Voters who don’t want to see a Republican who voted to overturn the 2020 election on the ballot in the Sixth District in November have an alternative in Tuesday’s GOP primary.
Meet Merritt Hale, a U.S. Navy veteran who is brand new to politics.
“Joe Biden is the president,” said Hale, who by saying such a thing would never get the endorsement of Donald Trump.
The current Sixth District congressman, Ben Cline, a Republican, voted on Jan. 6, 2021, hours after pro-Trump extremists attacked the United States Capitol, to reject the results of elections in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
The votes were largely symbolic – the 11 electoral votes in Arizona and 20 in Pennsylvania would not have given Trump enough to defeat Biden in the Electoral College.
Even so, it was galling, at the least, that he joined dozens of Republicans in backing what is increasingly appearing to be a criminal conspiracy on the part of the former president to overturn an election in which Trump came up more than 7 million votes short.
Hale, 28, a 2016 University of Virginia graduate, is a United States Navy veteran who decided to mount a challenge to Cline, who was first elected to the Sixth District seat in 2018, after his father was diagnosed with degenerative brain disease.
His father passed away on Christmas Eve, but “what made it even worse was dealing with the healthcare bureaucracies, including the VA, surrounding end of life care, and then just all the stuff that goes along with it, taxes, the IRS, et cetera,” Hale said.
“I saw what Congress was doing to address that issue, and it was next to nothing, and I started looking what else they were doing to address the other issues, the hundreds of issues that are facing our country, and it was also next to nothing,” Hale said.
Congress is doing “next to nothing” right now because Trump’s repeated insistence that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from him is taking up nearly all of the oxygen on Capitol Hill.
Democrats are focusing their time and energy on protecting American democracy; Republicans, for their part, are set on selling “the Big Lie.”
“I support President Trump’s right to audit the election. That’s completely within his rights,” Hale said. “To this point, the courts have not found any fraud. And I think we need to, again, we talked about the polarization of the media, they need to focus on the facts of what went on. And as far as Ben Cline’s vote, I’m not going to go back and retroactively, like, I don’t know what information he had. But I will say, if he thought that the election was fraudulent, he absolutely should have said so before the election was cast. Again, if you truly believe it’s one of two things, either he genuinely thinks it was stolen, in which case, he should have said something out in front about it, or he’s selling out to appease people. And that’s not a good solution, either. Either way, whatever he did, was a horrible way of dealing with it. I would have handled it very differently.”
Republicans, to Hale, need to move on from relitigating 2020 with an eye to the future.
“I think we as a party need to focus on solutions for the American people,” Hale said. “Looking backwards and really getting our own internal debates aren’t fixing the gas prices or any of the other myriad of issues that that we have.”
The issue that got Hale to run for Congress is healthcare. The political debates of the past decade-plus have been centered on the merits of Obamacare, which was based on ideas first advanced by conservatives, with Republicans turning on their own creation when former president Barack Obama signed on to their reforms in 2009.
We’re all still waiting for whatever it is that Republicans have as a better solution.
“Part of what makes America great is the capitalism system where we have innovation and competition, but within healthcare, that model almost doesn’t work. Because while we still need capitalism, and the terms of the innovation and the competition, the underlying top priority has to be patient’s health,” Hale said. “We live in a country with great, fantastic wealth, and there’s stuff we can do, we can protect pre-existing conditions, and take care of our people in a way that, you know, if you have diabetes, you should not be going broke paying for insulin. That’s common sense. You talk to any person, Republican, Democrat, independent, it doesn’t matter. They all will agree on that.
“Somehow our legislators get in there, and they get in the hands of Big Pharma, and all of a sudden, they can’t pass commonsense solutions. That, and there’s so much red tape in the healthcare industry. Whenever there’s a ton of red tape and a confusing bureaucracy, it’s going to cause confusion. Small people can’t fight with the lawyers that the big rich people have. We need to get in there and make the system make efficient for everyone,” Hale said.
“It’s something that every American has to deal with. At some point, like, everyone gets older. Everyone has somebody who they love who’s going to pass on, unfortunately. And I think that’s an issue actually, where the Democrats have done a better job than the Republicans with being empathetic and addressing the health care industry. And that’s something we as a Republican Party need to address and show that, yes, we’re the party that’s conservative and small government, but the same time we’re compassionate and want to take care of our people,” Hale said.
It’s hard to talk about healthcare without addressing the public health crisis around guns. Another spate of mass shootings has gun control back on the political radar, with possible momentum toward some minor reforms on the table.
“It’s enshrined in the Constitution, you have the right to bear arms. Of course, we need to solve the problem of gun violence. The problem I see with our legislatures on both sides, and this is more of a Democratic issue, it seems like they want to pass something just to say they passed something. And again, I want to address the underlying issue,” Hale said.
“A lot of these laws that you’re seeing put forward as solutions wouldn’t have stopped any of the, unfortunately, the shootings that we’ve seen,” Hale said. “I think we need to address the mental health issues, because it’s not necessarily the people who have mental health issues that can get a gun, it’s the people who can pass a background check, who look perfectly fine, and then have whatever happens, where they snap, and then carry out an awful tragedy.
“How do we stop that issue? I don’t know a great solution to that, to be honest with you. I will work, I can promise you this, I will work very hard with anyone in Congress to come up with a solution to that issue,” Hale said. “But I think we need a lot more nuance to the discussion than take the guns or leave the guns. We need to come up with, how do we recognize when people are struggling when they may potentially have a break? And, how do we also protect gun owners’ rights who are responsible, which is the incredible vast majority of gun owners? How do we have to make sure we protect their rights as well.”
Hale refers to himself as “pro-life,” believes that life begins at conception, and he says his faith is “very important to me.”
But by and large, he comes across as a libertarian.
“On most social issues, I take more of a libertarian approach, where, like, gay marriage, for example, my faith says one thing, but unless you’re harming somebody else, that’s not the government’s job to dictate that morality,” Hale said. “Frankly, I think the Republican Party has done a poor job at reaching out to the LGBT community and lots of other minority communities. But we have to remember, we’re the party of small government. And with that, that means you don’t get to dictate everything. I think that those are important issues, and they need to be addressed at a local level. But from a federal level, it’s not my job to dictate social issues.
“It’s not the government’s job to legislate morality. It’s not the government’s job to legislate almost anything. The government’s job is to protect our people,” Hale said. “That’s why we have a military, provide infrastructure, and make sure that people are saved to the best of their ability. And if it’s not covering those basic things that are in the Constitution, we probably shouldn’t be involved in doing it.
It’s time for a change
Cline is running for a third term in Congress, after serving for 16 years in the Virginia House of Delegates, which came after he had served on the staff of former Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte.
He was basically the heir apparent, and Hale’s challenge is the first time he has faced a primary opponent for the Sixth District nomination.
Hale said Cline is “a good man from my interactions with him, but I think he’s a very ineffective legislator.”
“He talks about draining the swamp, but you can’t get a more swampy background than what he has,” Hale said. “That’s empty rhetoric. It’s, what solutions have you brought to our district. He hasn’t brought the infrastructure home. We’ve seen so much infrastructure go on in the last four years, he hasn’t been able to bring that home. Whether or not you agree that there’s way too much money spent in the agenda, you’ve got to be able to bring some of that back to your constituents. That’s part of being a politician.
“You’ve got to build a consensus, and you’ve got to put forward legislation. There he’s in the bottom 10 percent of people in actually introducing legislation,” Hale said. “It’s all about building coalitions, actually doing the job. And again, I cannot emphasize enough, I’m so sick and tired of reactionary politicians, just blaming the other side, not putting forward solutions, not doing anything. And if you look at his record, he has not accomplished anything in his time, despite being in politics for 20 years. I want new leadership in there.”
Story by Chris Graham