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Can Democrats Win Rural Virginia Voters?

Despite challenges, liberal organizers in western Virginia are hopeful for the future.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Western Virginia should be an easy win for Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor. It is mostly white and firmly conservative, a long-time base for the state’s GOP. But Gillespie, with his establishment ties and moderate reputation, has faced his share of challenges in the region. It is committed to Donald Trump, and in the gubernatorial primary it overwhelmingly backed former Trump campaign official Corey Stewart. And on October 14, in the region’s 9th Congressional District, he dug himself into a deeper hole.

According to The Washington Post, Gillespie did not allow former Trump campaign staffer Jack Morgan to plan or appear at an Abingdon, Virginia, rally featuring Vice President Mike Pence. Gillespie’s behavior so incensed Morgan, the Post reported, that Morgan’s wife “refused to drive John Whitbeck, chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, to the airport for his return trip.” Other conservative activists displayed their outrage on social media. “Ed showing his elitist butt to the 9th was a MONUMENTAL error from which he will not recover,” one announced on Facebook.

This is a delicious exaggeration. The Gillespie campaign assured the Post that the candidate’s relationship with Morgan is intact, and so his awkward waltz with Trumpism persists. Nevertheless, Gillespie’s race with Democrat Ralph Northam is tight; a lot hinges on turnout, meaning any controversy is potentially costly. Not even a Republican can take western Virginia entirely for granted.

What does that mean for the Northam campaign, and for Democrats in the state? Should they be reaching out to rural voters? Trump had barely won office before headlines credited his victory in part to Hillary Clinton’s failure to reach this demographic, and Northam’s decision to skip the Buena Vista, Virginia, Labor Day Parade briefly ignited similar fears. (Reached for comment, Northam spokesman David Turner responded, “We did a number of events, including a breakfast at Buena Vista. We’ve been out and about in rural Virginia extensively throughout this campaign.”) The party has struggled to fund campaigns for candidates for the General Assembly in the state’s southwest region; according to a previous Post report, canvassers for Democrat Alicia Kallen in Wise County had to photocopy their own “crude” materials.

But as far as the governor’s race is concerned, there are signs of life. Northam has released an extensive rural development plan, and though white papers didn’t help Clinton win rural voters, Northam’s roots in the state’s eastern shore region may give him a boost. In conversations with the New Republic, Democrats in rural western Virginia largely expressed optimism about the party’s trajectory there, despite the GOP’s dominance and popular perceptions of rural communities as backwards, ignorant places. Underneath these narrative burdens, local organizers have made inroads, determined to shift the region in a more progressive direction. The task ahead is daunting, they say, but not impossible.

“We know that we’re not a swing county,” Oliver Keene, chair of the Tazewell County Democratic Committee, told me. “I’m sure the state party, if they had the resources to do it, would put two or three organizers in Tazewell County but they just don’t.” Democrats in the county are, he added, “very realistic about our circumstances.”

Tazewell faces difficult circumstances indeed. This small coalfield county is home to roughly 42,000 people, over 17 percent of whom live in poverty. It is bleeding population, as many rural counties are, and Trump won 82 percent of its votes last November. A Republican represents Tazewell in the General Assembly, and Tazewell hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But Keene was quick to point out that the party still has a strong presence in the county: “We have three out of five supervisors efforts. We have three out of five constitutional officers. The Republicans only hold three local offices in the whole county.” He added, confidently, that this number is about to shrink to two.

From Keene’s perspective, the party’s weaknesses in the county and region have less to do with the party’s allocation of resources, than with the declining influence of United Mineworkers of America, which kept the county blue for decades. “Jackie Stump is our hero,” he said, citing the late former coal miner who represented the county for years in the state legislature. Stump was a key organizer of 1989’s Pittston Strike, waged in response to the Pittston Coal Company’s decision to rescind benefits for retired miners and miners’ widows; he won office on union power. Without the union, it’s hard to recruit new Stumps. “Our infrastructure has deteriorated badly,” Keene explained.

He credited the state party, however, for helping Tazewell Democrats succeed with the resources available. And in traditional Appalachian fashion, organizers have found ways to cope with scarcity. “We’ve sent out in the last two months over 300 handwritten letters for the Democratic Party here in Tazewell County,” he said. “I’m running into people in Walmart, like, ‘Hey I got a letter from you the other day. Really appreciate you reaching out to us.’”

State Senator Creigh Deeds, who represents the counties of Alleghany, Bath, Highland, Nelson, and Rockbridge in the General Assembly (and who ran as the Democratic nominee for governor in 2009), vehemently rejected the idea that his party ignores rural voters. “I don’t feel ignored!” he declared. “The reality is, I was elected in 1991. In the 26 years since then the world has changed. Population growth has occurred in suburban areas; rural areas lost population.” Those suburban areas, he added, are where Democratic voters live. “I understand that candidates spend time when they’re likely to get return on that time,” he said.

Deeds also blamed state Republicans, who prioritized redistricting as they gained control of the General Assembly. “The goal was to get rid of the rural white Democrat,” he asserted. If Gillespie resents the fact that he must pander to the Virginia GOP’s skewed base despite his obvious discomfort with the more nativist elements of Trumpism, he must thank his own party. The Democratic Party shares in Gillespie’s suffering, albeit for different reasons. “These rural southwest Democrats used to rule the roost and now they’re all gone,” Deeds lamented. On southwest Virginia, he echoed Keene: “It wasn’t a Democratic district necessarily. It was a UMWA district.”  

But with the union in decline, and western Virginia in solidly Republican hands at the state and federal levels, recriminations are inevitable. Not all rural Democrats are convinced that the state party is doing everything it can to help beleaguered activists. Jay Clarke briefly resigned as the chair of the Rockbridge County Democrats to protest the party’s treatment of local Democrats, and he told the New Republic that he found the state party frustratingly uncommunicative about the local committee’s place within its gubernatorial campaign strategy. “I heard nothing back,” he complained.

Lately, he allowed, matters have improved; the state party has begun circulating emails to encourage better contact between the party and Democrats in hostile territory. Even so, he thinks problems remain. “We need information flowing down and we need to listen to people,” he asserted. “The field organizers that we send out need to be able to talk to and react to the local chairs, not just take orders from above.”

Virginia’s sharply divergent politics—an establishment Democrat occupies the governor’s mansion while the Tea Party wrecks havoc in the General Assembly—reflect the state’s urban/rural divide. The state’s urban and suburban areas make reliable economic gains while its sprawling rural corridor lags behind. The situation ensures resentment, and thus influences both the gubernatorial election and the general prospects of the state Democratic Party.

In southwest Virginia, Mountain Valley Pipeline may become a lens through which that resentment can be viewed with particular clarity. EQT Midstream Partners, which hopes to build the pipeline in conjunction with NextEra Energy, Consolidated Edison, WGL Holdings, and RGC Resources, says the project will generate 4,400 jobs in Virginia alone. Local activists counter that most of the jobs will be temporary, and that the construction process will harm the area’s water resources and burgeoning tourism industry.

On October 13, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the Mountain Valley pipeline, stoking controversy in southwest Virginia, where it will cut through Craig, Franklin, Giles, Montgomery, Pittsylvania, and Roanoke counties. Afterwards, farmer Maury Johnson told The Roanoke Times, the pipeline “will destroy our water, our farms, our homes, and our local communities.”

It should be noted that FERC’s decision to issue a certification of public convenience and necessity isn’t the final word on the project. Environmental agencies in each affected state must also certify that the pipeline won’t damage water resources. And there, it faces setbacks. After a lawsuit from environmental groups, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection decided to vacate its earlier certification of the pipeline in September so it may further review the project’s impact. Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has yet to issue any certification at all. Activists hope that it will refuse certification—without the sort of lawsuit that forced West Virginia’s hand—and that Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe’s support for the pipeline builds resentment.

“I just want you to know the mistrust of the governor in particular and his department [of environmental quality] is high,” said Rick Shingles, an organizer with Preserve Giles County. “The amount of cynicism that’s developed over the years of fighting this pipeline, not only with federal government but with state institutions and particularly this governor—it should be of great concern to the Democratic Party.”

Northam, meanwhile, has not taken a position on either pipeline project, citing the need for further review. “Ralph Northam believes the facts should dictate the outcome,” spokesman Turner told the New Republic. “This is about having a rigorous scientific process and also protecting people’s property rights, so if agencies believe that the environment can be protected and the property rights are going to be respected then the project is going to move forward. If they don’t, it will not.”

That likely won’t satisfy the pipeline’s opponents. But it’s too early to tell if Northam’s caution will affect turnout in pipeline-affected countries, and there is some rationale for his approach: If elected, he won’t have veto power over the pipelines. They’re interstate projects, which places them under the purview of FERC and the Department of Transportation. “I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with Ralph’s position,” said Deeds, who told me that he isn’t convinced the pipelines are necessary.

And despite his general criticism of the party, Clarke remains adamant that voters should support Northam. “The truth is that Northam has a pretty good record on environmental issues, much better than Gillespie’s. And anybody who wouldn’t vote for Northam because of the pipeline, you just wonder what they’re thinking in the terms of the real world,” he said.

Turning western Virginia blue requires more than a position on pipelines. Keene says personal contact is key. “Back in 2008 Barack Obama came to Lebanon, Virginia. To me that’s huge. Why don’t we do that anymore?” he asked. “[Attorney General] Mark Herring came down a few months ago and we had a little rally for him there. We had over 100, 200 people show up. That’s huge for us.” From this, he formulates a lesson on reaching rural voters. “Just listen to them,” he says. “Even if you disagree with them or if they disagree with you, they appreciate being heard.”

That contact won’t suddenly erode the region’s trenchant antipathy toward LGBT and abortion rights or resolve old fears about the war on coal. But rural communities are not static places. As times change, so do they. If the party is present, if it invests in communities where people feel forgotten, western Virginia need not be red in perpetuity.

“I don’t know that there is a magic button,” Deeds mused, but added that as these rural areas grow, they may realize they want more from government services: “They’ll realize that Democrats have been the party that have promoted the interests of ordinary working people.”