty-four percent. But in 2018, the 7th District again confounded the pundits when another political newcomer, Spanberger, won with fifty percent of the vote to Brat’s forty-eight. 

Voter dissatisfaction with Brat and two years of Trump played a role in this, but so did redistricting. In 2014, a panel of federal judges had ruled that Virginia’s congressional map violated the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution by packing Black voters into the 3rd Congressional District. The court-ordered redistricting moved Hanover County, which is 86.7 percent white and solidly Republican, from the 7th to the already conservative 1st district. This affected the 2016 and 2018 Congressional elections in both districts. Spanberger began her well-financed campaign for reelection in 2020 launching local television ads long before she even knew who she was running against. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic played a role in the selection of Spanberger’s opponent. A much-delayed Republican nominating convention finally took place on July 18, where a state legislator, Nick Freitas, who is forty-one, of Culpeper, defeated five other candidates. Freitas, born in California, is a former Army Green Beret with two tours in Iraq. He was first elected to the state House of Delegates in 2015, winning re-election twice. In 2018 he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination to challenge US Senator Tim Kaine. His campaign started running TV ads in the district on August 12 that emphasize his family’s dedication to service, starting with his father, a police officer, and his mother, a nurse, and on his own decision to enlist in the Army just out of high school, three months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Campaigning in a Pandemic

One certainty is that these two races—Wittman vs. Rashid in the 1st District, Spanberger vs. Freitas in the 7th—will be vastly different from past campaigns. The ongoing pandemic and uncertainties about mail-in ballots are factors, as is the rapidly changing nature of media. 

Just a decade ago, local media was much healthier than it is now, said Dr. Stephen J. Farnsworth, Director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg.  And that has an effect on politics. 

“Medium sized papers were able to invest the resources necessary to cover at least some statewide matters themselves,” Farnsworth said, “and even local weeklies would have some stories about the world beyond one’s home communities. With all the cutbacks required in the financially challenged environment of local news, there is much less attention to regional or statewide politics, and that makes it very hard for challengers, and even incumbents, to receive much attention.” But incumbents are better known, so “they benefit from an environment where politics generates less media attention.”

One result: candidates do more on the web, “and hope that a significant number of voters notice their efforts,” Farnsworth said. COVID-19 has accelerated that trend. “Candidates really have to be online almost exclusively during the pandemic,” Farnsworth said. 

That, in turn, surfaces a challenge: “The biggest problem with social media is misinformation,” Farnsworth said. “Individual politicians and/or their partisan supporters have decided that deceit really pays off in politics. So there is a lot of false information out there. There has always been a misinformation problem in political discourse, but social media outlets allow lies to move faster, and to be distributed more widely, than ever before.”

To help understand how things have changed from as little as four years ago, particularly in the 1st District, I also went to Matt Rowe, the 1st District Democratic Chairman. In 2016, Rowe, then thirty-five, was the Democrats’ nominee for Congress in the 1st District. This was also the first congressional election under a court-ordered redistricting, under which the 7th became more competitive and the 1st even more Republican. “The political makeup definitely changed,” Rowe said. 

On top of that, it was a presidential year, so voter turnout was higher than in off-years. He lost decisively. “I’ll be honest; it was going to be very uphill to begin with. I did not know how the Trump factor would affect the election,” Rowe said in reference to a strong showing by the Trump-Pence ticket in rural Virginia. “It’s not unfair. You play the hand you are dealt.”

But “in 2020 it is completely different,” Rowe said. “Social media and Zoom can be used to provide content that will stand out. Rashid ran for state senate last year. Often you get folks that come in––they don’t have name recognition. Qasim has a quarter million followers on Twitter. He is a perfect candidate in some ways.”

Rowe added, “One of drawbacks, though, is if you are good at speaking to a crowd, and there are no crowds. It’s hard to imagine how this could be any more different from 2016.”

Qasim Rashid has a young, but seasoned, campaign manager, Ayodele Okeowo, who is working hard to confront the challenges of 2020. Okeowo said this is his fifth political campaign and his fourth as campaign manager. He was the Southeast US director of the recent presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg. (All four candidates for Congress from the 1st and 7th Districts were contacted for this article. Not all responded.)

“The objective of any campaign is to get to the voters and it is extremely difficult now to get before the voters and express ourselves. Digital and virtual communications offer opportunities, he said, but even that is difficult in areas where broadband access is limited, as it is in rural Virginia,” Okeowo said.

“It’s trial and error. Without major events to go to, it is difficult to get our message across. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution.”Okeowo said a series of debates is planned between Rashid and the Republican incumbent, Wittman. Small gatherings of nine or ten people are also in the works.

The first of those encounters took place on August 20 at a Criminal Justice Forum and Debate, at the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Spotsylvania County. Appearing before an audience that was mainly law officers or retired officers, both candidates said they do not support “defunding” the police. Their approaches to preventing police brutality and overreach were quite different, however. Rashid said he supported national standards. Wittman argued for state and local control. 

In the 7th District, Deborah Caprio, of Spotsylvania County, was a grassroots volunteer on Spanberger’s campaign in 2018 and has been involved in the early stages this year, though she misses the person-to-person contact. “We used to get training and meet at a campaign office two or three days a week,” Caprio said. “There is no campaign office now.”

In an August 16 email to volunteers, Spanberger acknowledged the changes: “I know what you’re thinking: not another Zoom. Believe me, I understand. Everything we do these days is virtual: committee meetings, caucus calls, town halls, meet and greets, phone banking—you name it, we’re executing it online! Both my Congressional office and our campaign team are adapting to this challenging climate in every way we can.”

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Greg Glassner is a Caroline County resident with more than forty years of experience in the newspaper business, the majority of it as editor of community weeklies in Virginia. He was editor of the Herald-Progress in Ashland for eight years, retiring in 2012. He also served as interim editor of the Caroline Progress in Bowling Green for six months in 2015, and wrote a weekly column and feature stories for both papers until they ceased publication in March 2018. A US Army veteran who saw service in Southeast Asia, Glassner is the author of five books, including biographies of US Attorney General William Wirt and Virginia Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith.