Ten Dems running in solidly red General Assembly districts—like the ones that dissect Albemarle County—are doing what rural folk have always done: banding together to help each other out.
They’ve formed a coalition called Rural Groundgame, hired a few staffers, and are sharing resources on how to reach the voters who face the same rural issues.
“We were shocked to learn something like this didn’t already exist,” says Jennifer Kitchen, a community organizer who is challenging Republican Chris Runion in the 25th District, which includes Crozet and western Albemarle. The seat, long held by Steve Landes, is up for grabs this year because Landes decided to run for Augusta clerk of court.
Kitchen got involved in the coalition when she realized her race was not going to get money from state Democrats, who are going to be feeding cash into races they believe are more competitive and can flip the General Assembly.
The 58th District, firmly held by incumbent Rob Bell since 2002, is not one of those.
Elizabeth Alcorn decided to challenge Bell because she felt it was important to protect the democratic process and not have uncontested races. The way politics work in Virginia, she says, if a candidate is not in a targeted race, they don’t get the resources from the Democratic Party of Virginia and the Democratic House Caucus.
“They got a little surprise in 2017 when some unsupported candidates won anyway,” Alcorn points out. That year, Dems came close to controlling the House of Delegates when they picked up an unexpected 15 seats.
The 58th District includes Greene and parts of Albemarle, Fluvanna, and Rockingham counties. With the rural/urban divide that’s going on across the nation, she says, “It’s more important for Democrats to step up and get their message out in rural areas.”
Rural Groundgame is not a PAC, says Kitchen. The group has an ActBlue page where donations will be split evenly between the 10 candidates.
By sharing resources, the coalition was able to hire a consultant to develop and coordinate their field programs.
“It’s a very grassroots collaboration that arose among a number of us running for the House of Delegates,” says Tim Hickey, an educator who lives in southern Albemarle. He’s running for the 59th District seat, a district that stretches down to Rustburg, where incumbent Matt Farris lives.
“I don’t view these districts as red or blue,” he says. According to the candidates, the issues throughout the rural districts are the same: underfunded schools, health care affordability, and access. “Access to broadband is an issue we all see,” says Hickey.
The Dem candidates are going up against some sizable war chests—Bell was sitting on nearly $370,000 at the last filing—and they say that major corporations and utilities number among their opponents’ donors.
“One of the first things I’m going to do as a delegate is ban corporate political donations,” says Hickey. “We spend hours fundraising from individuals and then a candidate gets thousands from Dominion. I don’t think it’s right to take money from the corporations you regulate.”
The rural Dems are knocking on thousands of doors, some of which haven’t seen a candidate from either party in years. “They felt forgotten by Richmond,” says Kitchen. “They’re so glad to see someone.”
Kyle Kondik at UVA’s Center for Politics points out that the three districts around Charlottesville were carried by Donald Trump in 2016 by double digits, and Democrats are prioritizing more competitive districts as they try to win a House majority.
“So Democrats running in these districts need to be creative in how they try to score upsets, and banding together in such a way may be such a creative way to tackle this problem,” he says. “But their odds remain long.”
The Rural Groundgame Dems are undeterred. “We’re all in passionate agreement this is how we win rural America back,” says Alcorn. “Maybe not this year, but in 2021. Focusing on the needs of your district was extremely effective in 2017.” She points to Danica Roem, who ousted longtime incumbent Bob Marshall in northern Virginia. “Danica Roem focused on traffic,” she says.
Says Kitchen, “Our larger goal is to create a blueprint for the re-prioritization of rural America that can be used in any community, so they understand they have not been forgotten.”
Correction September 26: the RGG hired a consultant to develop and coordinate its field programs, not a field coordinator as originally reported.