Three Marines and a doctor walk into a bar…
Cards on the table: It’s going to be difficult for a Democrat to win the race for Virginia’s (heavily gerrymandered) 5th Congressional District.
In 2018, on the back of historic turnout and a nationwide blue wave, and running against a Republican who didn’t have an incumbency advantage, Democratic congressional candidate Leslie Cockburn still lost to Republican Denver Riggleman by roughly 6.5 percent—20,000 votes. Even Tim Kaine, Virginia’s much-loved and well-established incumbent senator, won only 48 percent of the vote in the district in 2018.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report both rate the district as “Likely Republican.” Charlottesville-Albemarle is the 5th’s largest population center and will vote Democratic by a vast margin, but the district stretches from the North Carolina border all the way to Fauquier County, on the outskirts of the D.C. metro area, and all that rural, red territory outweighs our true-blue college town. The convoluted district was drawn by a Republican legislature in 2012.
Still, four valiant Democrats have decided to throw their hats in the ring. RD Huffstetler Jr. is a Marine who attended Harvard’s Kennedy School, worked for a Massachusetts congressman, and ran for the 5th District nomination unsuccessfully in 2018. John Lesinski is a Marine who has served on the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and school board. Claire Russo is a Marine who, after her service, worked as an adviser to the military with a focus on recruiting and training women. Cameron Webb is a doctor and UVA health policy instructor who held a White House fellowship. (He is not a Marine.)
The candidates are all campaigning on a relatively standard Democratic Party platform. All four list some combination of combating climate change, expanding health care, improving education, and expanding rural broadband access as top priorities.
If you’re looking to pick the likeliest winner, the strongest indication at this stage is fundraising, and Huffstetler leads the field. At the FEC filing deadline in mid-April, Huffstetler had raised around $807,000, and Webb was in second place with roughly $510,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Of the four, however, Webb had received the highest sum from small-dollar donations of less than $200.
Webb and Huffstetler have articulated differing visions for how they might go about actually winning the general election, should they win the primary. In a candidate survey administered by Indivisible Charlottesville, Huffstetler writes, “Donald Trump is going to carry VA-05 in November,” and goes on to say that rural, split-ticket Trump-Huffstetler voters are the key to success. Webb, meanwhile, writes that the 5th district contains more than 70,000 black adults who are not registered to vote or did not cast a ballot in 2018, more than enough to make up for Riggleman’s 20,000 vote margin of victory. Webb, who is black, feels he is the man to energize that base.
Either way, it’s going to take a masterful campaign to flip a district that has given Republican congressional candidates 55, 61, 58, and 53 percent of votes since it was drawn into its current form.
How do I vote in a pandemic?
The Democratic primary was originally scheduled for June 9, but was postponed to June 23 in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Obviously, it’s difficult to social distance during an election, and many will prefer to vote by mail this year. (Please, dear readers, vote by mail.) Voters who want an absentee ballot mailed to them must submit their application by 5pm on Tuesday, June 16, a week before the election.
Many states have seriously altered their election procedures to account for the pandemic. In nearby Maryland, an April 28 special election to replace deceased congressman Elijah Cummings was held by mail-in vote only.
Some states already have robust vote-by-mail systems in place. Oregon has been automatically mailing a ballot to all registered voters since 1998—voters just have to fill it out and send it back. That’s far more elegant than Virginia’s system, which requires voters to go online, download a ballot request form, supply a reason for wanting to vote absentee, and resubmit it by mail, email, or fax, before ever seeing a ballot, which they then have to fill out and return.
Voting absentee is “strongly encouraged” on the state’s website, though Virginia leaders did not elect to simplify or expand the state’s mail-in voting process. (Voters staying home because of the pandemic are instructed to select “My disability or illness” on the absentee application form.) On April 13, Governor Ralph Northam passed Executive Order 56, which postponed the primary by two weeks and mandated that election administrators “prescribe procedures in accordance with the CDC,” with no further specifics.
The General Assembly did pass two critical voting-rights expansions this year, when it repealed voter ID laws and made Election Day a state holiday. Those new rules will go into effect in November, but will not apply to these primaries.