Virginia showdown: What 5th District race says about 2020

Why We Wrote This

Are all politics truly local? We visited Virginia’s once reliably Republican 5th District, where national hyperpartisanship and GOP concerns over President Trump’s coattails are in play in a tight race for Congress.

Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/AP
Bob Good, Republican candidate for Virginia's 5th Congressional District, speaks during a rally at the Bedford County Courthouse in Bedford, Virginia, on Sept. 8, 2020.

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In 18 of the last 20 years, Virginia’s 5th Congressional District has elected a Republican representative. In 2016, it voted for President Donald Trump by 11 percentage points.

This year, the congressional race here is rated one of the most competitive in the country.

Bob Good, the Republican candidate, is a former county official and fundraiser at Liberty University who describes himself as a “bright-red biblical conservative.” In the primary he defeated a one-term GOP incumbent criticized for officiating at a same-sex wedding.

The Democrat, Cameron Webb, is a physician and director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. He has styled his candidacy as one of unity and healing, and often promises a return to bipartisanship.

Whether Democrats can expand their majority in the U.S. House Tuesday could well depend on races like this one, and whether Republicans vote the whole party ballot.

Says Quentin Kidd, an expert on Virginia politics at Christopher Newport University: “The idea that we’re talking about a district like the 5th as potentially shifting from ‘R’ to ‘D,’ I think gives you a sense of how widespread the reaction to Trump has penetrated.”

Like many residents of Main Street in Sperryville, Virginia, Kevin Reid prefers to let his lawn do the talking. 

Among Halloween inflatables, a “Blue Lives Matter” flag flown on his truck, and wood saws buzzing through a home renovation, Mr. Reid displays three large signs: Trump 2020, Daniel Gade for Senate, and Bob Good for Congress. 

All three are Republicans, and all three will soon receive Mr. Reid’s vote – even if as regards Mr. Good, who defeated the incumbent in the primary, Mr. Reid doesn’t know much about them. 

“I’m not going to pretend like I know everything about Bob Good,” says Mr. Reid, a contractor, lifelong conservative, and 30-year Sperryville resident. Republicans, he says, support traditional American values and unity. And to him, “it just seems like you almost can’t really vote [other than along the] party line.”

Mr. Good’s fate Tuesday may depend on other voters in this once reliably Republican district feeling the same way – in an election that paradoxically features both hyperpartisanship and GOP concerns about the strength of President Donald Trump’s coattails.

After Democrats swept to control of the U.S. House in 2018, this November’s electoral tides may bring yet another “blue wave.” Almost certain to retain their House majority, the question now is whether Democrats can further expand their margin – and areas like Sperryville may hold part of the answer. 

Cradled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rural town is part of Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, a vertical slice of state larger than New Jersey. In 18 of the past 20 years, the 5th has elected a Republican representative. In 2016, it voted for Mr. Trump by 11 percentage points.

A year later, one of the district’s largest cities, Charlottesville, was the scene of the deadly Unite the Right Rally, which saw violent clashes between white supremacist groups and counterprotesters. Mr. Trump’s reaction to the competing demonstrations and the killing of a counterprotester created a defining early controversy for his presidency, which former Vice President Joe Biden later said was key to his decision to run.

The district’s congressional race is widely considered a toss-up. FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast rates it one of the most competitive contests in the country. Mr. Good, a former Campbell County supervisor with ties to Liberty University, faces a spirited challenge from Democrat Cameron Webb, a physician and director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. 

Some of the uncertainty can be chalked up to local quirks, including the unusual ousting of the incumbent. But the awkward ballet of national and local politics is also on display here. Though the president’s coattails appear flimsy this year, Democrats may need split-ticket voting to flip the seat. But in a partisan era dominated by the race for the White House, is it possible to separate the top and bottom of the ballot?

“I’ve always loved [former House Speaker] Tip O’Neill’s adage ‘All politics is local,’” says Quentin Kidd, an expert on Virginia politics at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. “But the Trump era has challenged Tip O’Neill and his wisdom more than it’s ever been challenged.”

Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/AP
Cameron Webb, Democratic candidate for Virginia's 5th Congressional District, meets with student leaders on campus at the University of Virginia on Sept. 8, 2020.

Convention chaos

And in a catchall district like the 5th, even local politics are complicated. 

Sprawling from the North Carolina border to the Washington suburbs, the district contains multitudes – from liberal students in Charlottesville to conservative farmers in Lynchburg. While demographic change in other parts of the state have reshaped Virginia politics, much of the 5th’s electorate has remained relatively stable. Its long stretches of rural, Southside Virginia resemble the state’s dominant conservative past. 

Still, the 5th’s competitiveness is a sign of the times for Virginia Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide race in more than a decade and hold just four of the state’s 13 seats in Congress. 

It’s also a product of intraparty conflict. After receiving criticism from local Republicans for officiating at a same-sex wedding, GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman narrowly lost his party’s nomination to Mr. Good in a bitter and chaotic drive-in convention this summer. The one-term incumbent, who had been endorsed by Mr. Trump, has since chosen not to endorse or meet with Mr. Good. He hasn’t even conceded the primary.

“A lot of this race has been driven by the Republicans shooting themselves in the foot,” says Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan politics newsletter published by the University of Virginia.

Mr. Good’s nomination, says Professor Kidd, continues a long-term trend of Virginia Republicans selecting candidates to the right of the electorate. Mr. Good, a former athletics fundraiser at Liberty University and self-described “bright-red biblical conservative,” seems ordered from the same menu.

“The idea that Republicans would go back to that kind of candidate suggests to me that the Republican Party itself is still fighting over what kind of party it’s going to be in Virginia,” says Professor Kidd.

National patterns

For his part, Dr. Webb cruised through the Democratic primary and has since styled his candidacy as one of unity and healing. While touring the 5th District, he often promises a return to bipartisanship, referencing his work as a doctor and as a White House fellow under both the Obama and Trump administrations. 

His campaign has attracted national attention, helping him outraise Mr. Good by more than 3-to-1 in the third quarter. 

In response, Mr. Good has accused his opponent of being something of a closeted socialist. In September, his campaign ran TV ads blurring images of Dr. Webb, who is Black, into scenes of urban unrest from the summer. Decried by some as racist, the ads also attempted to tie his rival to issues like defunding the police, “Medicare for All,” and the Green New Deal. Dr. Webb retorts that he does not support these programs.

Sound familiar? 

Under the long shadow of partisan politics, even a district-level race like this can seem like a referendum on the top of the ticket.

Yet in an interview with the Monitor, Dr. Webb says he wants voters to think local, saying he has little stake in the race for the White House and is prepared to vote across party lines if he thinks it will help the district. 

“I spend all of my time communicating about local issues,” he says. “All politics is local to me in this race.”

By contrast, Mr. Good speaks to the race’s national implications. A vote for him, he says, is a vote to advance the Trump administration’s agenda, or to oppose that of a potential President Biden. 

“The 5th District race here is a federal race,” he tells the Monitor. “We are sending a representative to Washington to vote on national policy.”

Keeping it local

But if focusing on Mr. Trump giveth, it also taketh away.

As the president attempts to make up ground in the polls, local allies like Mr. Good are running on frayed coattails.  

“The idea that we’re talking about a district like the 5th as potentially shifting from ‘R’ to ‘D,’ I think gives you a sense of how widely the reaction to Trump has penetrated,” says Professor Kidd.

Still, many 5th District Republicans say they aren’t worried about broader trends.

“The national environment will not be the ones casting their ballots in the 5th District,” says Melvin Adams, chair of the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee. “It will be 5th District voters.” And 5th District voters want someone who will reliably vote with the president, he says. 

Mr. Adams’ counterpart, Suzanne Long, has different concerns. The Democratic Committee chair says her voters value Dr. Webb’s acumen on local issues and his medical expertise, particularly as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge nationwide.

She also says locals want a candidate who listens. Dr. Webb’s campaign, which has included visits to almost every locale in the district, including Sperryville, gives her hope. 

A few weeks ago, less than a mile from Mr. Reid’s house on Main Street, Dr. Webb stopped into Happy Camper, an outdoor equipment store owned by Robert Archer, a six-year resident. 

Mr. Archer says he appreciated the visit, the conversation, and the few pictures they took together. He plans to vote for Dr. Webb, and hopes politics can be more collegial.

It would take a different kind of politician to bring that change, he says. But then again, a normal kind of politician wouldn’t have stopped by his small-town store.

“It would be nice,” he says “if we could see politics return to service instead of power.”

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