People who follow state politics agree, this is a critical year for Democrats who hope to take control of the General Assembly. To do that, ten candidates are trying something new.
On a rainy Sunday in Southern Albemarle County, a dozen people have gathered at a local cidery to meet candidate Tim Hickey – a Democrat running for State Delegate in the 59th district.
“The 59th district runs from southern Albemarle County down through the dastern part of Nelson County and includes all of Buckingham, all of Appamatox and most of Campbell County,” the candidate says.
It’s Republican country, so Hickey started early.
“Since December 2018, I have knocked on thousands of doors, and we have contacted thousands of voters, postcards and phone calls. People here are hungry for somebody to stand up for our district – take this seat out of the hands of a corporate-funded career politician and return it to the people.”
And he’s convinced that populist message will resonate with Republicans as well as Democrats who want to keep big money out of elections.
“Twenty or so states already do this. We’re going to ban corporations from giving to political candidates, because it corrodes the process. It errodes trust in the decisions that lawmakers make.”
Hickey raised more than $90,000 without taking corporate contributions, while his opponent – who’s been in office for eight years – has collected from more than a hundred companies and associations including Dominion –something that might count against him in an area where land has been appropriated for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“People are very frustrated that their land is being taken for the benefit of some shareholders," Hickey explains. "There’s no need for the pipeline. The Atlantic Coast companies are selling fracked gas to their own subsidiaries. This is not the right direction for the commonwealth.”
Hickey’s also part of an unusual coalition called the Rural GroundGame. He meets with nine other Democrats running in rural areas to compare notes, but perhaps more important, they’ve pooled their money to hire a campaign consultant who can crunch the numbers.
“That’s an important aspect of campaigns is understanding who to talk to and when to talk to them and who to send mailers to and which doors to knock.”
Bob Gibson, who ran the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia and sometimes writes about politics for Charlottesville’s Daily Progress thinks that collaboration is a wise strategy.
“It’s an advantage to Democrats to pool their resources in some of these rural areas, but it’s tough to see where they are going to pick up seats,” he says.
That’s because rural districts are mostly red, and Gibson argues state candidates who describe themselves as Donald Trump Republicans may have an easy time winning election.
“There are many rural areas in Virginia where Trump is still supported by 60-70% of the voting population.”
Democratic Senator Jennifer McClellan is more optimistic about prospects for the ten Rural GroundGame candidates.
“I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm and energy in the rural parts of the state – in the western part of the state. I’ve been in Waynesboro, Lexington, Fauquier, Staunton, Roanoke, and I think there is still a blue wave there too.”
But she is hedging her bets on whether candidates like Tim Hickey can win.
“If they don’t win this time, I think they’re going to see Democrats do better this time than they have done in these areas before, and it’s part of a longer term strategy.”
One thing everyone agrees on is the importance of voter turnout – historically low in an election where there are no national or statewide races. Some political scientists predict nearly a third of voters will cast ballots, and while that might not spell victory in rural areas, they say it could give Democrats a win in suburban areas where their numbers are greater and dissatisfaction with Donald Trump is high.
Editor's note: Calls to Hickey's opponent were not returned.