There’s an open Congressional seat in Virginia’s 6th District for the first time in more than two decades. Though pundits expect an easy Republican win, neither candidate is paying any attention to predictions. WMRA's Andrew Jenner reports.
The 6th district, which covers most of the Shenandoah Valley, is ruby red on the forecast maps – slam-dunk GOP territory where Republican State Delegate Ben Cline is expected to easily defeat Jennifer Lewis, the Democratic nominee. Dr. Valerie Sulfaro is a political scientist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.
VALERIE SULFARO: There’s little drama in the race because one party is expected to win. This was a district that was drawn to be a safe Republican district, and it generally is a safe Republican district.
That’s an understatement. In 1992, Republican Bob Goodlatte was first elected to Congress with 60 percent of the 6th District vote. That would be his lowest margin of victory in 12 subsequent reelections. Late last year, Goodlatte announced his retirement at the end of this term. Still, even without an incumbent, the website FiveThirtyEight.com gives Lewis just a .6 percent chance of winning.
JENNIFER LEWIS: I actually love when people point out, ‘well, this is really a Republican area.’ Well, it’s not really because we have such a low voter turnout that we don’t know what about half of the population of the 6th District even feels because they’re not showing up to vote.
And Cline, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates since 2002, takes no comfort in being a heavy favorite.
BEN CLINE: I always run like I’m 10 points behind and run through the tape at the end of the day.
Entering the home stretch, the candidates have similar ways of describing their approach.
CLINE: It’s a grassroots race.
LEWIS: … a truly grassroots campaign.
That means a lot of old-fashioned canvassing. Lewis has lost count of the many thousands of doors she’s knocked on, and has the blisters to prove it. Cline spent 99 days this summer walking from Lynchburg to Roanoke and then north to Front Royal, a few miles and a ton of face time each day. Both are hoping for a big turnout – and both say that would benefit them.
CLINE: If we get records set for people voting in the 6th, I’m confident that I’m the candidate who best represents those values and that I’ll be, hopefully, elected to take those values to Washington.
LEWIS: Those are exactly the people that we’re targeting in this campaign – the people who aren’t showing up. That whole anti-corruption pledge that we’ve taken is really turning out a lot of folks who don’t typically vote, because that’s their issue. They don’t want to vote for either party because they feel like both parties are taking dirty money and neither party is truly representing them and what they care about.
To be clear, Lewis and Cline are running on very different platforms. Lewis rejects the “corrupting influences” of corporate PAC and special-interest money, and has campaigned heavily on her opposition to the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. She supports progressive goals such as a $15/hour minimum wage, marijuana legalization and various gun safety measures. Cline looks forward to supporting President Trump’s policy agenda on immigration, healthcare and the economy, and is proud to represent conservative rural values that he says have been forgotten by Congress.
CLINE: Faith, family, community, balanced budgets, responsible governance… I aim to go up there and deliver a message about those forgotten values, loud and clear.
Sulfaro, the political scientist, says that a big Democratic turnout may be the only way for Lewis to beat expectations.
SULFARO: That could happen, but I’m not sure that it will.
One reason is that midterm voters skew older, whiter and wealthier than in general elections.
SULFARO: That means that the Republican Party has a natural advantage in the midterm, because that at the moment is their constituency. For Democrats to do well in the midterms, they have to do a better job than they usually do at mobilizing their base of voters. They haven’t been all that successful, since I can remember, at doing that.
For now, though, one week out, as they make final pitches to the voters they’re both counting on turning out in droves, there’s one more thing Cline and Lewis share: confidence.
CLINE: It’s been a strong campaign. We are pleased with how it’s gone, and look forward to hopefully celebrating a victory on November 6th.
LEWIS: It’s just the feeling, the energy that we’re having out on the streets. I think that just speaks volumes of the amount of people who are getting engaged, who have been sitting on the sidelines for years and then just said, ‘this is it, I’ve got to get involved.’
Absentee voting – the only form of early voting in Virginia – is way up this year, and analysts say that bodes well for the Democrats. But as they also say, it's all up to the voters.