Many reasons, one common goal: turn state government blue by challenging Republican incumbents statewide.
For Beverly Harrison in Virginia’s House of Delegates District 15, it started with Donald Trump’s 2016 election, intensified at the D.C. Women’s March the following January, and crystallized during the early 2019 fight for state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. “I realized I wanted to have a larger reach.”
For Ann Ridgeway over in Delegate District 30, it was when Republican Delegate Nick Freitas tapped his wife to run against GOP State Senator Emmett Hanger, who the couple saw as insufficiently conservative. “Senator Hanger was the vote that helped pass Medicaid in Virginia. They [the Freitases] don’t represent the majority of people in Virginia.”
The impetus for Delegate District 22’s Jennifer Woofter was the realization that “we don’t see our local representatives advocating for us. Our 20-year incumbent doesn’t show her face…[yet] her last challenger was six years ago.”
For Virginia Senate 19 resident Flo Ketner, it was recognizing that “the issues afflicting our community weren’t getting any help. People are frustrated with government…we need to give them the option of voting for ordinary people who aren’t influenced by lobbyists.”
And for Annette Hyde in Virginia Senate District 24, the reason was simple: “I don’t believe any legislator should run unopposed.”
The five women are among about a dozen rural Virginians who have jumped into 2019 campaigns for State Delegate and Senate seats in districts that haven’t seen energetic Democratic campaigns in years – sometimes decades. Their reasons for running may vary, but their aim is the same: to alter a long-standing political dynamic that they believe has hurt ordinary Virginians.
When you read about these five women and the rest of the baker’s dozen of Democratic candidates running as the Rural Leadership Coalition in Virginia, common themes emerge.
One is long-time, oft-unchallenged incumbency and the complacency it breeds.
Hyde’s opponent, State Sen. Emmett Hanger, has held office for 23 years. The last time someone ran against him? 2007. “I was not about to let him run unopposed a third straight time.”
Harrison is vying to unseat 12-year incumbent and House of Delegates Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, who hasn’t sweated the competition for 10 years. “He doesn’t listen to people. He doesn’t hold town halls.”
And Woofter is challenging Delegate Kathy Byron, who was first elected in 1998 and has run unopposed since 2013. The Democratic challenger moved Byron off the dime in one way: “She updated her legislative website for the first time in three years.”
“When I talk with voters,” she added, “I sense that people are ready for change. They want someone who will show up. That’s where I think I have an edge.”
“Her number one issue is anti-abortion,” Woofter said of Byron. “But we need funding for public education, affordable housing… She’s just not there.”
Another theme is anonymity.
When Ketner tells voters she’s running to oust first-term incumbent David Suetterline, the most common reaction is “Who?”
Ketner blames the off-off year electoral cycle: “The reason the Senate in Virginia is so unknown…elections are once every four years, the year before the presidential election… People are shocked when I knock on their doors and ask ‘em what’s troubling them…they’re surprised that somebody took the time to ask.”
A third theme is the array of problems common to Virginia’s rural communities: lack of Internet access, crumbling roads and highways, underfunded public schools, inadequate health services, and immigration restrictions and tariff wars that hurt local farmers.
When members of the Coalition get together to talk strategy, Ridgeway said, “Our issues are so similar. We need more state funding for rural education, for broadband…for farmers…we need…new industries to build the tax base.”
“For too long,” Woofter declared, “we’ve let Republicans hold the ground and frame the debate in rural communities. For us, [the debate] is about jobs, family, self-sufficiency, and the ability to pursue your dreams.”
“And that,” she continued, “depends on…having access to broadband for enrichment opportunities for your kids, to make them college and vocationally ready, to grow your small business…to access medical specialists without a three-hour drive.”
But Byron, Woofter’s opponent, voted against allowing rural municipalities to run their own broadband systems. “The big telecoms donate to her.”
Then there’s exasperation with Republican overreach.
Ridgeway was incensed when Delegate Freitas and his wife revealed their nepotistic intention to impose a far-right agenda on both her House of Delegates and Senate districts. “It put me over the edge.”
The couple is out of sync with most area voters, Ridgeway asserted. “He’s Second Amendment all the way. But I talk with a lot of gun owners, and they don’t have a problem with common sense regulations. When I explain red flag laws, they tell me they’d do the same thing with or without that law. On concealed carry, they think we should have background checks. They know nobody wants to take their guns, and they want security.”
And the Freitases’ strict anti-choice posture isn’t shared by district residents, Ridgeway continued. “The new Alabama law will give people great pause – a majority here do not support these anti-abortion laws.”
For Hyde, it was Hanger’s game-playing on Medicaid. “Yes, he got the Medicaid expansion passed in Virginia. But he wanted and got work requirements added. That created an extra layer of bureaucracy and cost, for no good reason. Hardly anyone who receives Medicaid is even able to work.”
And for Harrison, GOP overreach was epitomized by Gilbert’s one-man stand against the ERA. “We knew Virginia had the votes to ratify the ERA. Our local paper even said ‘let the legislature vote.’ But Gilbert refused. That’s being a bully. I’m not going to stand by and let some random person – that’s what he is…he’s just one person – decide for the entire nation who’s going to be equal and who’s not.
Win or lose – Democrats gain
The five women interviewed know their candidacies are an uphill battle. Regardless, they see opportunities for Democrats at every turn – including the chance to flip the Virginia legislature blue. In both the House of Delegates and the Senate, Republicans currently hold a razor-thin two-seat margin.
“In my own Madison County last year,” Hyde said, “we knocked doors, made phone calls, sent postcards…and we increased Democratic turnout by 10.5 percent. If we put in the work, if we tell them our message, tell them how important it is to come out and vote…they realize they’re not alone.”
Ketner is determined to knock on 50,000 doors in her largely rural district. “Urban campaigns are obsessed with buying ads, sending attack mailers, doing opposition research. Here, it’s about turnout.”
“The blue wave is growing in Virginia,” Ridgeway added. “This is a movement that’s continuing to grow. People are realizing things haven’t gotten better, and they can’t blame it on anyone but the people who’ve been in office.”
Harrison is similarly energized by her talks with voters. “I’m talking about issues that are not linked to party ID. When they see how atrocious [Gilbert’s] voting record is, they realize they’ve been underserved. If I don’t win this time, I’ll likely run again.”
“I’m talking to so many people who are excited to have someone knock on their door,” Woofter added, “people who had no idea that there’s an election in Virginia every year. People are volunteering and donating for the first time ever. Whatever happens, we’re building momentum and a bench.”
But, she added, “I’m in it to win it!”
For information on Beverly Harrison’s campaign, visit electbeverlyharrison.com
For information on Annette Hyde’s campaign, visit facebook.com/annetteservesva
For information on Flourette (Flo) Ketner’s campaign, visit FloKetner.com
For information on Ann Ridgeway’s campaign, visit ridgewayfordelegate.com
For information on Jennifer Woofter’s campaign, visit jenniferwoofterfordelegate.com
Blogger Marcy Miroff Rothenberg writes most often on politics and women’s issues. Her new book – Ms. Nice Guy Lost – Here’s How Women Can Win– offers a comprehensive summary of the attacks waged on American women’s rights and opportunities by Trump and the GOP since 2016 – and a to-do list for fighting back. It’s available from store.bookbaby.com and at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and Goodreads.com.