Race in 26th beginning to take shape
Story by Chris Graham
The race for the soon-to-be-open seat representing Harrisonburg and a swath of Rockingham County in the Virginia House of Delegates is starting to take shape.
“I’ve made the decision. I’m not going to run this year. I may do something again in the future, but 2010 is not going to be the year for me,” said Gene Hart, the Democratic Party nominee in the 26th District in 2009, opening the door for Harrisonburg Mayor Kai Degner to have a clear path to the Democratic nomination.
Degner announced on March 25 that he will be in the running for the party nomination and the special election for the seat to be contested thereafter. The seat is currently held by Matt Lohr, whose five years representing the 26th in Richmond will come to an end on May 1 when he takes the job of commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who appointed Lohr to the VDACS post, will call a special election once Lohr formally resigns the seat. It is expected that the governor will set a special election for sometime in the summer.
Degner appears to be set as the Democratic nominee. On the Republican side, Broadway businessman Tony Wilt and Harrisonburg attorney John Elledge have publicly declared their intentions, with several other candidates rumored to be considering making their own runs.
“It seems nowadays that candidates are running for a year or two before an election. We’ve got it here as maybe a sardine can of two, maybe three months,” said Elledge, who had briefly campaigned for the GOP nomination in the 26th in 2005 before Lohr entered the race and later won the party nomination.
The district has been Republican-friendly for a long time, dating back to the tenure of former Del. Glenn Weatherholtz, Lohr’s predecessor. Democrat Lowell Fulk had two close calls in 2003 in Weatherholtz’ last campaign and in 2005 in Lohr’s freshman run, and Elledge acknowledges that the district, which is consists of Harrisonburg, the Harrisonburg suburbs and rural areas in the western part of Rockingham County, “is changing.”
James Madison University political-science professor Bob Roberts still thinks the GOP goes into the special election in the summer with a decided advantage.
“The problem Democrats face in the 26th is that while the district is pretty evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the turnout tends to be a lot lower in the city, which is about 60-40 Democratic. That means that Republicans would normally have a fairly easy time to win the district because the of higher county turnout numbers, where the split is 70-30 in their favor,” Roberts said.
Fulk was able to make inroads in ’03 and ’05 because he had a base of support from his residency in rural Rockingham County.
“So in a sense he was running as a county person. He had a base in the county, so he was able to draw more votes from the county. If you don’t run someone from the county, your numbers are going to be a lot, lot worse,” Roberts said.
“Theoretically you can win if you can turn out large numbers of voters in the city. But no Democrat has been able to do that except for (Barack) Obama,” Roberts said.