Can Democrats be competitive in the Sixth District?

democrats republicansI once sat down with an ad hoc group that aimed to recruit candidates to run for the House of Delegates. My role, as a former candidate and local political party chair, was to basically talk you out of wanting to run.

The idea being, if you could get past me telling you all the reasons you shouldn’t run, and you still wanted to run, then, hey, at least we warned you.

I can imagine myself doing this with the four candidates for the Democratic Party nomination to run for Congress in the Sixth District – Sergio Coppola, Jennifer Lewis, Charlotte Moore and Peter Volosin.

The first thing I’d say is: it’s expensive.

A good House of Delegates race can run you $300,000, and that’s a drop in the bucket for what you need to be competitive in the far-flung Sixth Congressional District, which stretches from Strasburg in the north all the way down past Roanoke, jumping the Blue Ridge for a spell over into Amherst and Lynchburg.

It’s a huge district, encompassing 12 counties and eight cities, and three separate TV markets.

It’s also a very, very, very Republican district. The Sixth hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, and then you look at individual counties – Augusta, my home base, hasn’t voted D in a presidential race since FDR’s fourth campaign in 1944, and Highland and Shenandoah last went blue in a presidential race way back in 1932.

Now, yes, technically, the district was represented by a Democrat in Congress as recently as the first couple of days of 1993, as Jim Olin finished out his fifth and final term. But it should be notable that even in the days of one-party Byrd Democrat rule in Virginia, the Sixth sent Republicans Richard Poff and Caldwell Butler to represent the district in Congress from 1953-1983.

The Sixth District, in other words, is one of the redder parts of America, it’s huge, it’s expansive, and again, expensive.

The TV markets, including the outer fringes of the DC-NoVa market, Harrisonburg-Charlottesville and Roanoke-Lynchburg, help make it expensive.

More geographically compact districts with one TV market can be expensive in their own right, so you can imagine how tough it is to have to spread dollars out across three, each of which straddles neighboring congressional districts and even neighboring states.

Which is why Bob Goodlatte, a Republican who is retiring from Congress early next year, after serving 13 terms representing the Sixth, has had to spend close to $2 million per cycle each of the last four times he faced a Democratic Party opponent, even as he was on course in each cycle to win with at least 61.6 percent of the vote.

Goodlatte’s campaign spent $1.99 million in the 2008 and 2016 cycles, and $1.88 million in 2012. Sam Rasoul, the Democratic nominee in 2008, spent $382,478 in that cycle, en route to receiving 36.6 percent of the vote.

Andy Schmookler, the Democratic nominee in 2012, spent $171,535 to receive 34.6 percent of the vote in that cycle. Kai Degner, the Democratic nominee in 2016, spent $153,103 in receiving 33.1 percent of the vote in that election.

Which isn’t to say that you can just throw a couple of million dollars at the race and expect to win, but you do want to be competitive, right?

This is the next question I’d ask back in my candidate vetting days. I ran for a seat on Waynesboro City Council way back in 2008, an eternity ago in one sense. I entered the race relatively late, declaring on Feb. 1 for a May election after the incumbent in the race decided against running for re-election.

We threw together a campaign on the fly, raising close to $10,000, for campaign signs that went up in the front yards of 150 city residents, for TV, radio and newspaper ads. I somehow got the endorsement of the conservative local newspaper in the process, but reality set in on Election Night, in the form of a reminder that Waynesboro is uber-conservative.

There aren’t many days that go by that I don’t feel like I let people down in falling short. The issues that motivated me to run – poor funding for education, little or no focus on economic development, almost criminal inattention to issues with stormwater – are still issues that face us as a city 10 years later.

I didn’t run for my health or for vanity; I ran to make a difference.

I imagine that the four candidates in the running for the Democratic Party nomination in the Sixth District have that same motivation.

What I have yet to see is any sense that any of them can put together a campaign that can be successful in November. According to the most recent reports on file with the Federal Election Commission, the four have combined to raise $62,000 for their campaigns.

What is most stunning about this figure to me is that this number reflects campaign activity heading into a party primary, which should have pushed the campaigns into overdrive in terms of getting organized for the fall.

Ideally, that’s what happens when you decide to go the primary route. A primary should force campaigns to get their affairs in order well in advance of November, with the primary election a sort of test run for what needs to be done to win in the fall.

And then, $62,000, total, raised across the campaigns.

Ben Cline, the Republican nominee, has raised more than $269,000 toward his campaign, though he also had to spend more than $208,000 to win the GOP nomination. Cline, a former Goodlatte staffer, will no doubt be able to tap into Goodlatte’s extensive donor base, and by the fall, we will see numbers akin to Goodlatte’s in his three recent competitive race cycles.

This cycle, on paper, will be the most competitive you will see in the Sixth District for the foreseeable future. It’s still the same Sixth District that even sent Republicans to Congress back in the Byrd era, and has swaths that haven’t voted for a Democrat since FDR, but then, it’s also 2018, with the blowback from the Era of Trump being what it is.

There were some promising signs in scattered locations in the district in the 2017 House of Delegates elections, so there may be some things to build on there.

And then you have to think back to the last time this seat was an open seat, back in 1992, when Goodlatte made his first run for the seat, and the Democratic nominee, Stephen Musselwhite, was able to get 40 percent.

I’m not saying I think there’s a butterfly flapping its wings on the Blue Ridge Parkway fanning a storm system that will turn the Sixth District blue this November.

I would say that you have to treat this as the best chance Democrats will have in the Sixth for maybe the next 25 years, considering Cline’s youth in politics years (he’s 46 years old).

Whoever ends up winning the primary on June 12 needs to be able to hit the ground running, and most importantly, fundraising, to try to take advantage.

Column by Chris Graham

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