In 2016, Donald Trump won Virginia’s 5th Congressional District by 11 percentage points. Two years later, as a blue wave saw Democrats pick up 41 House seats nationwide, Republican Denver Riggleman beat Democrat Leslie Cockburn by 7 percent.
Virginia’s 5th District runs from Fauquier County to the North Carolina border. The huge district encompasses the blue enclave of Charlottesville, but also hundreds of miles filled with more conservative rural communities. Democrats have no business competing here, and for the last decade, they haven’t.
Enter Cameron Webb.
Webb is a practicing doctor, teacher, and Director of Health Policy and Equity at the UVA School of Medicine. He worked in the White House under former President Barack Obama and decided to stay on after the 2016 election, working on drug pricing during the Trump administration. If he wins, he’ll be the first Black representative in the history of the 5th District, and the first Black doctor to serve in U.S. Congress.
Meanwhile, Webb’s opponent, Bob Good, is a self-proclaimed “biblical conservative.” He’s been a member of the Campbell County Board of Supervisors, a Liberty University athletics fundraiser, and a wrestling coach. Good challenged the incumbent Riggleman after some district Republicans were upset that Riggleman officiated a gay wedding. Good then won the nomination in a bizarre, COVID-altered drive-through convention of Republican delegates.
Webb’s red-hot campaign has turned the district into a tossup. A late October poll from Public Policy Polling showed Webb leading 46-43, and FiveThirtyEight now gives each candidate an exactly 50 percent chance to win the district.
C-VILLE spoke with Webb last week, in hopes of figuring out what it is about the young doctor that’s got everyone talking. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C-VILLE: As if this final stretch of the campaign wasn’t busy enough, I hear you have some shifts in the COVID unit coming up this week. What’s that like these days?
CW: You never really know until you get there. The way this virus is, everything changes quickly. But all over the commonwealth, all over the country we’re seeing an uptick in cases. Everybody who’s there can get pretty sick pretty fast—especially working overnight, as the only doctor on the COVID unit, you want to make sure you’re ready to respond at a moment’s notice.
Well, Congress will be a breeze after that.
It’ll be a different kind of exercise. I’m looking forward to the challenge, though. There are some similarities—it’s a similar skill set, especially when you’re out and about talking to folks. It’s asking folks where it hurts and listening for an answer.
People don’t realize this all the time, but a lot of medicine is a negotiation. Many times, with treatment recommendations, folks may say, ‘I hear you, but I don’t like X, Y, or Z.’ So, okay, how do we find out way forward? That idea of finding consensus is something I expect to lean in to. You meet people where they are—that’s what medicine is about.
You’re running a very close race in a solidly Republican district. On a basic level, flipping a district means convincing people who don’t agree with you on very much that you’re the person for the job. How have you been doing that?
I would start off by saying we actually agree with each other on far more things than we don’t. On education, for instance, we all want kids to have a great education. On health care, we all want folks to have access to the care they need.
Now, the manner of execution is different, but the agreement is on the outcome. In this race, with folks across the political spectrum, we’re able to have common conversations about what we want to see. Then I’m able to show people what I think is the course forward. I haven’t really felt that tension of folks disagreeing with me.
[Finding] those points of commonality takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of trust. But [we’ve been] spending the time to build that trust…I think that’s why this race is where it is.
Do you think those strategies will work at the next level? I mean, time and trust have been in short supply in the federal government recently.
Listen, I’ve seen these strategies work in the Trump White House. I led a drug pricing task force, and I saw this strategy work right there in the executive office of President Donald J. Trump.
I also think there’s strength in numbers. Any member of Congress who’s willing to work with folks who see the world differently from them—they’re part of our path forward as Americans. Luckily, we’ve got someone in the adjacent congressional district, Congresswoman Spanberger, who talks about that same thing.
I talked to [her] before I decided to run, because one of my questions was, “What’s it like trying to be in that space, in Congress, advocating for building consensus?” [She] reassured me that this is possible, you can be that kind of legislator…The more people we have who think like that, the better off we’ll be.
Speaking of people on the other side of the aisle—what do you make of your opponent, Bob Good?
I still have yet to sit down in a room with Mr. Good. Even though we’re on opposite sides of the ticket, I don’t have the mindset that there’s nothing Bob Good and I would agree on.
But I think he’s taken an approach in this race where he’s tried to misrepresent some of my positions on key issues. It’s important for me to set the record straight. We’re very different—my whole focus since the beginning has been trying to unify people, and bridge divides, and bring folks together. And his approach has been to stand in his position, saying this is a bright red district and everyone should get on board.
What are some of your positions that you feel have been misrepresented by the Good campaign?
Oh, shall I count the ways. Top of mind of course is this conversation around policing. I think they’ve definitely tried to label me as a radical of some sort, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Part of why we have the momentum that we have is that people across the district actually see me, and they hear what I say. All of that disinformation—it’s not sticking. What is sticking with folks is how it reflects on him, and less about how it reflects on me.
You’re a doctor. Does that mean that health care will be one of your top legislative priorities if you win?
You can’t be a legislator heading in to the 117th Congress and not prioritize COVID recovery. And certainly there’s a public health component to that, but there’s also an economic component.
I really prioritize the economy in all of my conversations, because I can build a lot of conversations around that. Our health care conversation is an economic conversation—[health care] is one-fifth of our economy, it’s the largest sector in our economy. Our climate crisis conversation is an economic conversation, it’s about creating jobs, it’s about recognizing that renewable energies are cheaper than fossil fuels—even the free market is telling us that’s the direction we should be going. The frame here in the district does tend to have more of an economic focus, and we’re able to rise to that conversation.
What are your election night plans?
Believe it or not, I haven’t spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about that, because I’m so busy doing the work. It’s going to be something that honors the work that our team has put in, that my family has put in, but at the same time acknowledges that even though we want to celebrate we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic.
It’s good you’re calm—I’m a nervous wreck.
Well, it’s hard to shake me at this point—I was [in Washington] in November of 2016, I was up until 3 o’clock, finding out who my future boss was going to be. One thing I tell people often: President Obama’s calm the next day in the White House—I will remember that forever. I remember going to the Rose Garden the next day, and him walking out and saying, “Hey, America’s going to be okay. We just need to keep fighting, and making our argument.” And that’s what we’ll do.