Virginia’s Tug of War – The Political Pendulums Swing Slowly

You know things are bad for your state when people make fun of it more than West Virginia or Florida. In 2016, Trump pulled campaign resources from the Commonwealth and Virginia went blue in a general election a third time in a row. In 2017, the Charlottesville riots made the country and the world assume that our cities were overrun with Nazis. From 2018 to now, our governor and attorney general have been labeled racists and our lieutenant governor may have sexually assaulted and raped several women. It’s not a fun time for Virginia, because now West Virginia and Florida are laughing at us and it doesn’t feel so great.

On February 16th, I traveled to Culpeper, Virginia, to cover a campaign announcement in the heart of the 24th state senate district. While driving on the road, I noticed one bumper sticker on the back of a Prius I passed which said “any functioning adult 2020”, while the bumper sticker on the back of a Ford pickup in the passing lane had a generic “Trump/Pence 2016” logo slapped on the back. No one really ever wants to discuss politics it seems, but its always on our mind.

Leaving the beltway of Northern Virginia where I live is like leaving a completely different state. The difference between Northern Virginia (NoVa) and the rest of the state is not simply rural vs metropolitan – it’s cultural, and in many cases an issue of identity. You have the beltway and then you have the rest of the state, yet it seems that thanks to the influx in population from the west coast and from overseas, as well as the concentration of military defense contractors, federal employees, and corporations who are expanding their presence outside of Washington D.C., the rest of the state has to sit and wait for Richmond to accommodate NoVa.

The once red state of Virginia is arguably blue despite many national pundits still assuming it is in play come the next general election. When you look at a map of the state and see how many counties are predominantly red and which ones are blue, the Commonwealth is overwhelmingly conservative except for the growing population in NoVa. In the past decade, in order to hedge the liberal tidal wave hitting the state, many Republican politicians had to side step and concede issues such as being pro-life, pro-guns, and fiscally responsibility in order to stay politically relevant in order to attract center-left independent voters, who still and have always continued to vote Democrat regardless.

In 2017, Republicans in the House of Delegates barely kept their majority (51-49) after losing 15 seats. A majority of those seats were, surprisingly, lost in traditionally red districts. Because of this blow to morale, the spirit to fight was knocked down once again even lower during the 2018 midterms when Republicans narrowly voted for Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman Corey Stewart, who had ran for governor the year before and was most notably known nationwide for holding a protest outside of the RNC during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries in support of Donald Trump (and calling his main adversary in the 2017 governors race a “cuckservative” on Reddit).  Stewart lost his Senate campaign to incumbent Democrat Senator Tim Kaine by 17 points, and many claim Stewart’s constant controversies may have cost Republicans three congressional districts which were also traditionally red.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that when Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) were caught up in a blackface scandal, on top of Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax (D) facing accusals of sexual assault and rape, that many Virginia Republicans were more excited than children on Christmas Eve to see the house of cards fall down. Not letting a good controversy go to waste, President Trump tweeted out Virginia might be the home of a Republican comeback in 2020. Perhaps I might be too much of a pessimist, but just because some Democrats are mad at certain Democrats, doesn’t mean they suddenly like Republicans.

The true test, however, will be in Virginia’s 2019 election, where various races for state senate and delegate races will be occurring this November. The one race that will truly provide a referendum on liberal Republicans and progressive Democrats however will be occurring in the 24th district represented by State Senator Emmett Hanger, who might not even make it to November if challenger Tina Freitas manages to take out the thirty-six year career politician.

Hanger, who was censured by multiple local Republican committees across his district, voted to expand Medicaid along with a minority of Republicans in 2018. Coupled with his pro-gun regulation views and tepid stance on abortion, Hanger is the embodiment of the liberal Republicans in Virginia. Tina Freitas, wife of Delegate Nick Freitas (who ran for the Republican senate nomination in 2018), was approached by many conservatives across the local GOP committees over the past several months to consider running against Hanger before she made the announcement on Saturday.

As a homeschooling mother and Army wife who came from working class roots, Freitas is an example of the strong, independent conservative woman leftist Democrats have feared for years competing against. Freitas knew full well what would come once she entered the ring – unlike many first time political “go-getters.” From personal attacks and dealing with the stresses of campaigning after witnessing her husband’s numerous re-election campaigns for House of Delegates, on top of his recent U.S. Senate bid, Freitas is in a unique position of strength – something conservative voters across the state are taking notice of.

At her official announcement on Saturday, the event space, within half an hour, became standing room only. Take my word for it, but campaigns for primary races at this level are never standing room only. What was more ironic was the fact that several Corey Stewart volunteers who I had encountered on the campaign trail in 2017 and 2018 showed up. Delegate Nick Freitas, during his opening introduction, even made a joke of it, saying “people that would have never supported me are here to support Tina” and in jest, those previous Corey Stewart supporters throughout the room raised their hands and waved.

During her speech, Freitas made it clear how she felt about Emmett Hanger’s mindset in office, stating he was just another one of “those politicians that only value the Republican creed when they need your vote, but then they flippantly disregard the creed and you once the election cycle is over. I’ll never understand how politicians can find our principles so essential to getting elected but then quickly abandon them when it comes to legislating. Maybe they don’t truly believe in them or maybe they are just used to getting away with it.” While to some outside observers this might sound like a typical stump speech, it is key to understand that the political climate in Virginia is in is very reminiscent of the early Tea Party days, where liberal Republicans vote on bills they didn’t need to even for overtly political reasons angering their conservative constituents, and scandalous Democrats who don’t seem to face any form of discipline. In this post-Trump political environment, voters are taking much more notice over representatives in their own party than probably any time before.

Election forecasts based on individual events are hallow, and very soon the scandals hitting Virginia’s leadership will be replaced with the next controversy the media dishes up. However, if Republicans are interested in the slightest hope that Virginia can return to conservative legislation and a potential statewide Republican victory in 2020, the primary between Tina Freitas and Emmett Hanger might be a race to which you want to pay close attention.