Republican divisions in Virginia House district animate Democrats’ hope for an upset

By Meagan Flynn,

John McDonnell The Washington Post

Republican Bob Good campaigns with Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), background left, in Madison, Va., on Oct. 22. Good is in an unexpectedly tight House race against Democrat Cameron Webb.

MADISON, Va. — The bright red MAGA caps came off for the pledge and prayer, and back on as Republican Bob Good took the stage, facing a maskless group of two dozen and a man waving a banner of President Trump atop a military tank. On the outskirts stood two women in their 80s, wearing masks and holding signs supporting Democrat Cameron Webb.

“My opponent’s marched with, knelt with the radical Black Lives Matter movement,” Good said, the speakers echoing so loudly it seemed all of Main Street could hear. “My opponent is calling for defunding the police and wants to take away our rights to defend ourselves.”

In a district Trump won by 11 points in 2016, Good should be comfortably ahead of Webb, as he tethers himself to the president’s “America First” agenda and mirrors his rhetoric. And yet political observers on both sides of the aisle believe Webb — a lawyer and physician who would be the first Black doctor in Congress — has a reasonable chance to flip the seat.

Good ousted Rep. Denver Riggleman (R) in a convention this summer after attacking him as not conservative enough — splitting the 5th District GOP into factions that have not reconciled. Webb is wooing Riggleman supporters with messages of bipartisanship and unity, pledging to use his background and professional training to address the coronavirus pandemic and criminal justice disparities.

Since Good’s nomination, analysts have shifted their 5th District ratings from “likely Republican” to a “toss-up,” scrambling the focus of GOP leaders, who had prioritized trying to win back two of the House seats that Democrats captured in 2018.

Democrats have significant fundraising advantages in all three races, and analysts recently labeled the contests between first-term Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria and their Republican challengers as “lean Democratic.” A Washington Post-Schar School poll found the races are close, with 50 percent of voters favoring Democrats and 45 percent favoring Republicans, while Joe Biden leads Trump by 11 points statewide.

But the Democratic candidates — especially Webb — shouldn’t get too confident, said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy. When it comes down to it, all three House districts are historically Republican, with plenty of Trump signs lining the state highways. And none more so than the sprawling 5th District, which stretches from rural Southside Virginia and the North Carolina border all the way up to Warrenton. While Riggleman’s allies have largely opted out of the race, Good is getting help from hard line conservatives in Congress, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

“The skeletons of that district are fundamentally Republican,” Kidd said. “And if the Republicans turn out and the energy is there . . . it could be the brass ring that’s just out of reach for Democrats.”

[Torched Trump signs, raised middle fingers: Why people can’t wait for the election to end]

John McDonnell

The Washington Post

Trenton Green, 5, talks with Democrat Cameron Webb at an event in New Canton, Va., on Oct. 27.

‘Everybody’s saying it can’t be done’

Webb says he knew it was a long shot when he decided to launch his campaign for Congress last year.

“Everybody’s saying it can’t be done, for a Democrat to win the 5th Congressional District,” he told a socially distanced crowd at a church in New Canton on Tuesday. “They’re saying, ‘Sure you’re a doctor, but what’s that really worth to us in politics?’ And then we face a global health crisis.”

The differences between the two candidates on this issue could not be starker. Good is a face-mask skeptic who said he would have voted against the Cares Act relief package in March, believing it incentivized unemployment and was not properly tailored to needs.

Webb is a University of Virginia health-equity professor who spends time every other week treating covid-19 patients on the overnight shift at the hospital.

He describes his work as “being a physician at the intersection of health and social justice,” attuned to how issues of food insecurity, housing instability and racial disparities can negatively affect health outcomes.

Webb supports a public health-insurance option and points to his experience as a White House health policy fellow under both the Obama and Trump administrations as evidence he’ll work with anyone.

At his outdoor rally, where everyone wore masks, Webb said his background is “called for in such a time as this” — and voters seem to have noticed.

“He’s reasonable, incredibly knowledgeable, civil and just what we need right now,” said Gail Hobbs-Page, 60, who voted in nearby Albemarle County on Tuesday.

Juanita Wilson, 66, said Webb’s “overall tone of integrity” in a time of hyper-partisanship and extreme negativity has been the most attractive.

At his campaign event, Webb did not criticize Republicans, including his opponent, until a man asked him to respond to Good’s ads that incorrectly say Webb supports defunding the police.

“He thinks if he can convince enough people that this doctor who cares passionately about public health and safety, whose father was in law enforcement, hates cops — if he can make people believe that lie — then he thinks he has a chance to win this race,” Webb said.

[In a red House district, a Democrat tries to siphon votes from a conservative with a ‘biblical world view’]

A Republican divide

John McDonnell

The Washington Post

Good talks with supporters at a rally in Madison, Va.

The biggest rift in the 5th District has stemmed less from Good’s differences with Webb than his attacks on other Republicans — namely libertarian-leaning conservatives like Denver Riggleman.

Good seized on Riggleman’s decision to officiate at the same-sex marriage of two of his campaign staffers as an opportunity to paint the congressman as out of touch with the district’s values.

He slammed Riggleman for serving on the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which he called an “extreme environmental group dominated by Democrats”; for voting to condemn the Trump administration’s lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act; and for supporting an increase in foreign guest worker visas.

Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report, said Good has “done nothing” to try to extend his appeal to centrists, independents or the Riggleman camp, leaving an opening for Webb, who stopped by Riggleman’s distillery in Afton, Va., the other day to thank the congressman for using his equipment to manufacture hand sanitizer.

Riggleman, who declined to say which House candidate he was backing, has not lifted a finger to help Good. He’s spent time in recent weeks denouncing Trump’s promotion of baseless QAnon conspiracy theories and openly flirting with the possibility of backing Biden.

“There aren’t very many races where Republicans have a civil war, but in this case, Good is a polarizing figure to plenty of Republicans,” Wasserman said.

[Riggleman blasts Trump retweet of QAnon theory on bin Laden’s death]

John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and chairman of Trump’s Virginia convention delegation, said Riggleman needed to “get over” the convention loss. “Bob Good is at risk,” Fredericks said. “Why don’t you get on the phone and raise money for Bob so he can do a mailer?”

Wasserman predicted that the 7th and 2nd District races will largely track with national atmospherics, meaning Republicans Nick Freitas, a state delegate, and Scott Taylor, a former congressman, will probably have trouble overcoming Trump’s unpopularity in the suburban areas of Richmond and Virginia Beach. But the 5th is different, Wasserman said, in that it is “much more candidate-quality driven.”

Some Republican voters turned off by Good could either sit out the race or cross over to Webb, Wasserman and other analysts said. That means a Trump victory in the district may not equate to a Good victory.

Rich Anderson, chair of the Virginia GOP, said the division is “undeniable” — but said it is not insurmountable.

“I still feel like the district is conservative to a sufficient degree, and Bob Good is energetic to a great degree, that I believe he will carry the day in the end,” Anderson said.

One voter in Albemarle County on Tuesday had met Good at the rally in Madison days earlier, when Scalise came to stump for him. Tom Joyce, 55, said he especially appreciated Good’s enthusiastic support for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and for Trump’s policies on “energy independence.”

“That gives us strength across the whole world, so we don’t have to rely on anyone else,” Joyce said. “The fracking and the oil industries, we definitely want to wean off of them, but not at the rate they’re talking about. Wind and solar is not where it needs to be right now, so I believe [Good] will support the president on those issues.”

But Good has had trouble with some younger conservatives. The University of Virginia College Republicans, for example, went all out for Riggleman, but diverted their resources this fall to help defeat Spanberger.

John McDonnell

The Washington Post

Webb speaks to supporters in New Canton, Va.

Uphill battles

Chris Tomlin, president of the campus group, said he hoped to mount an aggressive enough door-knocking and phone-banking campaign to give Freitas an edge.

Other Republicans are a little nervous about the 7th, given the strong blue tide in the western Richmond suburbs that is expected to significantly boost Spanberger — and the congresswoman’s success in positioning herself as a get-things-done centrist over the past two years.

“She is probably the best Democratic candidate that won in a Trump district” in 2018, said Fredericks, the radio host. “She’s a very smart candidate, very capable, very likable.”

He also said Trump is not as strong in Spanberger’s district as he is in the 5th or the 2nd, where Fredericks believes Taylor can wrest back the seat Luria took from him two years ago.

Luria has a slight lead districtwide, but Kidd said that race, like the others, remains very competitive, especially as a CNU poll shows the candidates in a dead heat in Virginia Beach.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC, had been helping Taylor, but drastically shifted its resources to Good in mid-October, according to figures from the Virginia Public Access Project.

That’s money the group wouldn’t normally have to spend in the 5th District — but doing so this year could make the difference.

“I would say these elections are going to be closer than perhaps the narrative has suggested,” Kidd said. “I do think there’s a slight Democratic advantage [in the tight Virginia races]. But this is not going to be a walk in the park for them.”

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