Can Bell unify GOP in 20th?

We knew it would be Dickie Bell. I’m a little surprised that it was that obvious to the Republicans, I guess.
“We have some differences. We have some mending to do. We’re not unlike any other political faction. We need to get to work on those things and show the people of the 20th District that we can represent them,” Bell told me moments after winning the 20th House District Republican Party nomination Monday night.

Bell, a 13-year member of Staunton City Council and a teacher and coach at Riverheads High School, had been anointed as the odds-on favorite two weeks ago when incumbent State Del. Chris Saxman shocked the Shenandoah Valley political world with his sudden departure from the race.

But that was before seven other candidates entered the fray, including two, Charles Curry and Ray Ergenbright, with significant experience in local elected politics. The 20th District GOP held a public forum for the seven candidates who remained in the race as of Monday night that included the expected run of questions about abortion, gay marriage and domestic-partner benefits, illegal immigration and other red-meat issues important to the conservative base of the Republican Party.

What was interesting to me wasn’t the selection of questions but the tone of the answers from the two men I had thought were the most serious contenders, Bell and Curry, a former three-term member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors. Both took surprising-to-me hardline stances on the social-issues questions, to the point that I wondered to myself if the two were the same guys that I had known going into the forum, which was held at Buffalo Gap High School before an assemblage that I would estimate at around 100 people, including several local Democrats who were on hand to observe the proceedings.

Bell, for instance, answered the first question of the night, on abortion, in a way that made it seem that he wouldn’t even support a woman’s right to an abortion in cases of rape or incest. I was a bit taken aback on that, and also a little later at his answer to a question on domestic-partner benefits legislation, where he joined with the other candidates in making the issue more about gay marriage than the topic at hand.

The politico in me said Good job! on how the moderate conservatives – I’ll also include Ergenbright, a former Staunton commissioner of the revenue, in that group – seized the initiative in staking out the hardline stances on the social issues as a sop to the base, in the process erasing any appeal the social-conservative political newcomer David Karaffa might have had.

Karaffa, to his credit, came organized, with a contingent of supporters all wearing red and about a dozen handmade campaign signs placed around the high-school auditorium promoting his candidacy.

Bell, for his part, was also organized, handing out a glossy two-page campaign brochure touting his House of Delegates campaign and having on hand his own cheering section.

So Bell was organized, and he was cognizant of the need to throw the red meat to the hungry conservative party base – and he played something of a head game toward the end of the night in response to a question about what he thought distinguished his candidacy from the others.

“My campaign will take the high road. I won’t get down and dirty. I won’t trade negatives. That’s not my style. I will talk to you on the issues,” said Bell, sounding more like the moderate-conservative that I knew coming in than the firebreathing base Republican that he’d been for a couple of hours at the forum.

“For the past 13 years, I’ve stood solidly on the side of conservative principles, and I’m still in the arena. I’ve been elected four times in a city where the politics has shifted from conservatism to something that is alarming, and each time I’ve received a higher vote total. That indicates to me solid conservative support, but also broad, across-the-board support as well,” Bell said.

Talking with me after the nomination was secure, Bell’s first focus was on mending fences within the fractured local GOP.

“I’ve never been involved in a forum where there were so many good answers, so many intelligent people, so many bright ideas. If these people can stand with me, and I hope they will, we can start to mend some of the differences in this party,” Bell said.

My take on things is that Bell did what he needed to do to get the ball rolling for the Republicans Monday night. He won’t win many crossover votes with his statements on the social issues, but if he can mend fences and get local Republicans working on the same team, and the 20th turns into a turnout election, he won’t need crossovers.

The $64,000 Question – can he get what has been a dysfunctional local party of late back working together toward a common goal?


– Story by Chris Graham

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