Roanoke Times: With House of Delegates balance at stake and energized Democrats, Republicans fight to retain seat
Del. Chris Head warned his fellow Republicans that there is “no such thing as a safe seat in any legislative body, and when you think there is you lose it.” He encouraged people to aggressively campaign for Joe McNamara’s bid for the House of Delegates’ 8th District seat, because not only do they want to retain the seat, they want to crush Democrats in the process.
Later that same day, state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, told an energized group of Democrats that McNamara’s opponent Carter Turner is “going to give the guy he’s running against in a fairly Republican district a run for his money, and he’s going to win.”
With the balance of power in the House of Delegates at stake, Democrats are hoping to build on a wave of victories last year to flip a seat in November long held by Republicans, most recently by Greg Habeeb, who resigned last month. And Republicans aren’t taking for granted that the district has been a conservative stronghold.
“What we’re seeing right now is how energized and aggressive the other side is,” Head, R-Botetourt, said at the opening of a campaign office for McNamara and 6th District Congressional candidate Del. Ben Cline of Rockbridge County.
McNamara owns two ice cream shops and has been on the board of supervisors off and on for nearly two decades, facing competition along the way. A tea-party aligned candidate squeaked out a primary win over McNamara in 2009, but then McNamara handily defeated Ed Elswick in 2013. Even knowing the voting history of the House district, he’s not treating a victory as a sure thing.
“I don’t think you can make assumptions,” McNamara said last week while knocking on doors of potential voters in Salem. “And I know a lot of people are.”
Turner has been active in local politics, having served as chairman of the Roanoke County Democratic Committee from 2013 to 2015. He’s run for elected positions twice and lost. He challenged Republican Morgan Griffith for the 8th District seat in 2009. Turner also challenged Butch Church in the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors race in 2011.
Turner said he was “naive” to challenge Griffith, who was then majority leader of the House. Even though Turner was appealing among Democrats for his roots in the community, having moved to the area when he was a child, Griffith defeated him with 69 percent of the vote. But Turner said it’s different now.
“With the political winds blowing in the way they are, I felt like it was a great opportunity to help the state,” Turner said. “I feel like I have a chance to win this.”
If Turner were to win, Virginia’s House would be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, which hasn’t happened since 1998.
Both candidates have raised the House parity issue while campaigning.
“The House is split 50-49 right now, so that’s kind of a tight one in there,” McNamara told a man while knocking on doors. “So we need your support.”
Turner has described the possibility of a 50-50 split being an “opportunity for some bipartisanship.”
The special election will coincide with the general election on Nov. 6.
Still riding the energy from flipping 15 GOP seats last year, Democrats are banking on higher turnout this year fueled by animosity toward President Donald Trump. They hope to apply that energy to the midterm congressional elections as well as ensuring U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine defeats Republican opponent and Trump firebrand Corey Stewart.
Democratic lawmakers as well as Attorney General Mark Herring have been visiting the Roanoke Valley to build enthusiasm for Turner, who is competing in the only House of Delegates race this November.
“Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t possible,” Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, who defeated Republican Joseph Yost in November, told a crowd of Democrats at a fundraiser. Hurst was joined by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, a self-described Democratic socialist who unseated Republican Del. Jackson Miller.
But flipping the seat won’t be easy. The district represents Salem, Craig County and parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties.
“The seat doesn’t lean Republican, it is an overwhelmingly Republican seat,” Habeeb said this week.
The candidates are fighting for a seat that hasn’t elected a Democrat in decades, and redistricting over the years has led it to vote more reliably Republican.
The district hasn’t been home to a Democrat since 1981, when the state did away with multiple delegates representing a district. Even then, the Democrat, Richard Cranwell, shared it with Republican Ray Robrecht.
“In this part of Virginia, Republicans are getting elected because they’re running on values of the district,” said Habeeb, who left in the middle of his fourth term. “Republicans can’t rest on their laurels, but Joe will get elected.”
Since the mid-1990s, a Republican in any election in the district has never garnered less than 56 percent of the vote. Trump won the district by 62 percent, and in the 2017 gubernatorial race, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie won it by 61 percent.
Roanoke and Craig counties’ precincts rarely vote for Democrats, and Salem’s precincts have gotten more red in recent years.
Democrats have tended to pick up votes in some Montgomery County precincts.
“I don’t care what the numbers have said,” Turner said. “I don’t care how Donald Trump did in this district or anybody else.”